The Nose Knows: Diagnose Your Pet by Their Smell

Image via Thinkstockby Dr. Ken Tudor, DVM | petMD.com

Early in my veterinary career, I met a colleague in a neighboring rural practice that shared with me that he was anosmic from birth. This inability to perceive odor also meant that he could not taste most of his wife's marvelous cooking. He was given the worst, foul smelling veterinary cases, and attended to them with little discomfort while his technical staff wretched.

Although envious on the one hand, it made me realize that smell was a very powerful diagnostic tool. I lamented his inability to use this skill in his own cases.

The Smell of Dental Disease

Unfortunately not all of our patients are happy to be at the veterinary hospital. I have many that require a muzzle for every veterinary visit. Although the muzzle protects the staff from bite injuries, it inhibits examination of the patient's mouth. But the muzzle does not inhibit the odors from the mouth.

Severe dental disease has a very characteristic odor of infected tissue with a hint of the metallic smell of blood. Often owners do not recognize it or fail to locate the smell if they do. Because it tends to permeate the air in an exam room, it immediately alerts veterinarians to at least one medical problem that needs attention. This is particularly fortunate for muzzled pets. Owners can be alerted to the serious nature of the problem despite the inability to actually show them.

It has been very rewarding over the years to have helped relieve dental disease in pets simply because I smelled it without being able to see it.

The Smell of Infected Ears

Like dental diseases, the "musky, rancid butter" smell of ear infections quickly fills an exam room. The odor is so characteristic, my technical staff prepares for a detailed ear exam and diagnostic microscopic preparations long before I enter the exam room.

petMD's Symptom Checker

The odor is also an aid for training owners how to manage ear problems in pets. Because ear problems are closely associated with allergies they are incurable, but they are treatable and need constant management by the owner. By teaching owners to recognize the difference between normal "doggie" or "kitty" ear smell and the infected ear, they can intervene with medication earlier and ward off the painful, inflamed ears that characterize advanced cases.

The Smell of Maggots

Everyone has experienced the smell of a rotting carcass. That characteristic odor of cadaverine and putrescine are unmistakable. The odor of these proteins in the trunk of Casey Anthony's car was the basis for trying her for the death of her daughter. These same odors of rotting tissue accompany pets that have sores teaming with maggots.

Pets with excessively long and dense fur coats are particularly prone to this problem. The tail, anus and genital area are the most common sites of infection. Fecal (poop) accumulation in the hair around the anus or genital area causes skin irritations and infections that result in dead tissue. Flies are attracted to the feces and dead skin. Urine scald around the vulva or penis will also create the same sores tissue death. While feasting on the feces, urine, and dying tissue, the flies lay eggs that quickly hatch into maggots to continue the feeding frenzy.

Often the hair is so long and dense it is difficult to locate the exact area of the problem, especially for the owner. Aggressive shaving of the fur is typically necessary to find the problem area, clean out the maggots, and repair the damage. The key is to keep looking because the smell does not lie.

Senses: The Forgotten Diagnostic Tools

It is easy in this age of advanced technology and testing to forget what we veterinarians can learn from our own senses. By carefully observing, listening, touching, and smelling during our exams we can use medical advances more judiciously and targeted. And yes, I have even tasted urine for the hint of sugar in the absence of laboratory confirmation. Our five senses are powerful diagnostic tools.

Has smell ever helped you detect a problem with your pet? We would like to hear about your experience in the comments.

- Dr. Tudor

More from petMD:
How to Clean a Pet's Ears (VIDEO)
Vomiting in Dogs
Cavities in Dogs
Bailey's Choice Dog Treats Recalls Chicken Jerky Treats