“I’ve been following the bathing instructions you detailed yesterday and my dog still smells bad after a few days. What is causing that?”
The exact answer, which would identify a primary cause, requires an examination, but the odor comes as a secondary effect of the primary cause of skin inflammation. Whenever skin is inflamed, by any cause, the sebaceous glands of the skin are stimulated to produce more sebum, or oil for the skin. The oil is protective for the skin.
Canine skin oil, and to a lesser extent feline skin oil, is high on the rancidity scale, meaning it becomes rancid very easily.
Let’s look at some comparisons. Butter, if left out at warm room temperatures, will become rancid quickly, meaning that its oils become oxidized, leading to a horrible odor. At the other extreme, peanut oil can withstand a lot of abuse before it goes bad. You can heat it to hundreds of degrees, which makes it ideal for frying fish and other foods that need hot, quick frying to taste good. Room temperatures won’t make it smell bad, even after it has been used.
Our pets’ skin oils sit to the left of butter on the rancidity scale, meaning that they “go rancid” almost as soon as the sebaceous glands discharge their products.
“If that’s the case, why don’t all dogs and cats smell bad all the time?”
Good question! It’s simply a matter of volume. Under “normal” conditions, with normally-small amounts of sebum production, there isn’t enough volume of rancid oil on the skin to smell bad. If your dog smells “doggy” two to four weeks after a bath he has just built up enough rancid oil for you to notice. That’s normal. The cure? Give him a bath!
The dog who smells bad two or three days after a bath is producing too much sebum because of a medical problem and a primary cause needs to be found.
Some dog breeds are naturally predisposed to a condition called seborrhea oleosa. Seborrhea is a Latin term. “Sebo” refers to sebum, “rrhea” means “flow.” “Oleosa” refers to the oily form of the condition. Seborrhea sicca is the name of the dry form.
Seborrhea is also accompanied by an increased turnover rate of skin cells. Normal skin cells “born” today at the bottom layer of the epidermis should mature over a month’s time, arriving at the outside dead and cornified, filled with keratin. In seborrheic patients the skin cells reach the outside before they are fully mature, then they flake off, unable to stay on the skin as a protective layer, as they should.
Pets with seborrhea are sometimes presented with a complaint of “dandruff.”
Beagles are the poster children for seborrhea oleosa. My sister once had a beagle named Terrence. You could hardly stand to ride in a car with Terrence, and nobody would sit in the back seat of her car because you would come out smelling like Terrence.
My beagles, Sam and Blossum, on the other hand, never had a smell-bad problem. It’s strictly luck-of-the-draw, a genetic problem that can only be avoided by not breeding parents with seborrhea.
Seborrhea can best be controlled with certain medicated shampoos, called antiseborrheic shampoo, and oral supplementation of essential fatty acids. Be forewarned: there are no shortcuts, and your pet will still require frequent bathing. With the right shampoo those baths should not be nearly so close together.
Cats rarely have this odor problem because they groom themselves so effectively that very little skin oil has a chance to build up. If your cat has a doggy odor it is likely that his skin problem is severe. If your cat has a doggy odor it is likely that his skin problem is severe.