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The Mysterious Anal Glands

Ahh, anal glands. Such a mysterious and misunderstood body part. To really appreciate the anal glands, you first have to know what they are and what they do.

It’s actually pretty simple—they’re scent glands. Think of a skunk. When skunks spray, they are forcefully emitting and emptying their scent glands (hence, their anal glands). Fortunately for us as pet parents, dogs and cats do not have conscious control over the expression of their glands.

Anal glands are small little sacs that are located near the 4:00 and 8:00 positions of the anus. In a medium sized dog, they’re typically the size of a large grape. In cats (and little dogs) they’re much smaller, probably closer to a peanut M&M, and they have small tube-like openings that empty just inside the the anus.

The fluid inside the gland normally drips out at the end of a bowel movement. If you want to see it in action, take a close look the next time your dog goes and the very end, you should see a small drip, drip. It’s this fluid that contains your pet’s specific and unique identification information. When dogs are sniffing each other’s backsides, and smelling each other’s feces, it’s the anal gland fluid that they’re investigating. Each pet has a completely individual scent based on their body chemistry.

Yet, even though the function is clear, the design is flawed. For many dogs, and some cats, they are not able to empty their glands efficiently, and the glands can become impacted. When this happens, the area is under pressure and becomes quite uncomfortable for the pet. The gland becomes swollen, itchy and inflamed.

So how do they deal with the unpleasantness of an impacted anal gland? Well, they do the butt-scootin’ boogie (yes that’s my horrible tribute to Brooks and Dunn). They drag their rear ends on the ground. Everyone knows what this looks like, but many people are incorrect about the meaning. It is 99.99% NOT a sign that your pet has worms (now, yes, there may be an occasion if a pet has a tapeworm infection, and there are little pieces of those tapeworms stuck to the hairs under the tail, they may drag and scoot in response, but that’s not typical).

If you see your pet scooting its way across the floor, it’s probably because it has an impacted anal gland. And for some dogs, this scooting action may be successful in relieving the pressure and will take care of their problem (however, it doesn’t solve your problem of having anal gland juice smeared into your carpet). But, if your pet is doing it with any sort of regularity, you’ll need to do something to help manually empty out those glands. Typically, that means a trip to the vet, where we are trained professionals in the matter. I have shown a few clients on how to do it at home, but it really requires a dedicated individual with a highly-trusting pet for that to work (and a purchase of disposable gloves and lube of some sort—uh, that’s not an awkward purchase at all).

Cat and dog are walking next to each other with tails raised up. Friendship of animals.The most frequently asked questions I get from pet parents when they bring their dog or cat in to have the anal glands expressed are “what caused it?” and “how can I keep it from happening again?”

What caused it is the poor design we talked about earlier. The opening to the gland is very, very small in relation to the gland itself, and is intended to release a liquid similar in consistency to water. But for many animals, the gland material is much thicker than that, and the muscles around the glands do not produce a strong enough contraction to expel it. NOTE: an exception to that is adrenaline. If an animal experiences any sort of panic-induced event, and there’s an adrenaline surge, the glands will often express involuntarily (which WOULD be similar to a skunk). If you’ve ever been around when two dogs have gotten into a fight, you may have noticed the distinctive odor associated with it. Or, if you have one of those dogs that FREAKS THE EFF OUT during nail trims, you may have smelled it then too.

But generally speaking, there really isn’t any specific cause. I see impacted glands in all breeds, sizes, ages, genders, etc. Everything from Chihuahuas to Great Danes, young, old, fat, skinny, athletic, couch potatoes, long hair, no hair…it really is an equal opportunity condition.

And there also is no reliable way to prevent it. Dogs who have issues with impacted glands, will likely always have the problem. For fun, I googled “how to prevent anal gland impaction”, some of the results were quite terrifying!

  1. Feed a raw diet. Um, NO! For my explanation surrounding raw diets, please listen to my podcast episode—the food episode and hear why you should NEVER feed a raw diet. If I could, I would interview Rocco, a recent patient of mine that had to be anesthetized to have a bone shard dislodged from his rectum and then an extensive enema given to evacuate his color of the rest of the fragments.
  2. Apply a poultice to your dog’s anus 2-3 times a day made of calendula flowers. Good luck with that.
  3. Apply a high-potency poultice that contains dried nettles! WHAT! Have any of you ever touched a nettle plant? It’s horrible! It’s like being bitten by fire ants. Why on earth would a person ever consider putting that on their dog’s anus!?
  4. Feed them silica to “bulk-up” the stool and help push the glands from the inside. Well, if you feed your pet silica, their anal glands will be the least of their problems. Get your credit card out and prepare for intestinal obstruction surgery. You know those little packets that come in all kinds of products, the ones that say “silica, do not eat”!? Please follow those instructions.
  5. Feed canned pumpkin. I actually used to offer this as a home remedy for clients, but I’ve stopped, not because it’s dangerous, but because it never actually worked, and most pets don’t like it.

In most cases, having them manually emptied out every few weeks is typically sufficient to manage the issue (in fact, depending on state regulations, many dog groomers include it as part of their services). My advice when people ask, “how often?” is to let your pet’s symptoms guide you. If, and when, you notice them scooting regularly, then it’s time to get it done. And by “regularly” I mean no more than a couple days. Please don’t wait a week. Impacted glands can get infected and rupture. And NO ONE wants to be diagnosed with anal sacculitis with secondary rupture, least of all your fur baby.

On a few rare occasions, I have performed anal sacculectomy surgery, which is the surgical removal of the anal glands. But it’s not a simple procedure and only should be done when the pet’s quality of life is being affected by chronic infections and ruptures. As you can imagine, surgery near the anus has lots of potential for complications, the least serious being post-op infection and the most serious being sphincter damage and life-long fecal incontinence. So, definitely not something we eagerly recommend.

I hope I’ve answered all your questions about anal glands! Show of hands, who’s happy that people were born without them?

Guys, you thought an annual prostate exam was rough, can you imagine having to bend over every month to have your glands emptied!?

I think I’ll just leave you with that image…

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