Starting at the Bottom: Anal Glands

Picture the scene. You’ve just washed your dog from top to tail using the finest shampoos and conditioners money can buy, but even after drying him off the same horrible fishy odour you noticed pre-groom is still lingering in your poor nostrils.

Sound familiar?

“So where’s it coming from then?” you ask, even though by now, most of you have guessed it’s your dog’s smelly anal glands that are the culprits here.

Anal glands (or anal sacs) are relatively small glands found on either side of your dog’s anal opening.

Not present in humans or other primates they are paired sacs located precisely just below the surface of the skin between the external and internal sphincter muscles, employed by nature to produce a particularly thick foul-smelling oily liquid secreted by glandular tissue for identification and territory-marking.

This is the reason dogs smell other dogs’ bottoms (pictured) when they meet and greet standing tense with tails erect swapping their own unique smells rather like individual finger prints.

Under most circumstances, anal gland secretions are extremely minute, so you don’t usually see or smell them, though may notice your dog’s bedding becomes a bit smelly between washes. But when you can actually smell the odour emanating from your dog’s backside there may in fact be a problem.

Domestic animals like dogs and cats have largely lost their ability to empty these glands voluntarily unlike the skunk’s world-famous pungent defence mechanism.

Your dog’s anal glands may spontaneously empty just by walking around, especially under times of stress, creating a very sudden unpleasant change in his odour.

Passing normal firm stools puts natural pressure on the rectum walls emptying the glands and will to some degree also helps to lubricate the anal opening in the process, making it easier for your dog to poo.

But some dogs seem unable to fully empty their glands on their own causing the glands to become impacted and uncomfortable; and as most of us can identify, dogs with impacted anal glands will usually drag or ‘scoot’ their rear-ends along the ground (or more commonly your brand new cream-coloured carpet) attempting to empty them (pictured).

Other signs can include licking or biting around their anal area, chasing their tail, sitting uncomfortably, or even licking paws – both front and back – in sheer frustration.

Anal glands fill for a number of reasons.

Most-commonly when the dog’s stools are soft (for example after a few days of diarrhoea) so insufficient pressure has been exerted to empty the glands.

Whenever they fail to vacate properly there’s a chance of becoming impacted or even worse infected – a very painful condition requiring urgent veterinary treatment.

Your dog may happily pass through its whole life without ever having any problems with its anal glands, but not all dogs are so lucky.

Normal anal gland fluid ranges from yellow to tan in colour and is watery in consistency. Impacted anal gland material is usually brown or grey, and thick with the occasional presence of blood or pus indicating infection.

Impaction results from blockage of the duct leading from the gland to the opening with the gland usually becoming non-painful but swollen; however infection can result from prolonged impaction giving the glands a chance to build-up nasty bacteria resulting in pain, increased swelling, and sometimes even abscessation and fever.

Treatment is usually by expression of the gland (usually far too painful in the conscious patient), antibiotics and pain relief, and even repeated flushes of the glands.

Signs of severe infection might include distinct bulges just beneath the surface on either side below the anal opening, drainage from the rectum or even one or more abscesses in the immediate area.

With rare cases of recurrent infection or presence of a specific type of malignant tumour called an anal sac adenocarcinoma, anal glands may be removed surgically by a procedure known as anal sacculectomy. However, the potential complications of this specialist type of surgery make the operation strictly reserved for essential cases only.

However, an ounce of prevention can be well worth it, even though it’s really not a pretty job – with glands being emptied by you, or more typically by your more experienced groomer or vet, who can quickly and painlessly squeeze them empty.

Located at 8 and 4 o’clock positions (pictured) around the anal opening and just inside and under the skin, the glands can be emptied in one of two ways (below) and I always recommend you get your vet to show you both before attempting on your own as applying pressure to an anal sac impaction or infection could cause the gland to rupture and lead to bleeding and painful complications for your dog.

External technique: A piece of tissue paper is held up to the anus and both sides of the anal area are squeezed. If the secretion is very pasty, or glands are too large, this method may be inadequate to empty the sacs, and it may also have the effect of pushing the glands away from you making it impossible to gain enough purchase to empty the glands effectively.

Internal technique (used by most vets including myself): Hold tail up with your non-writing hand and insert lubricated gloved index finger from other hand carefully into the anus gently identifying and then squeezing the gland between thumb and forefinger into tissue paper held externally to catch the anal gland juice. Emptying an anal gland effectively feels like you’re gently crushing a grape – then repeat procedure for the opposite gland.

If this activity isn’t something you feel totally comfortable attempting then ask your groomer or vet who can ‘happily’ perform the task at your request.

Also be aware that not all dog experts agree that the anal glands should be interfered with in any way unless the dog is showing signs of a problem.

So if you didn’t know anything about dog’s anal glands before you read all this, you probably know more than you ever thought possible now!

But whether or not you decide routine gland maintenance is a good idea for your dog, at least you’ll be able to detect and identify any issues quickly and hopefully save your dog from the pain and discomfort of anal gland problems.

For step-by-step video guide to checking and emptying your dog’s anal glands download my iPhone app here.

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