My editor Jason has periodically brought up this topic in brainstorming sessions over the years, but I always figured the popcorn smell was a quirk of his dog, Bailey, and not an actual phenomenon (sorry, boss). But since I’ve already asked for some time off this summer and gotten it without any complaining on Jason’s part, I humored him and did a little research to see if dogs besides Bailey actually do have popcorn-scented feet.
Well, my mind is blown. Many dogs’ feet actual do smell like popcorn!
More accurately, they smell a little closer to corn chips, hence the nickname for the condition: “Frito Feet.”
So why does it happen? The skin of most animals is home to a lot of microbes. As Bill Bryson puts it in A Short History of Nearly Everything, “If you are in good health and averagely diligent about hygiene, you will have a herd of about one trillion bacteria grazing on your fleshy plains—about a hundred thousand of them on every square centimeter of skin.” Like I said, a lot. Dog feet are a great place for bacteria and yeast to take up residence because there’s a lot of moisture and little to no air circulation in the folds and pockets of skin between toes and foot pads. Bacteria flock there and reproduce with exuberance.
All these micro-organisms give off their own distinct odors (they’re what give us BO), and the popcorn/corn chip smell on some dogs could be the fault of yeast or the bacterium Proteus, which are both known for their sweet, corn tortilla smell. Or it could be the bacterium Pseudomonas, which smells a little fruitier, but pretty close to popcorn to most noses.
Like I said before, it is perfectly normal for there to be a lot of bacteria on and in your pet—and on and in you. It’s part of life on Earth and there are worse things these bacteria could be doing besides making your dog smell like delicious snacks. Frito Feet is no cause for alarm unless the smell is really overwhelming. That could be a sign of an infection and should be checked out by your veterinarian.
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