All dogs big and small have been equipped by nature with a set of anal glands, often referred to as sacs. You are not sure what anal glands are? Well, do you ever feel a weird fishy smell coming from your dog, and you are not sure where it’s coming from and what’s causing it? It’s coming from the anal glands.
Anal glands seem to have a life of their own, they can empty themselves, they have a significant contribution to each dog’s particular smell, and they work as an identity card for your pup.
If not cared for properly, the anal sacs can emanate a strong odor and cause a series of discomforting long term issues to your dog.
What are dog’s anal glands?
The anal glands are two small pouches, each located on the sides of the anal region of dogs, at four and eight o’clock. Anal sacs dimension varies with the size of the dog breed, and usually range from a pea to a small grape size.
Anal glands are lined with a series of cells that secrete a light yellow foul-smelling fluid composed of oil, sweat and scent chemicals or pheromones. In healthy dogs, this fluid is emptied on each side of the anal region through a small canal during bowel movements that press on the glands.
What function do they have?
The purpose of the glands and their secretion is not entirely known. Dogs inherited these structures from their wild ancestor, and they are a way of communication, distinguishing individuals through specific smell and marking of territory. The smell of anal gland secretion provides information about gender and health status to other dogs. Thus, when dogs sniff each other, they are not just saying Hello.
Anal gland content also serves as a lubricant, helping dogs pass hard feces easier. Firm or hard feces, in turn, help with the regular, natural emptying of the content without generating trauma to the glands.
What are the most common anal gland problems?
- Impaction occurs when the evacuation canal of one or both anal glands gets blocked, preventing the regular emptying of the content. This blockage will cause the oils of anal sacs to build up and cause discomfort;
- Infection (Abscess/Saculitis) is most often a consequence of untreated impaction when bacteria inside the glands start multiplying, leading to abscess formation;
- Rupture is a follow-up of infection and abscess draining through the surface of the skin.
Less common, the anal glands can be affected by a form of cancer (anal gland adenocarcinoma), which is highly aggressive and can spread fast to the surrounding tissues. Older female dogs have a higher predisposition for anal gland adenocarcinoma.
Common causes for anal glands problems
The exact reasons for anal gland problems in dogs are unknown, but chronic impaction, recurrent infection, or even trauma are among the leading causes.
Regardless of their underlying cause, chronic diarrhea and soft stool increase the risk of anal gland issues. As mentioned previously, the anal sacs empty themselves with the passing of a firm or hard stool. Soft stools are passed easily and do not press enough on the glands to help them drain.
Small breed dogs are more affected than large dogs. Allergies, too, can cause anal gland impaction.
Signs and symptoms of anal glands problems in dogs
Dogs that suffer from anal gland problems can act in ways that might look funny to the unknowing owners. However, you should know that even minor issues can cause significant discomfort to your pup.
Impaction and mild inflammation may evolve with:
- Dragging or scooting their rear end on the floor;
- Persistent licking of the perineal area;
- Circling before trying to pass a stool;
- Straining and mild to moderate pain while passing a stool.
Abscesses and anal sac rupture clinical signs are more severe and consist of:
- Moderate to severe pain;
- Visible swelling and inflammation of the area;
- Puss discharge through sinus tracts or tunnels (fistulas) formed on the perineal area;
- Rupture of one or both anal sacs due to the pressure caused by the increasing volume of abscesses.
Anal gland tumors (cancer forms) are rarely manifested with clinical signs. Large tumors can press on the large intestine and cause straining and pain during the passing of stools.
Anal gland issues treatment
Mild to moderate impaction and infection cases can resolve with the regular expression and voiding of the anal sacs. If your dog suffers from inflammation or infection, then the veterinarian might perform anal sacs flushing with a medicated solution and also recommend oral pain management treatment and antibiotics.
Severe infections and ruptures cases presented with puss discharging sinuses or ruptures are more difficult to treat and require long-term therapy. Your veterinarian will likely suggest a more thorough flushing of the anal sacs under general anesthesia, pain management, oral antibiotics, or even surgical resection of the ruptured anal gland.
How to help and prevent a frequent problem
Depending on the leading cause, there are a few things that you can do to help your dog:
- Expression of the anal glands only when necessary, either by yourself, groomer or by your veterinarian. If you don’t know how to void your dog’s glands correctly, you can ask your veterinarian to show you the procedure. Although it is not difficult, you don’t want to squeeze too hard, causing your dog pain or even aggravate any preexisting problems;
- Feed your dog a high fiber diet that can help with the formation of firm stools that can further stimulate the natural emptying of anal glands;
- Keep allergies under control;
- Take your dog to regular veterinary checkups.
How do you know if your dog needs glands expressed?
Any sign mentioned above is an indicator that your dog might experience some discomfort due to anal gland issues. If the experienced symptoms are mild, you can try to empty the glands yourself, but only as shown by your veterinarian.
Anal gland emptying is not the most pleasant experience for your dog, and you might want to be as gentle as possible. This way, not only that your dog will accept the procedure more easily, but you also avoid unnecessary trauma to the anal gland tissues.
How often do they need to be expressed?
As contrary to what one might expect, anal glands don’t necessarily need routine emptying. Frequent, unnecessary anal gland expression can cause trauma to the small canals through which the secretion passes and to the surrounding tissues. In time, self-emptying might not be as efficient and lead to blockages and ongoing chronic problems.
If your dog is healthy and does not present any clinical sign of impaction, inflammation, or infection, you might want to leave both your dog and nature to do what they were intended. If you are not sure about the need for anal gland emptying, then it might be better first to ask your vet.
James, Danielle J., et al. “Comparison of Anal Sac Cytological Findings and Behaviour in Clinically Normal Dogs and Those Affected with Anal Sac Disease.” Veterinary Dermatology, vol. 22, no. 1, 2010, pp. 80–87., DOI:10.1111/j.1365-3164.2010.00916.x.
Rubin, Stanley I., et al. “Anal Sac Disease – Digestive System.” Veterinary Manual, MSD Veterinary Manual, www.msdvetmanual.com/digestive-system/diseases-of-the-rectum-and-anus/anal-sac-disease?query=anal%2Bglands