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What Do Bears Smell Like? Do They Smell Really Bad?

If you’ve ever been near a zoo, you know how overwhelming it can smell – even from afar. In the US alone, there are over 400 zoos. Some of them have bears. So it’s not weird to wonder – what do bears smell like?

You will be surprised to learn that bears have a unique odor. Some bears might smell light and earthy while others might smell like a wet dog on a sunny day and have a disgustingly pungent smell. 

Black and brown (grizzly, Kodiak) bears might sometimes have a strong repelling odor, while polar bears will mostly smell neutral and clean, like a salty fresh breeze. 

Some bears roll in the grass and pass such fresh herbal smell on themselves; others roll in the carcass and just reek.

Let’s explain this in-depth, so the next time you visit a zoo, you can guess from a distance which bear you are about to see next. 

Factors That Affect How A Bear Might Smell


Bears are omnivorous animals. This means that they eat meat, fruits, vegetation, and similar. 

According to biologists, black bears’ diet is about 80% plants and just 20% meat. Pandas are completely herbivorous and feed on plants, while polar bears live in the ice-covered Arctic with not too many plants and feed on meat.

And the bear smell situation is like the human smell situation – people tend to smell a bit like what they eat. That’s why a grizzly bear that feeds predominantly on fish will smell a bit like fish – it would seem like the smell is coming out of their skin pores.

On the other hand, in the early summer, when bears feed on plants, they will smell similar to that vegetation, only stronger. 

A polar bear that just killed a seal might smell bad because of that encounter, there would be blood and all sorts of weird smells around.

polar bears eating


A habitat might affect how a bear smells. For example, a polar bear’s habitat mostly consists of water, ice, and snow. That’s a very neutral-smelling environment. And since they are not territorial, they do not need to have a strong smell themselves to keep others away. 

That’s why a polar bear might smell as clean and pure as the snow which surrounds its environment.

What is interesting though is that polar bears will leave some scent after themselves through their paws. They have some glands there, and when they place them on the ground, a smell will remain as a warning to other bears.

Read More: Animals bears are related to

Mating Season

Both male and female bears are quite promiscuous during their mating season – they might have more than one partner. Black bears’ breeding season starts in rune and ends around August. 

Bears have scent glands on their bodies they use to warn other males and to improve their mating chances. 

Mature black bears, during the mating season, might have a strong musky odor that people can easily detect. Bears will rub their backs and necks on the bark, leaving their own scent on the tree. 

Bears also leave a strong smell through their urine and anal glands. They also have scent glands in their feet, leaving a scent in their tracks as well.

And a recent study noted that the stronger the odor and the more trees it rubs, the more successful in breeding the bear will be. 

Also, bears love to roll in smelly substances, like rotten meat or dead fish, in order to hide their natural scent from their possible prey. This can also give them a rather foul smell, bad enough to make you feel sick or nauseous after sniffing it!

Read More: Do bears have belly button scars?

bear ribbon

How Do People That Met A Bear Live Describe Its Smell?

Quite a lot of people claim to have seen and smelled a bear in person.

One person that was taking out a dead bear from a deep hole says that the animal smelled “so stinky”, like nothing he had smelled before. Another person seconded that and said that “they definitely reek like no other”.

One person from Washington claims the opposite. He said that all the bears he had encountered had no smell, only a slight wet dog smell. “Nothing nasty like a rutted bull or worse” is what he said.

Many confirmed our explanation about the diet – one person said they met “smelled like wine..or at least fermented berries. Sometimes kinda sweet.

Many compare the bear smell to the skunk one. However, bears are rather clean animals and do not smell as bad as skunks or even coyotes do. 

Read More: What do skunks smell like?

Do Bears Have Bad Breath?

bear in a den

Most bears feed on fresh berries, nuts, grass, and insects. People that actually smell the breath of a bear say that it is almost odorless. Bears that have just eaten fish, some other animal, or carrion, will have a foul-smelling breath. 

Polar bears will especially have unpleasant breaths since they mostly feed on seals. 

When it comes to bear dens, scientists claim that they smell clean and fresh. If they have to defecate, bears will get out of their dens, and do it outside.

Even if they are hibernating, bears will exit the lair briefly or deposit the feces away from the bed. If the cub needs to defecate in the den, its mother will consume the waste. 

And when it comes to bear feces, people claim they do not stink. Unless the bear has been eating flesh only, the scats will smell just like the fermented berries it has been feeding on.

Read More: Why Do Camels Have A Foul Smell?

Final Thoughts

There are not too many people that get to sniff a bear in the wild and talk about it. Yes, sometimes a bear might spot you and run away if it gets too close, but you still need to be careful if you ever smell one. People say that bears mostly smell surprisingly clean and fresh. There are others that say they smell like a wet dog, a smelly horse, or a dead skunk.

Either way, keep your distance and use your nose for more pleasant stuff to smell.

Want to learn more about bears? Check out our bear eyebrows article.

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