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.

8 Comments
  1. I definitely can see how the sense of smell could have a positive impact on a vet’s ability to diagnose. My girl has allergies and I can usually smell that an ear infection is coming on or that her skin is irritated before the itching, head shaking, etc. starts. They can’t tell us what’s going on, so it’s important to use any senses that we can to figure out what’s going on.

  2. We’ve noticed that a stinky ear means an ear infection and use that information to take Sophie to the vet right away.

  3. robincrittear

    This is really interesting! I’ve never thought about how the sense of smell is used to diagnose things, but it definitely can be useful. My cats have always been very healthy, but a different smell would tip me off to something being wrong.

  4. This is interesting. It does make sense though. The nose can detect when something’s not right. For example, when a human or pet’s breath is offensive we know something’s off or they consumed something. Using all our senses in addition to science makes sense to me.

  5. A nose can tell a lot so it does make so much sense, I smell Layla once a week to make sure there are no odd odors on her from something, thanks for sharing what your vet friends said as I am curious now to know if my vet uses his nose and going to ask him next time I see him

  6. I wouldn’t have thought about smell for diagnosing symptoms. But it certainly does make sense. As I think back over the years, especially my mobile horse veterinarian certainly did sniff everything on my horses. Very interesting! Now, I will be paying more attention to what my veterinarian sniffs next time I can go inside with my dog. And he’ll be getting some weird questions. I think I’m glad I can’t smell so well.

  7. I would not have thought it, but, yes, a veterinarian uses all of their senses to diagnose a cat or dog’s symptoms don’t they?

    As you point out, some issues have a smell that helps confirm a specific illness or damage and I think a vet would be remiss not to include this in their checkup. I am glad your vet quotes confirm how important this is and it is something I will bear in mind if I take one of our cats to the vet with an issue of any kind.

  8. Very interesting! One of my dogs is prone to ear infections and I’ve found that his ears smelling ‘off’ is one of my first indications that something is amiss. I can often detect an ear infection and start treating it before he shows more obvious symptoms and discomfort. I know a dog’s breath smelling a certain way can point to specific health conditions as well.

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