At my daughter's sleepover last night one of the girls said "your house smells bad". :(
January 31, 2010 9:13 AM   Subscribe

How do I get rid of - after first identifying - a weird "animal smell" in my house?

The short version I guess is that my house smells terrible. We have an elderly dog and 2 cats, but the smell isn't "dog" or "dirty litterbox" or "pee" or any of the traditional complaints. This is like a ... ugh I can't even describe it... hot animal, wet, rotten - but not like SOMETHING rotten. Its hard to explain, and decidedly organic. But I think to get the whole picture I need to back up.

About 6 months ago the whole family went on vacation for 10 days. A friend stayed at the house and watched the pets. I love the guy to death, but I think he did the bare minimum to keep the animals alive but didnt actually clean anything while he was there (to be fair I didn't ask him to) and as a result, when we got home I noticed that the whole house smelled like a kennel. You know that smell that vet clinics have? That smell.

So we cleaned and aired out the house and went back to our regular cleaning schedule and no more smell. We NEVER have a smell, aside from occasional catbox smell in the mudroom. Months go by. No smells. I'm trying to illustrate the fact that I know what comprises typical living with animal smells and this is NOT it.

Then about... a month ago? Maybe just under? I walked into the house and smelled it. This... funk. Not pee, not poo, not 'dog', not garbage, not dead thing... but terrible. There is definitely a 'rotten' component or undertone, with a hint of sharpness, acrid; the first thing I did was take out the garbage and compost and scrub out all the bins. Still a smell. I smelled all the pets. Nothing. Took the dog immediately for a bath anyway. House still reeks.

When you walk in you are immediately hit in the face with it, but you adjust within a few minutes. My husband was just gone to a funeral for a few days and when he got home couldn't stop exclaiming about it. We have cleaned EVERYTHING. We clean on a regular basis: no standing dishes, garbage out regularly, vacuum furniture weekly, rugs 2-3 times weekly, and on top we have a cleaning person come in and deep clean (move furniture, mop floors, scrub all the forgotten cracks) every 2 weeks. Usually when I come home from her coming the whole house smells like lemon. This week it smelled like lemon... and funky hot rot.

Here are some things that may be contributing:

1. Old dog. He's a "big dog" (german shepherd/malamute) and just turned 11. He has a worry spot on his front leg that comes and goes (and has for years). When he starts licking we tell him to stop and he does, but occasionally he'll work it when we're not looking and make it bleed. The vet knows its there and there's not really anything to do about it. We've also had anal glad problems in the past... but it's not anal gland smell. We have been all over the dog and HE doesn't smell. But we are not ruling him out yet.

2. Location. This smell is only on the main floor of the house - not in the basement or upstairs. It is stronger by the back door/mudroom (where litterboxes and dog bowls are - its a sizable room), living room, kitchen area. I have an open floorplan so it's hard to isolate it to one location (eg shutting doors and seeing where it's worse). There's no way to get under the house and Ive never seen a mouse or other critter in the house. This isn't "Dead thing" smell anyway.

This is driving me insane and I am ready to launch a full scale attack... but where to start?? I put a citrus air freshener in the mudroom, which is where all the pet stuff is, but it just lies over the stink.

posted by lilnublet to Pets & Animals (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It's a rat. I have smelled a rat at a house I knew had a rat problem (that the owners were working to get rid of), and I came immediately to understand why the phrase "smelled a rat" exists. Because it's just ... ugh. It smells exactly like you describe -- like hot, wet goat.

Anyway, my bet is on a live rat having made its home back around where you're smelling it most strongly.
posted by palliser at 9:21 AM on January 31, 2010

Best answer: It still could be "dead thing" smell. We once had a dead bird dropped into our chimney, which rotted, of course, and we only found out about it by the lovely surprise of maggots literally falling out onto our stovetop through the ventilation system and wriggling around. We were cooking rice at the time, which was, if anything, a surrealism bonus. It definitely caused a freaky smell that just wasn't your normal corpse smell, either, because essentially we had been smoking it!

Other hidden sources of terrible smells I've encountered:

-When our cat got very old, she began to pee over and into our air conditioning vents. It crystallized, mixed with all the dust and dirt and dander, and spread around the house in a very uneven way. Your pets might not be urinating into the vents, but there very well could be something in them that was dropped down there, like food or vomit or who knows what else!

-The only thing I can think of when you say "hot animal, wet, rotten" is the scent of my dear old dog's wound after getting a tumor removed and it getting reinfected. It's like, how do I describe this, like puss and blood and dirt all ground up with an almost raw meat thing going on? Oh, it makes me upset just thinking about it.

-It could be something totally not animal related. It could be maybe a fungus! If you've ever smelled that awful black mold that can infect lungs, it's sort of this wet organic thing that makes you cough right away. I know you say you keep everything very clean, but what about the outside of your house?

I suggest that you invite a good friend over who hasn't grown used to the smell yet to help you track down its source, and the hire pros as needed.
posted by Mizu at 9:29 AM on January 31, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was going to say "dead mouse in the wall." Either way, something rodent-related.
posted by limeonaire at 9:29 AM on January 31, 2010

Rather than a live rat, I'm voting for one or more dead mice. Mice can get through holes less than one half inch wide. If one got into a cupboard and subsequently died, the odor will permeate the house until it dessicates. This can take up to three weeks per mouse. Unfortunately, a pregnant mouse can have babies that die one-by-one and it can take a long time for the process to evolve.

Do two things: Look through all of your cupboards in both the kitchen and any food storage you may have in the mudroom or nearby. Look for mouse droppings and packages that have been opened by little teeth. Look for nests that might by pieces of fibrous material that have been gathered from elsewhere. Second, look for very little gaps between you and the outdoors. These may be near or under doors, cracks in walls or foundations, etc. Plug them up. Look for any "prizes" the dogs may have brought in and abandoned. They may have been alive enough to scurry away and hide somewhere before dying.

Good luck. It's a long-term battle.
posted by Old Geezer at 9:40 AM on January 31, 2010

Have you checked the refrigerator drip pan lately?
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 9:40 AM on January 31, 2010

Just want to add my vote for the "dead rodent" theory. We had a rat that had somehow gotten in under the floorboards, and presumably died. The smell you describe, and your reaction to the smell, is exactly the same as what we went through when it happened. Our terrier could smell it though, in fact he was acting strange before we noticed the peculiar funk...

Unfortunately the only way we could think of dealing with it was pulling up the carpet and removing enough floorboards to evict the bugger.

Maybe fumigation?
posted by deticxe at 9:43 AM on January 31, 2010

A dead animal would smell awful for a short period of time and then pretty much stop smelling as it skeletonized. So unless this is multiple dead animals in succession (and I suppose that's possible), then I'm voting for fungus/mold/mildew.

Start poking holes in the drywall where there are voids behind it, near the baseboards, and see if you can learn anything. There are even small wire cameras you can purchase or rent that made for this, looking into voids through small holes. I'm hoping you don't find that the back side of the drywall is molded up.

That said, the stink may even be outside, getting drawn in through a drafty window or door.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:47 AM on January 31, 2010

Rodent. Living or dead. A friend once found a dead mouse under the floorboard of her sublet, and it smelled exactly like you describe.
posted by phunniemee at 9:52 AM on January 31, 2010

Response by poster: ugh god I read the "rat" comment and my heart sank. I live in Portland which is notorious for monster rats. :/ My husband swears it's not a rat since we've never seen droppings but I'm going to clear out all the cupboards anyway. I'll also do a walk around the outside and clear all the leaves and see what I can see.

Also gonna check that drip pan. I've never heard of that! AND ask my friend across the street to do a walkabout... will update if anything turns up. Thanks!

Looking forward to other thoughts.
posted by lilnublet at 9:56 AM on January 31, 2010

Sounds like "dead rodent" to me, too. Mouse, rat, maybe squirrel. Have you asked your cleaning lady if she has any ideas what you should look for?
posted by dilettante at 10:14 AM on January 31, 2010

Last year we had a possum die underneath our house, around the same time we were ripping up carpet to install new hardwood floors. The smell was pretty awful, and increased once the carpet & padding were gone, presumably allowing greater airflow from the possum's grave up into the house. It took a while to pinpoint the source of the smell; at first I was convinced it was stale cat pee. That's partly what had inspired my urgent attempt at removing the carpet--I assumed it was the source. But no. And the smell continued for about 2 months, gradually getting better. But it was crazy--I could smell it in rooms far away from the 'epicenter' of rotting possum, coming in through the wall outlets. The crawlspace was too narrow for us to climb in and find/remove the animal, so we just waited it out. It will go away with time. The smell itself was definitely reminiscent of litterbox, combined with a sort of sickly sweetness, combined with garbage. Yuck. Sorry, I think that's what you've got. Decomposition.
posted by apostrophe at 10:36 AM on January 31, 2010

A dead animal would smell awful for a short period of time and then pretty much stop smelling as it skeletonized.

that "short period of time" is a lot longer than you think it is.

Knew people with a rental that had a funny smell for MONTHS. Until a fossilized raccoon fell from the ceiling.

Fossilized. Still stinky.
posted by availablelight at 10:54 AM on January 31, 2010

If your friend can't find the critter a professional handyman or someone who would be aware of your home's ventilation might. I would also check anywhere with or near food and dampness and try to think of all the things you haven't opened in a while. The longer its been rotting the more mass it likely has though, with Portland's climate, a corpse will likely get a lot of action.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:43 PM on January 31, 2010

Response by poster: Culprit found.

I had a friend over and she said all she smelled was catbox. We dumped the boxes, scrubbed them out and refilled them with fresh litter (this is something we do every few weeks but it was worth a shot), and then while we were at it we scrubbed down the whole mudroom - floors, walls, everything, with a bristle brush and lysol. I walked around the whole perimeter of the house; no holes. Emptied cupboards: no chewed packages or droppings. Went and ran errands for an hour... came home.

And the house still fucking stinks.

In desperation I grabbed the dog again - its just such an ANIMAL smell - lifted his tail and got my face right in there. And was just about knocked over.

Something's going on at his backdoor and it ain't pretty. Like I mentioned, he's shepherd and malamute and has a lot of thick hair back there. Also he holds his tail down so I don't get much opportunity to look at his butthole (this is so gross).

We took the trimmer to him and once the hair was cleared away I can see his bottom is all swollen, red, weepy and stinky. Like infected stinky.

We're going to the vet tomorrow. Unfortunately Mizu called it. Now I feel like a terrible dog owner.

Thanks for the advice all.
posted by lilnublet at 3:27 PM on January 31, 2010

I am deeply sorry for alarming you with talk of rats. I must still be a little twitchy on the subject, after literally smelling one a couple of weeks ago.

Sorry for your doggie -- hope it's easily cleared up, poor guy.
posted by palliser at 3:56 PM on January 31, 2010

lilnublet, I'm so sorry to hear that! Please don't feel terrible, and best wishes for your dog. If it helps any, my old dog's cancer was a tumor right above his tailbone, and if he had been well-trained and anything resembling tame, he would have lived a long and happy life after surgery. And veterinary medicine has advanced in leaps and bounds since then! You sound like a very responsible pet owner; don't let guilt make this any harder on you.
posted by Mizu at 5:24 PM on January 31, 2010

Come back and tell us how the dog is doing when you find out, lilnublet. Best of luck to you both.
posted by dilettante at 7:35 PM on January 31, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks you everyone for your concern; when I posted I was expecting just some advice, but was touched by your kind thoughts.

So it turns out he's got an infected anal gland. Of course, when I was the horror back there I got on the internet and immediately found results (and horrifying pictures) describing perianal fistula (which is frighteningly common in GSDs), but it looks like we're dealing with nothing even approaching that level of serious. Olddog should be good as new with a course of antibiotics.

Thanks again so much to everyone! :)
posted by lilnublet at 12:35 PM on February 2, 2010

*checks back in*
YAY! I'm so glad you left a followup. I don't know why I didn't come back and check the thread because the fate of your doggy has been nagging me in the back of my head this whole time. I hope you have many more years of a healthy dog and a non-stinky home.
posted by Mizu at 10:32 AM on February 15, 2010

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