Not every part of being a dog parent is a joy, and doggy smells in the car are one of the less pleasant challenges. Our furry friends leave shed hair, pet dander, and waste stains in the vehicle, which can stink over time. Yeast and bacteria molecules from your dog’s fur burrow into your car seat fabrics leading to a foul stench.
Luckily, you have a number of options to keep pet smells out of your vehicle. Some of us may prefer homemade solutions like vinegar and baking soda are effective dog odor eliminators. If the stench is resilient to the DIY treatments, a well-formulated natural enzyme cleaner can break down the organic matter.
But first, let’s look at what causes doggy odor in the first place.
Why Does Your Dog Smell?
It is perfectly normal for your pup to emit a little odor because dogs are animals, and their bodies can house all kinds of bacteria and conditions that can create a stench. They may also be prone to rolling in something nasty if they get the chance. Or dental issues can cause bad stench, so good dental care such as doggy mouth wash is always important as part of your dog’s daily grooming. If the bad smell is getting out of hand, your dog may be suffering from medical issues that cause the stench.
But what else can cause excessive canine smells?
Dogs don’t exactly sweat as humans do through the armpits. Instead, canines perspire through their paws and other hairless body parts like the nose. They also sweat very lightly from their hair follicles. Although the sweat doesn’t stink immediately, you may start to notice a bad smell once the sweat builds up.
Bathing about once a month and regular grooming can help prevent the musty smell of sweat.
Pet dander and shed hair
If your dog leaves shed hair in your car consistently, you may be left with a smelly mess. Dander refers to the dead skin that furred animals shed, which can also stink up your vehicle. Dander is an allergen that can trigger reactions in allergic people if it accumulates in your car or house.
Dog dander shed in your car can be laced with traces of feces, urine, sweat, and bacteria, which can definitely give your car a nasty doggy smell.
Your pup’s skin produces oil called sebum which may accumulate and smell in the car. Excessive sebum production, also called seborrhea, can result from over-bathing your dog. Too many showers will strip your pup’s skin of essential oil, causing it to produce even more sebum in response. Hyperthyroidism, skin allergies, and diabetes can also cause seborrhea.
Anal sac smells
It seems like dogs greet each other by smelling each other’s rears. The reason for this is the two anal sacs that emit a smell, giving each dog a distinct scent to other dogs. If your dog’s anal sacs are inflamed or impacted, there may be an overproduction of the distinguishing smells leading to an awful stench.
Dogs can suffer from secondary infections due to the overproduction of yeast, fungi, or bacteria. Secondary means that the body initially did fine in the presence of the microbes, but they simply got out of hand. Dogs with low-hanging ears like the cocker spaniel are susceptible to ear infections that can cause them to stink.
Other infections that can cause a stench include hot spots, gum disease, or skin fold pyoderma in dogs with excessive folds in their skin
Other smells your dog leaves in your car
Accidents happen, and it’s not unusual for a dog to urinate or poop in a car, especially if they are sick, very young, or very old. Motion sickness is another problem, and sometimes you may have some nasty vomit seeping into your car seat upholstery.
There is also the issue of a dog who rolled in something dead, or worse, while out on an adventure, forcing you to drive your new canine biohazard home. Probably with your windows open. All of this yucky organic matter can seep into your car seats and leave behind a gross residue that can be a nightmare to remove.
How to Remove Dog Smells from Your Car
If your car has not been as fresh as you’d like, it is time to eliminate any dog-related odors. It is not only unpleasant for you to have a smelly car, but every dog owner has probably experienced the embarrassment that comes when someone else needs a lift.
The important thing to remember is that you need to break down the organic matter that has probably settled deep in the fibers of your upholstery. The challenge here is not to damage your upholstery while you are doing it. Homemade car smell solutions that use vinegar or baking soda can be quite effective at removing smells, but they can damage surfaces over time, and they aren’t suited for real heavy-duty pet stains.
Likewise, harsh treatments like bleach are also no good. The trick is to look for a product that is gentle on surfaces and upholstery, but that actively breaks down the organic matter causing the smell. For this, you need products that rely on enzymes and probiotics that naturally degrade bacteria, fecal matter, dander, urine, and urine.
The PawSafe Pet Stain and Odor remover is one such gentle option that uses enzymes to disintegrate the organic matter causing the smell without damaging the surface. This is also a much more environmentally friendly option and less toxic than products that rely on chemicals.
Do not rely on air fresheners to cover up the doggy smell in your car. The success of removing odors from your car lies in neutralizing the molecules responsible for the nasty smell. Tring to cover dog odor by spraying air fresheners will only result in the smell returning shortly. After all, there is nothing pleasant about a cocktail of strawberry scent and dog smell.
7 Tips for removing dog smells from your car
Vacuum your car interior
This first step can seem painfully obvious but don’t underestimate the power of a handheld vacuum. Shed hair and dander can be responsible for the foul smell in your car, and you can vacuum them away. Be sure to get all the car’s seats, floors, dashboard, and seat belts, even if your dog doesn’t sit there.
Dog hair tends to float around and can adhere to the least expected surfaces in your car. The cleaning and treatments can be more effective if you have a vacuumed surface to work with. If you drive with the AC turned on, dog hair is all over the car so be sure not to miss a spot.
Use baking soda
Baking soda is a natural odor eliminator that reacts with the acids in pet wastes that cause a foul smell. Sprinkle 1/4 to 1/2 a cup of baking soda on your car seats and vacuum thoroughly. The last thing you’d want is baking soda in your car’s air filters, so leave the windows down when vacuuming.
You probably have white vinegar in your house right now. Vinegar has more uses than baking and cooking; it’s also a potent cleaning agent. White vinegar is safe for your pup and is easy on the environment, making it an excellent choice to clean your house.
You can use vinegar before baking soda for maximum freshening properties. Mix equal amounts of water and white vinegar in a bottle and spray it on your car interior. Leave the solution for some time to allow it to dissolve mineral deposits, grease, dirt, and grime that could cause your vehicle to stink.
Commercial odor removers
Sometimes the dog odors in your house are too stubborn for homemade cleaning solutions. Some of us also don’t like the smell of vinegar, and the acidity can be harsh on the car seat upholstery. If you can still smell your dog in the car, it’s time to get a commercial odor remover. Enzymatic cleaners use enzymes to destroy odor-causing bacteria in your car.
The PawSafe odor eliminator is lightly scented, leaving your car smelling fresh after use. You must be careful when choosing commercial cleaners, as some may contain harmful ingredients like chlorine. Ammonia is another substance to avoid in cleaning agents. It can add to the ammonia in urine if your dog pees in the car, making the foul smell worse.
Wash anything you can remove
You can use your washing machine and favorite laundry detergent to get rid of lingering pet odors. You can wash dog blankets, car seat covers, and car mats, provided they are machine washable. Dog hair may get stuck on these items causing them to smell terrible; a simple wash will do the trick.
In case a removable is not suitable for machine washing, you can wipe it up with a disinfectant. Be sure to test on a small area first before using the disinfectant liberally to avoid discoloration. Even for machine-appropriate washables, read the instructions carefully before washing them.
Control your dog’s movement in the car
For safety purposes and cleanliness, it’s a good idea to limit how much a dog can move in a vehicle. A doggy seatbelt and appropriate harness can stop them from getting everywhere and keep them safe in the event of an accident. Another great preventative is a car seat cover to protect your upholstery from doggy messes, dander, and accidents.
Get your dog checked up
If the dog odor in your car is too much to bear, your pup may have a medical problem. Skin and ear infections cause your dogs to have a dreadful smell and are uncomfortable for them. Dogs with UTIs or diabetes may urinate frequently or struggle with incontinence.
Dogs with urinary problems may pee in your car or wet their beds. Our article on why dogs pee on the bed will give you insight into the causes of urinary incontinence and other reasons for this behavior. Consulting your vet when you sense something wrong will enable them to diagnose diseases early for treatment.
Professional cleaning for both car and dog
If bad dog smells persist, a visit to the carwash will eliminate any odors. It is best to perform car detailing on your car every 4 to 6 months to keep it in topnotch condition. Car detailing involves cleaning and restoring a car which can take 5 to 10 hours depending on the car and the detailer.
Bathing your dog at least once a month will keep them from getting smelly. You can get professional dog grooming services every few months for a haircut and to remove shed hair from the undercoat. Do not over-bathe your dog because that will increase sebum production on the coat, causing more odor. Hypoallergenic dog shampoo is the best to use, although baby shampoo can be a good alternative.
If you want to have a go yourself, our guide to getting dog pee out of the carpet is a good starting point to the tools and techniques needed.
Note: Dog hair floats around in the car, so you can find fur even if your canine’s movement in the vehicle is restricted. This floating hair can get into your car’s ventilation system and accumulate, causing a foul smell. Change your car’s air filtration system occasionally, or buy a reusable and washable one.
Your pup can leave some dog smell in your car, especially if you drive with them often. Baking soda and white vinegar are good options in a pinch, but pet odor removers work on the more resilient smells and stains in your car interior. They are also specifically designed to target organic matter that causes the smells.
Dogs smell for various reasons, such as the oils they produce in the skin and anal sacs that emit a distinct scent. If the awful smell persists, your dog may have underlying medical issues like skin and ear infections. Using a car seat cover can help protect your upholstery, but be mindful that dander and bacteria can get sucked into your air conditioning system.
Tamsin De La HarpeAuthor
Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions.
Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.