How Your Dog’s Nose Works: Exploring the Amazing World of Canine Smell

Human noses are good. They’re fine. We can detect the wafting fragrance of spring flowers or summer dumpsters. We can transport ourselves back in time by smelling a perfume or a plate of food. Our sensory abilities are nothing to sneeze at.

But when you get a whiff of all the seemingly miraculous things dogs can perceive through their noses, you gain an appreciation for how amazing our canine friends really are.

Unleashing the Power of the Canine Sniffer

Some dogs can use their noses to sniff out cancer and, as recent scientific discoveries show, to detect body heat. As if that wasn’t stunning enough, a dog’s nose is such an instrument of precision, it can recognize things that have happened in the past, in one specific spot, with just a few sniffs.

No wonder your dog doesn’t want to walk in an orderly fashion down the street as much as they want to zigzag forth, sniffing every leaf, blade of grass, and mailbox. This olfactory exploration is a dog’s version of getting sucked into that new Netflix series—there’s a whole story of smells unfolding before them.

The Science Behind Canine Olfaction

While humans have about five million olfactory receptors in their noses, dogs are said to have around 300 million. Dogs also have what’s been called the “second nose.” It’s the vomeronasal organ—alternatively known as Jacobson’s organ. Located in the nasal cavity near the roof of the mouth, and wired to a whole other part of a dog’s brain than the rest of the nose, this amazing organ allows dogs to detect specific compounds. Adult dogs use this piece of gear to detect pheromones and potential mates, among other things, and puppies can use it to find the source of mother’s milk.

With all those olfactory cells and the vomeronasal organ going for them, dogs don’t just smell more things than we do; they perceive and process the world differently. While dogs’ brains are smaller than ours (generally), the area in their brain that’s devoted to smell is 40 times larger than in humans.

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“Specialized cells called olfactory neurons are used to detect odors,” says Dr. David Dorman, DVM, and Professor of Toxicology at North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. “Dogs have many more of these cells compared to people. A dog’s nose is often 1,000 times or more sensitive than our human noses at detecting an odor. This allows dogs to detect some odors at air concentrations of one part per billion or lower.”

The Nose Knows: How Canine Noses Work

The structure of the nose is the secret to its amazing ability to detect and understand smells. A dog’s nasal cavity is divided into two separate chambers and opens into two nostrils, or nares, that can wiggle independently and that can take in smells separately. As a dog sniffs, particles and compounds are trapped in the nasal cavity by mucus while scent receptors process them. Scent particles are also trapped on the moist exterior of the nose. Some of the inhaled air goes to olfactory analysis and some of it goes to the lungs so your dog can breathe! As a dog exhales, new odors enter the nose through the slits in their nose, to keep a steady stream of odors flowing.

“One of the main functions of the nose is to warm the air,” Dr. Dorman says. Warming inspired air so that it’s closer to body temperature makes it easier for the lungs to function. “In many ways, the dog’s nose is similar to a car radiator to achieve this function. It achieves this by having multiple folds that increase the surface area. Because dogs rely so much more on their noses, more of the air they breathe comes in contact with the olfactory neurons that detect odors.”

Dogs not only have more olfactory neurons, but they also have more types of olfactory receptors than we do. “An odor is the result of one or more chemicals in the air,” Dr. Dorman says. “Our bodies produce hundreds of different types of olfactory receptors that bind to these odor-producing chemicals. Animals with more olfactory receptors can detect more of these chemicals in the air and can detect more odors.”

Dog's Nose

The Incredible Powers of the Canine Nose

Dogs’ incredible sense of smell has led to various applications in helping humans. For instance, studies have shown that dogs can be trained to detect the presence of diseases, including cancer. Dogs have been used to identify lung cancer in patients with an astonishing 99% accuracy and breast cancer in 88% of patients, just by sniffing their breath.

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Apart from disease detection, dogs have been used to track missing persons, detect explosives and drugs, and even identify whale populations by sniffing out their feces. With their acute sense of smell, dogs can also predict seizures in epileptic individuals and warn diabetes sufferers about hypoglycemic attacks.

Recently, researchers discovered that a dog’s snout can sense “weak thermal radiation,” a skill found in just a handful of other animals. A dog’s cold nose acts as a heat detector, allowing them to identify warm-blooded prey.

Caring for Your Dog’s Nose

With such a sensitive and vital organ, it’s crucial to take good care of your dog’s nose. While some breeds are more susceptible to nose issues, all dogs can benefit from a fresh and balanced diet that supports their overall health and well-being.

If you notice any abnormalities in your dog’s nose, such as loss of pigment, reddening of the skin, dry or bloody nasal discharge, scarring, or solid masses, it’s important to consult your veterinarian. These symptoms could be indicative of various ailments, including infections, parasites, immune-mediated diseases, tumors, or cancer.

While clear nasal discharge is usually nothing to worry about, a more mucus-like consistency may indicate an underlying health issue that requires medical attention. It’s always best to seek professional advice from your veterinarian for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

Debunking Common Myths

There are a few common myths about dogs’ noses that need debunking. Contrary to popular belief, the wetness or dryness of a dog’s nose does not correlate with their hydration levels. Similarly, a dry, warm nose does not automatically mean a dog is sick. A dog’s nose can vary in temperature and moisture due to environmental factors and normal bodily functions.

The Wonder of Canine Smell

A dog’s nose is truly a marvel. It allows them to perceive the world in a way we can only begin to imagine. So the next time you take your furry friend for a walk, instead of rushing them along, let them explore the rich tapestry of scents that surrounds them. Smell is how dogs understand our world, and by allowing them to sniff to their heart’s content, we enable them to experience the wonders that their noses bring.

For more information on canine health and care, visit Katten TrimSalon.