On July 13 of this year, corn-chip brand Fritos tweeted about a frequent olfactory comparison for its signature product: “Stop saying we smell like DOG PAWS,” they wrote, all-caps emphasis theirs. “We’re trying to sell chips here.”
The premise of this tweet was WRONG—nothing, in our judgment, could help sell chips more than an association with the sweet aroma of a dog’s wonderful feet, and many a human has declared that they want to eat their dog up due to their cuteness, but cannot because then there would be no more dog. That’s why, on Etsy, you can find a candle mimicking the scent.
Having said all that, though, Fritos’ social-media outburst did get one thing right: the aroma of dog paws is frequently likened to that of various corn-based snacks. Here’s why that is, and why you might be so fond of it.
It’s normal for your dog’s paws to smell like Fritos
…Or other corn chips, or popcorn, or whatever that particular odor evokes in your own mind. In most cases, the snack-adjacent bouquet emanating from dogs’ feet comes from bacteria and yeast. Vets often name Pseudomonas and Proteus as the bacterial culprits.
These bacteria can cause illness—especially in people with compromised immune systems—but it’s not usually a problem for them to hang out on your dog’s paws. In some quantity, they’re supposed to be there.
Healthy dogs and humans always have some bacteria on their skin. And the crevices and fur on dogs’ feet—along with pups’ tendency to lick said appendages—make them a fertile environment for microbial growth and the proliferation of smells. Plus, while dogs mainly cool down by panting, they do have sweat glands in their paws.
“Healthy dogs’ paws can sometimes have a sort of ‘food’ smell,” says Dr. Alex Schechter, founding veterinarian at Burrwood Veterinary. “That can be totally normal as long as the odor isn’t extremely strong and your dog isn’t constantly licking or biting their paws—those are signs that you should consult your vet.”
Most of the time, you don’t need to get rid of the smell
Under ordinary circumstances, and as long as you’re observing some standard hygiene best practices, you don’t need to remove the corny aroma of a dog’s paws. In fact, we have veterinary confirmation that periodic paw-smelling should not be dangerous.
“If you keep your dog’s paws reasonably clean, and you’re not ingesting anything that might be on the paws, then, sure, lightly sniffing their paws is fine,” says Dr. Schechter. “It can even be a good way to determine if their paws are healthy—if there is a really strong odor, it can indicate there’s a problem.”
What does it mean to keep your dog “reasonably clean?” Most dogs shouldn’t be bathed more than once per month unless they get dirty, and many can get by on less than that. If your dog’s smell stays close to their baseline, there’s likely no need to worry about it.
If you notice a sudden change in your dog’s musk, though, that’s a different story. So is an overpowering or unpleasant smell, or the appearance of any sores. And, though it’s normal for dogs to lick their paws sometimes, excessive licking or a dramatic increase in the behavior could indicate an issue.
If you find yourself knocked over by the force of your dog’s foot fumes the second you open the door, it’s a good idea to visit a vet. They can investigate and make sure nothing foul is afoot.
And use common sense: if your dog picks up visible dirt or mud outside, or walks in a grassy or wooded area, go ahead and give their paws a wipe. “Allergens are absorbed through the skin,” says Dr. Schechter, so cleaning the area can help prevent reactions. And for city-dwellers with dogs, he points out, paw-wiping “helps keep your apartment clean.”
You may love the scent of your dog’s paws because smell is linked to memory and emotion
If you, like many humans, love the snack-like scent of your dog’s paws, there is more at work than the odor itself. Everyone is an individual, but we haven’t heard from a lot of people who take big whiffs of actual chip bags—yet we know tons of dog-loving humans who cannot get enough paw perfume. And while it’s possible you crave a noseful of any dog you can get your hands on, we’re betting that your own pup is your favorite one to huff.
Smell is linked to memory and emotion because, as this Harvard Gazette article explains, scents go directly to the limbic system. So when you get a whiff of a dog who’s special to you, chances are you’re reminded of your particular bond.
You may be heartened to know that there’s a good chance your dog feels the same way; fMRI scans of dogs found that the smell of a familiar human activated a part of dogs’ brains associated with positive expectations. If you have a dog of your own, you may have observed them going bonkers with joy over access to your old, stinky clothing.
Whatever it is that gives dog paws their signature scent, we can agree that it’s great
Life with a dog is full of pleasures large and small, and inhaling until your nostrils are saturated with the delightful essence of their paws is one of them. Research and try to understand the phenomenon as much as you want—but, above all, enjoy it.
This article was vetted by a vet.
Reviewed by Alex Schechter, DVM, founding veterinarian at Burrwood Veterinary.