The Elk and Its Odor: Are Elk Smelly?

Sharing is caring!

Published on January 9, 2023
Last Updated on October 11, 2023

The elk ( Cervus canadensis) is one of the largest terrestrial mammals in North America. These large deer are easy to spot not just because of their size and appearance but also by their scent. Yup, you read it right. Male and female elk do have distinct odors that you cannot miss. 

What makes these wapitis (Native American name) smelly? Is it true that they smell awful? What purposes does this scent provide to the survival of the species? Join Floofmania as we explore and delve into the elk’s odor and its significance to the species thriving in the wild. We promise this will be a smelly topic.

Let’s get going.

Why Is The Elk’s Scent So Important?

Two elk grazing next to one another.

The elk’s scent functions as a form of communication among the animals. That is why scent is very important to them. We can say that their odor is a way for them of identifying who is in the area, along with other relevant information like the sex of the owner, its age, how healthy it is, and even if it is ready to mate. 

For the elk, such a message will either prompt them to get excited and search out the scent’s owner or stay away from the territory already owned by another. Well, we can assume that one’s odor can either make or break a relationship! 

Every individual elk has a unique scent. The reason for this is the amount and concentration of hormones and chemicals released by each elk are different from the others. Other factors that affect the odor produced are the following:

  • The sex of the individual
  • The age of the elk
  • The overall health of the animal
  • The presence of bacteria and other organisms on their fur and bodies.

Fun Fact: Did you know that all deer species in North America use their scents as a form of communication as well?

What Do Elk Smell Like?

A variety of descriptions have been used to describe the elk’s odor. Most people describe the animal’s smell as stinky like an old rug that was peed on. They have a point. Urine, in some ways, is involved when it comes to why the elk smells that way. More of that will be discussed below.

A more appropriate description of its scent is musky similar to that of cattle—but a bit stronger. The elk’s odor, however, is so distinct and easily distinguishable. Its scent is so strong that when you smell it in the wild, you’ll definitely stop and say “An elk has been here.” 

Can You Smell When A Elk Is Near?

Yes, you’ll know if an elk is near just by detecting its scent. Their odor is also stronger compared to other deer species. As mentioned above, every elk’s scent is unique and no scent is exactly the same. 

In addition, elk like to live in groups. Both sexes tend to leave their scents to communicate but the males have a stronger and muskier smell. The more males there are in the group, the more peeing and scent markings there will be in an area. That means their presence will be easier for the human nose to detect.

Elk sniffing the air with pine trees in the background.

Do Elk Have A Bad Odor?

If you don’t like musky odors or the smell of pee, then yes, elk have a bad odor. This odor is caused by the presence of pheromones that are excreted from the elk’s scent glands as well as from the urine of the elk.

These pheromones are chemicals that these animals use to communicate with their species. You may not like the odor of pheromones but elk find the scent sexy whenever it comes from the opposite sex. For males, the scents also act as a form of proclamation of owned territories as well as dominance.

Why Do Elk Urinate On Themselves?

Urinating on themselves makes the elk’s scents stronger and more potent. A potent scent means a higher chance of attracting a mate. They will try, as much as possible to spread their urine all over their bodies to spread their scents. You may be wondering how and why elk do that. 

Here’s a short and simple explanation.

During the mating season, the male elk bathe themselves with their own urine. The animals usually find a puddle of mud and pee in it. They then roll over the puddle (wallowing) so that their scents are spread all over their bodies.

Another way of utilizing their urine as “perfume” is rub-urinating. The elk urinates on the bark of a tree, for example, then rubs their bodies on it. They may also rub their tarsal glands on the back of their rear legs on the tree as they rub their bodies. More about these scent glands is discussed below.

Where Are The Elk’s Scent Glands?

The elk’s scent glands are widely distributed all across the animal’s body. Both males (bucks) and females (cows) elk have scent glands. 

Some scent glands are larger than others and produce a stronger smell when rubbed on a surface. Other glands that are peed upon or mixed with urine also produce distinct odors unique to the individual.

Here is the list of the elk’s scent glands and significant information about them:

  1. Tarsal Glands 

These glands are located at the back of the elk’s rear legs. They look like darkened tuff of hair and produce an oil rich in pheromones. These glands are usually peed on for a stronger and more unique scent produced.

  1. Interdigital Glands

These glands are located between the toes of the elk’s hoofs. The oil produced from these glands resembles a yellow, cheesy fluid that smells like “spoiled milk”. The scent produced by these glands is used for tracking other elk.

  1. Forehead Gland

This gland is located between the eyes and pedicles. The dominant buck primarily uses the gland during the rut season. Rubbing of antlers by the elk produces oily secretions. The oil secreted causes dark-brown discoloration on its forehead.

Bull elk waling in brown grass in front of a tree-clad mountain side with snow.

Do Elk Use Smell For Marking Territory?

Elk use their scents to mark their territories or at least, the areas they roam in the wild. They do this to communicate with other members of their species as well as for their own protection

Elk have a very sensitive sense of smell. The animals use this to their advantage. That is the reason why they mark the areas where they roam with their scent. Any changes or new scents in the area will warn the elk of another’s presence as well as if there are predators around. 

Fact: The elk’s sense of smell is very sharp that they can smell up to 600 yards away. Sneaking around these animals can't be easy!

Do Male And Female Elk Smell Differently?

Humans cannot distinguish the sex of elk just by smelling their scents. We can only smell how musky and pungent (if mixed with urine) the animals’ scents are. 

However, this is not the case among elk. As mentioned above, they use their scents as a form of communication – almost like a calling card. Smelling the scents of other elk provide the animals with tons of information about each other.

Is The Elk’s Poop And Urine Very Stinky?

Yes, elk poop and urine certainly are stinky. Their scents are also so strong that the smell can linger for days—especially if they’re from a rutting bull. Their poop and urine actually smell stronger during the rutting season.

The presence of pheromones as well as the chemicals produced by their glands brings about this bad odor. When you add the smells of urine and poop, the odor produced is indeed very unpleasant (if you’re not an elk).

Will Elk Pee and Poop Attract Other Elk?

Yes, attracting the opposite sex is actually one of the main purposes of scenting. The elk’s urine contains a large number of pheromones which are chemicals that affect the behavior of other members of their species.  

In fact, courtship among elk involves a lot of peeing and pooping. Just take a look at the video below where the elk bull sprays himself with his own urine just to attract the females in the vicinity.

Author: Jomvie Reyes

Jomvie has been a writer for over 10 years and animals and wildlife are among his favorite topics. Learning and writing about the vast and diverse wildlife from all over the world, is more of a hobby than a job for him. Jomvie loves to watch and observe these remarkable species up close and personal.


  • Jomvie Reyes

    Jomvie has been a writer for over 10 years and animals and wildlife are among his favorite topics. Learning and writing about the vast and diverse wildlife from all over the world, is more of a hobby than a job for him. Jomvie loves to watch and observe these remarkable species up close and personal.

    View all posts

Sharing is caring!

Leave a Comment