For you, your dog, and sometimes your kitty, anal glands can be, well, a big pain in the butt.
Dogs don’t need anal glands, just as we don’t need our appendix — but these unnecessary structures can still get diseased and cause havoc.
Anal glands are scent glands located just inside Stinky’s anus. If you think of your dog or cat’s anus as an alarm clock, anal gland alarms go off at 4 o’clock and 8 o’clock.
Imagine tiny balloons filled with dead fish perfume emptying into your dog’s butt just as he’s pooping, ready to squirt liquid onto already smelly poop. This liquid is supposed to top off a healthy poop. The odor is your pet’s calling card.
Why Do Anal Glands Exist?
Feral beasts mark their territory with anal gland secretions, letting other wild things know they’re in the neighborhood. Hunting, mating and actual survival depend on marking territory.
Research done in Kenya has shown that hyenas smear their “hyena butter” (anal gland excretions) over grass stalks. Let the hyena sniff-fest begin! By sniffing the “butter,” hyenas can discriminate clan-mates from strangers, males from females, and even sniff out pregnant or lactating females. So let’s not pull Bob the basset hound away from sniffing your neighbor’s grass too quickly. Who knows what he can tell you about Greta the golden without even picking up the phone.
I think of a dog’s fabulous sense of smell as his internet. When Bob is smelling his way through a walk, he’s just checking his new Facebook posts.
When Anal Glands Go Wild
1. Impacted Glands
If the secretions inside the gland become too thick, the little anal duct opening too small, or if inflammation occurs for other unknown reasons, your dog may not be able to express his anal glands as he defecates, leading to impaction. Anal gland discomfort, or any other irritation in the area, leads to that embarrassing dance, “The Butt-Rub Shuffle.”
If your dog rubs his butt once in a while on your white carpet or after he defecates, I suggest waiting to see if this becomes more of a continual problem before running him to the vet. The vast majority of dogs will be able to empty anal glands on their own.
But if your dog is scooting or licking continuously, or seems uncomfortable and preoccupied with his rear end, please have him checked out.
2. Infections and Abscesses
Occasionally, anal glands become infected, leading to anal gland abscess or sacculitis.
The exact cause is not known. Chronic diarrhea, constipation or bacterial overgrowth inside that gland can cause an infection, or your dog continually rubbing or licking the area may add to an abscess. The material in the gland becomes abnormal, often bloody. Your dog’s anal gland may actually abscess, causing a big ugly mess at 4 or 8 o’clock AST (Anal Standard Time).
Some dogs don’t show symptoms of a gland problem at all until the gland abscesses. Don’t feel guilty. There is no way you would have known about the problem if your pup was not exhibiting symptoms. The abscess is usually easily treatable, although chronic problems and deep infections can rarely occur.
Your vet may have to irrigate and/or infuse the gland, prescribe warm compresses, antibiotics and pain medication.
3. Carcinoma or Cancer
Sadly, anal glands can develop into tumors. If caught early, the prognosis is fair. These dogs require surgery if it is feasible to remove the tumor.
Anal Sac Removal
In the case of chronic infections or tumors, anal glands can be removed surgically. This is a surgery that requires special expertise. If this was a routine surgery without possible complications, the procedure would be done more frequently.
The surgery requires gentle and complete removal of the entire gland without leaving any tissue behind. Incomplete excision can result in draining tracts or fistulas. Most importantly, the gland is closely associated with the anal sphincter. You don’t want to do an anal gland surgery only to have your dog wind up fecal incontinent.
For these reasons, anal sac removal is not recommended at the first sign of a mild anal gland problem.
The Rectal Exam
Veterinarians do rectal exams to make sure everything is healthy back there, not just to express anal glands for the fun of it. Expressing the glands can actually cause inflammation.
Anal gland expression is fun for neither vet nor beast. I don’t think there is a vet out there who hasn’t experienced a smelly remnant of anal gland secretion masquerading as hair spray or eye shadow. Certain anal glands are just showoffs and their favorite game is “Squirt the Vet.” (I love my job. I’m glad I wear glasses.)
I am in the “leave normal anals alone” camp. Doing a routine rectal exam means making sure there is no pain, no growths, no prostate issues in males, good sphincter tone and normal anal glands.
- If your dog is spending lots of time nosediving in his butt, examining and expressing the glands is indicated.
- But if your dog comes in for a routine physical and he doesn’t even know he has anal glands, I don’t express them. Other vets may feel differently.
Shouldn’t My Groomer Do This?
Why? I ask. Expressing anal glands for most dogs is unpleasant, and it requires some skill. In my opinion, including an anal gland expression with a puppy cut is like your hairdresser asking you if you would like a rectal with your highlights.
Anal glands are constantly secreting, and they cannot and should not be emptied continually by a foreigner. No dog has a personal anal gland emptier. Well, maybe Paris Hilton’s dogs, who have their own condo…
Can I Try This at Home?
Some dogs have recurrent or chronic problems with anal glands, and some clients ask to be taught how to empty their dog’s anal glands at home.
But here’s the rub, so to speak. Learning to empty the glands requires some skill, and most people decide not to try this at home after a demonstration. But along with skill comes judgment of what is normal and abnormal. If your dog needs this procedure done frequently, there’s usually a problem, and your vet should also be monitoring the medical issue.
Success at expressing anal glands at home depends on your ability, the disposition of the dog and the nature of the anal gland problem.
- MYTH: Only small dogs have anal glands.
BUSTED! All dogs and cats have them. Not just males. Not just little dogs. All dogs and cats.
- MYTH: Only small breed dogs have anal gland problems.
BUSTED! Any dog can develop an anal gland problem, but small dogs do have more problems than larger breeds.
- MYTH: Anal glands must be routinely emptied by a vet or a groomer.
BUSTED! Most dogs do this themselves, associated with normal defecation.
- MYTH: Anal glands empty only while a dog is pooping.
BUSTED! Misfires do occur. Cats can squirt windows and cat carriers. Dogs can squirt furniture and bedding and themselves! If the rear end of your dog or cat is stinking to high heaven, he might be wearing Chanel No. Anal Gland. Check with your vet if your pet’s anal glands are frequently acting like loose canons.
- MYTH: African legend holds that witches rode hyenas and used gourds fueled with anal sac hyena butter to light their way through the night.
Who would like to bust that one? That myth can stand (and smell) on its own. I’m not touching it with a 10-foot hyena butter torch.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian.