What Does a Cold, Wet Dog Nose Mean?

Your dog’s nose is an amazing structure. Canines have up to 300 million olfactory (scent) receptors in their nose, compared to the 6 million that humans possess. Their nose tells them about the world and helps them communicate—but can their schnoz also indicate their health status?

The truth is that your pup’s sniffer, while amazing, is not an indicator of health in and of itself. But it is a tool or clue that pet parents can use, along with other observations, to see how their pup is doing. Here’s what’s important to know about why your dog’s nose is cold and wet…

What Does a Cold, Wet Dog Nose Mean?

What does it mean when a dog’s nose is wet? Generally speaking, that’s normal. Although dryness is the natural state of a dog’s snout, moisture is usually present due to a dog licking their nose.

Here are some reasons why a dog might have a wet nose…

  • Dogs can’t sweat to maintain their body temperature the way humans do—other than a small amount of sweat from the paw pads in a dog that is too warm and possibly at risk of overheating or heat stroke. Instead, dogs pant and lick their nose. As saliva evaporates from their nose and mouth, it helps a dog cool down and regulate their body temperature. The coldness of your dog’s nose means the evaporative cooling is working!

As you can probably imagine, evaporative cooling from the nose and mouth aren’t nearly as efficient as sweating over the whole body. For this reason, dogs tend to be more sensitive than people to hot weather. And they may lick their nose more often when the weather is warm.

  • A wet nose is better for a dog’s sense of smell, since scent particles stick to a moist nose. Mucus glands inside the nostrils contribute to this effect, but licking the nose also plays a big role. By licking their nose, a dog transfers those scent particles to the roof of the mouth, where they are detected by the vomeronasal organ. Also known as Jacobson’s organ, this specialized structure “reads” scents and chemicals such as pheromones.

  • Dogs lick their nose to keep it clean. Since they explore the world with their nose and mouth, sometimes a dog gets dust, dirt, and other debris stuck to their sniffer. A quick lick helps keep their nose clean.

  • Despite the old adage that a wet nose means a dog is healthy, in some cases, a wet or cold nose is a sign of a health problem. Examples include excessive nasal discharge from allergies or an infectious disease.

Does a Warm, Dry Nose Mean My Dog Is Sick?

No, a dry or warm nose alone is not an indication of poor health. This is a myth. While the origins of this saying are unknown, some believe it came from a time before widespread dog vaccination, when Distemper was more common in pet dogs. One of the symptoms of this deadly disease is hyperkeratosis, in which the nose and paw pads become thickened.

Here are some reasons why a dog may have a warm or dry nose…

  • Some pups have naturally warmer or dryer noses, and this can be perfectly normal for them. This is more common with older age, or in dog breeds with shortened snouts like Pugs or Bulldogs

  • A dog’s nose may be bone dry after waking up from a nap. Since dogs’ noses stay wet due to licking, the absence of licking during sleep results in a dry snoot.

  • Environmental factors such as very warm or windy weather, or even sitting next to a heat source in winter, can cause the nose to dry out.

  • Sun exposure can dry the nose or even result in sunburn on a pup’s schnoz or other hairless areas.

  • In some cases, a warm or dry nose COULD be a symptom of illness. Examples include dehydration or a fever. It’s also possible a pup might not do normal behaviors like nose licking if they aren’t feeling well. Certain health conditions, such as an autoimmune disease, can cause the nose to become dry and flaky.

What’s Normal and What Isn’t?

The most common “normal” condition for a dog's nose is damp (wet, not dripping or running) and cold or cool to the touch. However, there are exceptions. The most important thing as a dog owner is knowing what’s normal for YOUR dog.

If your pup’s nose is normally cold, but suddenly it’s warm and dry and your pup isn’t acting like their normal self, that could mean that something’s wrong. And if their nose is normally dry but suddenly it’s runny, that could also indicate a problem.

As a general rule of thumb, these symptoms should always prompt a vet visit…

  • Significant drainage or discharge, especially if it is thick, mucoid, or yellow/green. 

  • Bleeding from the nose.

  • Changes to the character of the nasal area, including thickening, discoloration, cracking, flaking, redness, swelling, bleeding, etc. of the nose or surrounding skin.

  • Sneezing, coughing, itchy/watery eyes, or any other upper respiratory symptoms. Difficulty breathing requires an immediate vet visit.

  • Any signs of illness, such as lethargy, loss of interest in normal activities, loss of appetite, vomiting or diarrhea, etc. 

Can Your Dog’s Nose Really Indicate Illness?

The bottom line is, no—your pup’s nose is NOT a reliable sign of whether they are well or sick.

If your pup is acting ill, a wet nose doesn’t mean that everything is okay! You may still have a sick dog, and they need a vet visit.

And if your dog’s nose feels warm but they are otherwise acting completely normal, it’s likely that they are fine. You can always double check for a fever by quickly taking their temperature with an ear thermometer designed for pets. This may lend some peace of mind.

Since pets tend to hide illnesses in the early stages, it’s never a bad idea to be observant. Note what’s normal for your pup and what’s not—including not just the character of their nose, but also their behavior, appetite, bathroom habits, and energy levels at different times of the day.

Knowing what’s normal and what’s not for your individual pooch can help you pick up on any changes early. 

And when in doubt, it never hurts to reach out to your veterinarian for advice or a consultation if you are concerned. 

SEE ALSO: How Can I Tell If My Dog Is Sick?

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