This morning I took Claude out into the local forest for a decent walk and all was going well until he was attacked by an over excited German Shepherd. Once the owner I and had managed to separate the two dogs and calm the situation down, I noticed the most awful smell of rotting fish.
It turns out my dog smells like fish when scared. Who knew?
A few minutes later we were in the car and heading back home. That 5-minute car journey was possibly the worst journey of my life; I was literally gagging as I was driving due to the smell of fish.
All joking aside, I wanted to know why my dog smells like fish after being scared. What was it about being nervous that made Claude stink so bad?
Obviously, you’re here because you want to know the same about why your dog smells when stressed. To help you, I’ve done all the research into this stinky behavior and compiled it into one handy report.
Why does my dog smell like fish when scared?
Dogs have anal scent glands which are very small, but very potent and stinky. When a dog is scared, they can emit a fishy smell from their anal glands. It’s like a fishy smelling fart – sometimes even the sound of their own fart will scare them further.
It’s an involuntary action and means the glands inside of your dog’s anus will emit a fishy odor, and possibly even a liquid that is brown and very smelly, but it’s not actually poop.
Instead, the nasty gunk that makes a fishy smell when your dog is scared, will have a foul smell, and can make you gag. It really is that bad.
Why do dogs express their glands when scared?
Anal glands are scent glands located near the anus exit, and each time your dog poops, a little bit of anal gland secretion is left on the poop. It’s one of the ways dogs leave their scent and know who’s who in the local neighborhood.
Dogs will empty their anal glands every time they take a poop, but it can also happen when they are stressed out and scared. The fishy smell can also happen when they are excited.
But it’s not happening because your dog is literally pooping himself through fear, but instead because he will suffer an involuntary contraction of his sphincter muscles. When they twinge during fear, anxiety, and stress, rather than poop himself, instead some of the anal sac scent will come out.
And as you will have guessed (or had the misfortunate to experience), your dog smells bad when stressed. It’s such a bad odor, that your dog smells like fish when nervous. Not pleasant to anyone…
Handy Hint: Young puppies will also pee themselves when scared. It can also happen when they are excited about seeing a friendly face.
How to stop your dog smelling like fish when scared
You can never stop a dog from having involuntary sphincter twitches when they are scared and nervous, but you can reduce how bad the fishy smell is.
What you can do is stop any triggers that might lead your dog emptying his anal sacs when scared and putting his tail between his legs. That might mean avoiding situations where your dog is nervous, but the reality is, you can never predict or completely avoid when your dog will be frightened.
The best way to stop your dog smelling when stressed is to make sure he has healthy anal glands. The types of ailments that can make the fish smell worse include:
- Impacted anal sacs.
- Anal sac infections.
- Anal sac tumors or abscesses.
Impacted anal glands can be made to smell less fishy by being expressed. This is a manual operation where someone has to physically press against them to get all the fishy smelling liquid out.
Abscesses and infections that cause your dog to smell like fish when scared will require medication.
As far as long term anal gland health goes, vets say the following to help to prevent the build up of fishy smelling liquid.
- Regular exercise.
- Keeping your dog at a healthy weight.
- Access to clean water all the time.
- Feeding of good quality food which is high in fiber.
Other reasons your dog might smell like fish
Smelling like fish when nervous isn’t the only reason for this stinky situation. Dogs can get this offensive odor for other reasons too, particularly female dogs.
If you have a female dog smelling this way, and she’s not been scared or had any reason to be stressed, then it could be one of the following.
- Her anal sacs are impacted and leaking.
- She has an anal sac infection.
- Her urine smells like fish after a UTI or yeast infection.
- Her breath smells like fish due to gum disease.
If you have ruled out stress, you can read more on what the fishy stink could mean in this guide. Please note, other pet owners also say their dog smells like iron or metal. This will often be the same thing as the fishy smell, just a different interpretation.
What are anal glands on a dog?
I am no vet, so with this question it’s best left to the professionals on the Preventative Vet website who say the following:
“Anal glands are scent glands located between the layers of muscles that make up the rectum and, when all is working right, they are naturally expressed, through the duct that connects the gland to the outside world each time a dog poops. This is another way that a dog can mark their territory and leave a smell signal for any other dogs that may pass by their poop.”
Where are my dog’s anal glands?
Now you know what the anal glands and why they make your dog smell like fish when scared, here’s where you can find them. The image below is courtesy of Vetnique Labs.
How to express a dog’s anal glands
You can express your dog’s anal glands yourself, but unless you are a glutton for punishment and have a strong stomach, it’s not something that I recommend.
I’ve seen a vet express Claude’s anal glands, and even with me holding my dog’s face rather than the business end, it was really unpleasant. The vet was wearing rubber gloves, started squeezing, and this nasty looking grey brown gunk came out.
If you do want do it yourself, there’s a video explainer on YouTube which is pretty disgusting. I warn you though, it’s not for those with a weak stomach!
When to call a vet about the fishy smell
You should call a vet as soon as you notice your dog’s fishy smell when he’s scared as it’s a probable sign of impacted anal glands, and a possible infection.
It is more common in smaller breeds, and the first sign of an anal gland problem will be scooting. I’ve written about this before with the pug breed – look out for your dog scooting on the carpet, as it’s a giveaway sign.
Stress can make a dog smell, so if your dog stinks when scared and the odor is particularly fishy, it could be the sign of an anal gland problem.
Please always talk with a vet anytime you smell something not right with your dog, as it can often be the sign of a bigger health issue.
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I love writing about smelly things, and my dog Claude gives me plenty of opportunities. You might enjoy some of these other guides which also relate to stinky stuff.