Why Does a Wet Dog Smell Bad—And What Can I Do About It?

Photo by Roberto Nickson from Pexels

The secret to the wet-dog smell is the microorganisms (little yeast and bacteria) that live on your dog’s skin.

On a healthy dog, the microorganisms are nothing to worry about. All dogs have ’em. But as they go about their normal lives, these micro-critters produce, ahem, micro-excreta. Yep: teensy little yeast poops—molecules that scientists call volatile organic compounds.

These volatile organic compounds hang around on the dog’s skin and fur. When they combine with water, they get a free-and-easy feeling. They break loose from their chemical bonds to each other and to the dog. They evaporate along with the water, ending up in the air—and, therefore, in your nose. (Plus maybe your car, your carpet, your couch, etc.)

So scientifically speaking, a wet dog smells for the same reason that anything smells: Molecules of the smell reach your nose. And scientists have actually used the tools and techniques of chemical analysis to study which molecules, exactly, are responsible for wet dog smell. They identified 22 individual contributors, including molecules that smell sulfuric, medicinal, fecal, mushroomy, fruity, floral, earthy, almond-y, chocolate/roasty, and sweet-and-tarry.

What a bouquet.

Of course, most dog owners (and passengers in their cars and guests in their homes) would prefer not to inhale this particular perfume. So now that we know why a wet dog smells, let’s see what can be done about it.

How Do I Get Rid of Wet Dog Smell in My Car?

Really you want two things here: One, you want to remove the smell from your car. And two, you want to keep it from coming back.

To remove the smell, you gotta clean the car. First, take out everything you can take out. Then vacuum everything but good. Go in different directions along the upholstery, get into the crevices, and vacuum vacuum vacuum. You can use a handheld vac, a shop-vac or a gas station auto vac. Just bring a whole bunch of quarters in the latter case, because did I mention? You’re going to do a lot. Of. Vacuuming. Wash the mats and let them air dry while you’re at it.

Next, you have a couple of all-natural, nontoxic, inexpensive options. There’s the spray option, and there’s the sprinkle option. The spray is a 50/50 solution of white vinegar and water. Choose a day when the windows can stay down, and spray that mixture on the upholstery. If the seats are cloth, let them air dry in the breeze. If the seats are leather, wipe them dry after a few minutes.

Use baking soda for the sprinkle option, and simply sprinkle it on the afflicted areas. Let it sit a few hours to overnight. Then vacuum it up.

To keep the smell from coming back, the basic idea is to keep those stinky molecules away from the upholstery you drive around with. Cover the seat with sturdy car seat cover that’s easy to remove and launder. Keep a towel or two in the car to dry your soggy friend before he jumps in. And keep him as clean as is reasonable for his lifestyle and yours.

How Do I Get Wet Dog Smell Out of My Carpet? And My Couch?

Out, out, wet dog smell! And stay out.

It’s not too hard to get wet dog smell out of carpets and furniture, so no need to wait for the odor to pack up and leave on its own. To send the smell on its way, first launder anything that can be laundered: furniture protectors, slipcovers, blankets, and your dog’s bed cover. Then vacuum whatever can’t go in the wash: carpet, couch cushions, dog bed liners, human mattresses. Suck up not just the stray hairs (or little hair bunnies, or big tumbleweeds) you can see, but also get under and behind furniture, in the cracks of the cushions, etc.

Next, grab your baking soda. Test a small area first. If systems are go, shake out the baking powder. It’s fine to go straight from the box, or for a more even distribution, tap it through a mesh sieve. Let the baking soda sit for several hours and then vacuum it up. (For places you will use at night—for example, where you or your dog sleeps—you might want to start this process first thing in the morning. By night, the baking soda will be ready to vacuum up and the bedding and covers will be fresh, dry, and ready to remake the bed.)

You can also rent a carpet cleaning machine; some come with furniture-cleaning attachments. But you would be wise to vacuum and deodorize the carpet and furniture first. Vacuuming removes all the dander and hair that can harbor smell, and baking soda neutralizes odors—it doesn’t just cover them up.

But Why Does My Dog Still Have a ‘Wet Dog’ Smell After His Bath?

You gave your dog a bath, but now he smells worse? It boggles the mind and it just doesn’t seem fair. There are a few things going on here, and several things you can do.

One is just science: wet air kind of amplifies smells. (Ditto warm air.) If the air is humid, as it is around a dog fresh from the bath, smells are more powerful. So one thing to do is quickly de-wet your dog, and the surrounding air, after a bath.

Here’s how: Have a good supply of thirsty towels within arm’s reach before you start the bath. After the bath is done, let him shake and then towel him as dry as possible. Next, some dogs enjoy—or will tolerate—a hair dryer. Keep a careful eye on his physical comfort and mental state. Some dogs may be frightened by the dryer, and none will like it if the temperature is uncomfortable. So keep the temperature low and the dryer moving. If the dryer is a no-go and the weather is nice, go outside with him for a walk in the fresh air. This will help the drying process, and will also keep the wet dog smell out of your house.

But the more vexing question is, why is there a doggy smell at all? Why not a delightful—or at least neutral—smell of dog shampoo?

It’s those volatile organic compounds still, I’m afraid. The bath hasn’t expunged them all. Consider some tips for next time:

  • A shampoo specially formulated for dogs is not only safest for your dog, but also most effective on his odors.
  • Lathering the suds right down to the skin will eliminate the most odors. This is straightforward on some short-coated dogs but can take dedication on dogs with thick and/or water repellent coats.
  • Think about a more frequent bathing schedule, which gives odors less time to build up.
  • Regular brushing between baths will help keep his skin and coat fresh, reducing buildup of volatile organic compounds.
  • Wash the cover of his dog bed regularly. Micro-organisms are fine and dandy on your dog, but there’s no reason to provide a comfy bed for them, too!

And there you have them: the secrets to besting wet dog odor. Go forth with good smells!

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