Odor Problems and Treatments


Skin Odor and Dandruff

Question: Dear Dr. Mike,

We have an 8 year old male Lab who has had terrible dandruff, itching and a horrible odor for 2 years now. This appears in the summer and disappears in the winter. He does not swim and we do not have air conditioning as we live in upstate New York and it is not needed very often. He has no hair loss although he is constantly scratching himself. We have used medicated skin applications and shampoos to no avail. We have also altered his diet in the past with no results. We have also given him Benadryl for the itching but this has not helped much. We bathe him too often I know but his odor is intolerable. The dandruff is impressive....it reminds us of cradle cap seen in infants and literally "snows" off of his body when he scratches. Thus far he has had no allergy testing although our Vet said he could send a blood sample to California and a serum would be made up for us to give him via injection. I am not too clear about what this could be. We are very frustrated as the dog is truly a part of our family but he is miserable and so are we. I hope you can suggest something for us. Thank you so much for your time in this matter.

Sincerely, Phyllis

Answer: Phyllis-

The timing of the itching and dandruff is suggestive of allergic skin disease. However, there is some chance that this is a bacterial skin infection. These are common in the short haired dogs and can produce itching, often produce severe dander and cause the noticeable odor in most of these dogs. Primary bacterial infections are also more common in the summer so they often occur seasonally and can easily be mistaken for allergies due to this.

It is necessary to use antibiotics for at least three to six weeks in order to control many primary skin infections. Usually, there is gradual improvement during this time but total resolution of the signs may take several months of therapy. If there is no improvement or not much improvement after six weeks, it is less likely that a bacterial infection is not the sole problem. Personally, I like to use cephalexin most of the time when I am going to use an antibiotic for skin disease long term, but there are other reasonable choices.

Hypothyroidism can also contribute to the presence of bacterial skin infections. Usually when this is present there are infections all year, but they may be worse in the warm months just because bacteria like warm weather better than cold weather. Since these problems showed up when your dog was middle aged and this is the typical time for onset of hypothyroidism, it may be a good idea to check for this.

Allergy testing can also help to clarify the situation but it is really better to try to rule out primary bacterial infections and hypothyroidism prior to allergy testing if blood tests are going to be used. It is important to correlate the allergy testing with the total clinical picture and with the likely allergens in your area, since the blood tests test for antibodies to various allergens and there may be antibodies to some things that the dog isn't actually allergic too.

If antibiotic therapy has not been tried, or if it has been tried and seemed partially successful but wasn't used for more than three weeks it would probably be a good idea to try this or to try it again. I'd want to test for hypothyroidism, probably, but your vet may feel this is unnecessary. Once these things have been done then allergy testing would be a good idea. An alternative would be to try a short course of corticosteroids, such as prednisone, to see if that helps a great deal. If it does it would support the probability that an allergy is part of the problem.

I don't think that it is likely that you are bathing your dog too often. You might want to try an antibacterial shampoo, especially one that contains chlorhexidine to help rule out a yeast infection as a contributing cause. Then use a conditioner to help keep the skin from getting too dry. A conditioner containing oatmeal can be helpful in controlling the itching, too.

I hope that this is helpful. Don't forget that there are veterinary dermatologists, in case you and your vet can't control this problem. Also remember that most skin disease is controlled on a continuous or periodic basis rather than cured. If treatments work when you are using them but stop working when you don't it isn't a sign that the treatment failed, it is a sign that you need to keep using the treatment or to explore related treatments to see if they are even more effective.

Good luck with this.

Mike Richards, DVM 9/1/2001

Odor problems - canine

Q: Dr Richards, I was recently at the vetinfo website looking for information for my grandparents dog, Duke. Duke is a dog with a great personality but he smells really bad! We have tried every thing but even after a good bath he would smell again five minutes later. It's even unbarable to some people and they can't stay in the house anymore because the house smells like the dog. I was wondering since I didn't find any information anywhere if you could help me out and give me a place where I could find some information that can help us solve the problem!

Thank you. Jennifer N

A: Jennifer-

Most dogs that have skin odors have either bacterial or yeast skin infections. There are occasionally other problems leading to odors such as dental disease, ear infections, anal sac infections or inflammation and seborrhea. Some dogs are just very adept at finding things to modify their smell, such as dead animals or cat poop which they immediately roll on. Most people notice when this is happening, though. A few people have written to our site about changes in their pet's odors when changing dog foods. Some people noticed an odor that wasn't there prior to the new food and some people noted an improvement in previous odor problems when a change was made. I can't remember having this experience in my practice situation but it is possible, I'm sure.

The best bet is to take your dog in to your vet for an examination to try to rule out correctable medical problems as a cause of the odor.

Mike Richards, DVM

Skunked - commercial and homemade odor removers

Q: Dear Dr. Mike, Very nice informational page! I have a question for you. My dog was recently brutally attacked by a skunk or actually he brutally attacked the skunk, but anyway I've bathed him twice with tomato juice and vinegar and twice with regular dog shampoo. Now he's orange and he still reeks, and I think he must have gotten it pretty good in the face. What do you recommend for skunk treatment and especially around the face. He's a 2 year old Siberian Husky. Thanks very much! Larry

A: Larry- Dogs that get "skunked" often don't learn from the experience so it is likely you'll still need this information. There is a good commercial product for removal of skunk odor, Skunk-Off (tm). It has the advantage of being formulated in a furniture and rug friendly manner.

An alternative is to use a formula of 1 qt. hydrogen peroxide, 1 cup baking soda and a small amount of liquid soap mixed together and used to rinse the dog after a good bath. The major disadvantage of this combination is that hydrogen peroxide will occasionally bleach fabrics so you have to be careful about the furniture.

Mike Richards, DVM

Last edited 01/05/05


Michael Richards, D.V.M. co-owns a small animal general veterinary practice in rural tidewater Virginia. Dr. Richards graduated from Iowa State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 1979, and has been in private practice ever since. Dr. Richards has been the director of the PetCare Forum...