I hoped for many things when I embarked on a career in veterinary medicine, including fame, fortune and power. All have now, of course, come to pass (except for those three), but there have been many unforeseen benefits on this rocky road. For instance, I had no idea what an exciting new world of smells I would be introduced to when I entered veterinary school.

Ferret anal glands are, Nick believes, "to normal anal glands as Joseph Stalin was to Dennis the Menace".
Ferret anal glands are, Nick believes, “to normal anal glands as Joseph Stalin was to Dennis the Menace”.

Compared to most of our patients, who inhabit a rich and exciting world of odour, we are as blind as bats (incidentally, the correct term for no sense of smell is “anosmia”, which sounds rather more like a statement of someone’s religious beliefs than their ability to detect scents, and may be why the term “as anosmic as a toothed whale” never really caught on), but even for us, it’s an evocative sense.

The olfactory bulb pokes out right at the front of the brain (evolutionarily speaking, it’s one of the most ancient parts of its anatomy) and is hotwired right into the limbic system, which may be why smell is so much better at evoking emotion rather than memory. I can be in a strange practice, with staff I’ve never met before, but the whiff of hibiscrub, parvocide and surgical spirit will still make me feel right at home.

Smell is the sense of emotion, even more so than hearing, and the emotion I am most interested in for the purposes of this blog is, of course, disgust.

Being the serious, thoughtful and high-minded professional I am, I would now like to list the three worst smells I have encountered in veterinary medicine.

Anal glands

Third from the top in my ascending order of olfactory awfulness we have our old friend (and by friend I mean someone who turns up unexpectedly on your doorstop and lingers for far longer than they are welcome) anal glands.

Strongly fishy mixed with a dash of badger. The worst thing about anal glands is the ability of the fluid to get everywhere, produced as it often is under high pressure – the consulting room walls, glasses, hair and, in extremely unfortunate situations, mouths. I am reliably informed it tastes even worse than it smells, and even a tiny splat on your trousers means the smell will be your fishy friend for the rest of the day.

The best thing I can say about anal glands is humans don’t have them, because a roomful of patients wanting their glands done would make being a GP an even less appealing prospect than it is already. I’d probably stay at home and get my wife to do it.

Twin-lamb disease

Sheep and rotting flesh do not combine to make the best odour, and getting this all over your arms probably gives you a fair approximation of how the world is going to smell when the zombie apocalypse finally comes.

This one doesn’t just linger for hours; it’s with you for days, and greets you whenever you try to eat anything for the rest of the week – unless you luckily remembered to double glove before starting the extract bits of dead lamb from the unfortunate sheep. I haven’t done large animal work for nearly a decade, and I’m pretty sure I can still smell it on me.

The one saving grace of twin-lamb disease is that it was the source of the greatest deadpan it has ever been my privilege to witness.

Years ago, I accompanied my wife on a call-out into the depths of Cornwall, where the accents were thicker than whale porridge. We arrived to have the farmer explain he had been attempting to lamb his ewe. He’d gripped both the forelimbs and pulled them, in his words, “sort of… off”.

He indicated the aforesaid limbs on the floor beside the sheep. My wife, who is generally far smarter than me, asked one of the few very stupid questions of her lifetime.

“Er… is the lamb dead?”

The farmer blinked once.

“Well,” he said quietly, with a poker face that would have put Lady Gaga to shame. “I reckon ’tis.”

Ferret anal glands

Image: "Cthulhu and R'lyeh" by BenduKiwi. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
Image: “Cthulhu and R’lyeh” by BenduKiwi. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Anal glands again, in at the top, but this time with a whole new dimension of terror.

Much as I love ferrets – they really are extremely cute – it would be fair to say they aren’t the best-smelling creatures ever to walk the Earth. This particular ferret was in to be vasectomised, and on admission the owner had asked if we could just “check his anal glands, as he seems a bit uncomfortable around there”.

I had never even thought about a ferret’s anal glands before – I think this is probably the sign of a healthy and sane mind – but how bad could they be? Anal glands already smell as bad as they possibly could, I reasoned.

My own words fail me in the description of the scent, and I am forced to resort to one of my favourite authors, HP Lovecraft, as he describes the destruction of fleshy-octopoid horror, Cthulhu:

“…there was a bursting, as of an exploding bladder, a slushy nastiness as of a cloven sunfish, and a stench as of a thousand opened graves…”

It was one of those smells you could chew, and indeed everyone on the ground floor of the practice was forced to chew for the next several hours. That morning I made myself extremely unpopular with my boss, the receptionists, all the nurses and many, many clients, and if there is a hell, I know what it’s going to smell like.

Ferret anal glands are to normal anal glands as Joseph Stalin was to Dennis the Menace, and if I ever have to evacuate another ferret’s anal glands I’m going to do it outside so as to prevent the building I’m in needing to be evacuated too.

Well, that’s my three. If you’ve encountered worse, I would love to hear about it.

Y’know, from a distance.

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2 Comments on "How I know what hell’s going to smell like"

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Kate Platt
Kate Platt
11 months 12 days ago

Rotten lambs is definitely my number one. Walking back to the practice after lunch and smelling my next job before I’d even crossed the road…

9 months 16 days ago

A ram abcess the morning after some heavy drinking!


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