Olfaction for Dog Diagnosis: Smellognostics—More On What The Nose Knows

Do veterinarians use their nose when evaluating our dogs?

As I recently wrote about how the nose can detect medical problems, I got curious, and I asked some of my veterinary friends whether they use their sense of smell as part of their diagnostic process.

But seriously now.

Olfaction for Dog Diagnosis: Smellognostics—More On What The Nose Knows

TCVM olfaction

In Traditional Chinese Veterinary medicine, olfaction (smellognostics) is an integral part of the diagnostic process.

Discharges can be quite smelly and a good indicator of illness. They can come from the skin, ears, nose … Breath can have a distinctive or strong odor, as can urine or stool. In fact, a peculiar odor can be one of the first symptoms.

I found it quite interesting that each of the vets I asked uses their nose in diagnostics for one thing or another.

Dental disease and ketosis

“I have used smelling to search for more things. For example, in a horse’s or dog’s mouth, if it has a rotten smell, then I know most likely it has a tooth abscess, and I need to look further in the mouth for a loose or broken tooth.

When I used to work with dairy cows I was one of the few that could smell ketones and if I could smell ketones on the breath of a cow then I knew I needed to search further for ketosis. That is the extent of using my sniffer in diagnostics.”

Ear infections

“I used to use smell as a clue all the time – especially with otitis cases.  Since I developed allergies I can not smell as well.  I didn’t realize until then how much I relied on smell.  I do not practice differently – the same exam, diagnostics, and treatment based on that, but I can’t always “guess” what diagnosis will be as early.  Maybe that’s a blessing!”

Uremia and pyometra

“There are several conditions where a distinctive odor can be helpful in diagnosing. Some of the things that come to mind are the odor in the breath related to uremia, the smell associated with the vaginal discharge often seen in a pyometra, the “yeasty” odor associated with Malassezia skin and ear infections.

There is also frequently a certain smell that brings parvovirus to mind.

—Dr. Lorie Huston, DVM

Mouth, ears, skin and coat

“I am constantly sniffing around my patients’ bodies for clues as to their various disease processes. I smell the mouth, ears, skin/coat, etc. There are many diseases that create various diseases of malodor.

The conditions I most commonly detect through smelling my patients’ various body parts are periodontal disease, metabolic disease (kidney failure, diabetic ketoacidosis= DKA), and dermatologic abnormalities (especially with bacterial and yeast infections associated with otitis and seborrhea dermatitis).

Periodontal disease (disease of the teeth and gums) causes a rancid odor to emanate from the mouth.  The odor improves once the underlying condition is resolved with a veterinary based dental cleaning.

Metabolic disease, such as renal failure, causes a very strong, acidic smell to emanate from the lungs and exit the body through the mouth and nose.  Additionally, diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) causes a smell akin to acetone (nail polish remover) and typically indicates that the balance between normal blood sugar and appropriate insulin production or administration has been drastically skewed.

Bacteria and yeast infections of the skin, including the ears, often produce a pungent sweetness.  This odor is often attractive to other pets in the household, with the non-infected pet grooming the infected pet.  If your dog obsessively grooms your other dog’s ears, then there is likely an underlying infection that should be addressed with your veterinarian.”

What about you? What does your nose know?

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Jana Rade

I am a graphic designer, dog health advocate, writer, and author. Jasmine, the Rottweiler of my life, was the largest female from her litter. We thought we were getting a healthy dog. Getting a puppy from a backyard breeder was our first mistake. Countless veterinary visits without a diagnosis or useful treatment later, I realized that I had to take Jasmine's health care in my own hands. I learned the hard way that merely seeing a vet is not always enough. There is more to finding a good vet than finding the closest clinic down the street. And, sadly, there is more to advocating for your dog's health than visiting a veterinarian. It should be enough, but it often is not. With Jasmine, it took five years to get a diagnosis. Unfortunately, other problems had snowballed for that in the meantime. Jasmine's health challenges became a crash course in understanding dog health issues and how to go about getting a proper diagnosis and treatment. I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. Helping others through my challenges and experience has become my mission and Jasmine's legacy. I now try to help people how to recognize and understand signs of illness in their dogs, how to work with their veterinarian, and when to seek a second opinion. My goal is to save others the steep curve of having to learn things the hard way as I did. That is the mission behind my blog and behind my writing. That is why I wrote Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog, which has turned out being an award-winning guide to dog owners. What I'm trying to share encompasses 20 years of experience.

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