Often a dog’s behavior can help us figure out their ailments. When a dog is scooting or licking their backend frequently, it can be a sign of issues such anal gland irritation, inflammation, infection or impaction. Often uncomfortable for our pooches, noting signs early can help prevent these back end issues from becoming worse or better yet, making sure it isn't something more serious such as ruptured glands or even cancer.
What are dog anal glands?
There are many glands in the anal region of dogs and the structures that get the most attention, usually in an embarrassing, audience-filled, scooting event, are actually not glands but called anal sacs. However, they are more commonly referred to as anal glands, or scent glands and the medical term is the paranal sacs.
These hazelnut sized structures are close to the skin at the end of your dog’s ‘bottom’ in the 4 and 8 o’clock position. They secrete an evil-smelling fluid that causes many owners to cringe when released, so are also known as scent glands. Normally, the sacs get compressed when the dog’s stool passes and the secretion serves as a territory marker - a communication tool they use with other dogs. Many carnivores have this, with the most famous being those in skunks.
Image source: Merck Veterinary Manual (2020)
Why do dogs need their anal glands expressed?
Problems with the anal sacs is one of the common issues at the back end of dogs. Smaller breeds tend to have this issue more than larger breeds. There are several reasons that can cause problems with these anal sacs, the most common is impaction. That means the oily substance that has now built up in the sacs is not being released or ‘expressed’ regularly. This leads to irritation, inflammation and sometimes infection and is very uncomfortable for dogs. Constant scooting, scratching and licking, can eventually cause the infection to progress to the point where an abscess builds up and this is when your dog will be in pain and will need veterinary care promptly.
In order to relieve the pain, itching, swelling, discomfort and to prevent further infection or worse, rupture of the sacs, veterinarians will ‘express’ or empty the contents of the sacs manually. A sample of the fluid will be taken and analyzed under a microscope for inflammatory cells, blood and even cancer cells. Although very rare, sometimes irritated anal sacs can be due to tumors called an anal sac apocrine adenocarcinoma. This is a more serious health problem and can need surgery.
How do vets express dog's anal glands?
This was one of my least favorite lessons in vet school lol. It was definitely a right of passage…Once it’s established that it is safe to express the sacs, and there is no chance of rupturing them, your vet will use either an internal or external expression method.
For the internal method, with gloved hands and using the tip of the finger, the gland is manually expressed very gently to get the contents out. Your vet may need to trim the fur around the area first. Sometimes stool softener is used if the poop is too hard and dry to properly express the sacs. Anal gland infections are often rinsed out by the vet to ensure all bacteria are cleared and sometimes a course of local and systemic antibiotics will be given.
For the external method, tissue or soft cloth is used to slowly and gently squeeze the anal region from the outside. Massaging the fluid out can help relieve impaction and is can be used if the region appears especially painful to the dog.
In chronic cases that just don’t resolve, surgery may be needed. Your dog may need comfort at home after being treated by your vet. Using a hot compress can help relieve some pain afterwards and can be applied every 8-10 hours for about 20 minutes.
Do vets recommend owners express their dogs' anal glands at home?
There are many reasons why anal sacs can be impacted, infected or enlarged. It is best to have your veterinarian look at any changes and to have them diagnose the anal gland issue and express them if needed. It is a sensitive area and prone to infections being so close to where fecal matter can sit. Additionally, there also can be tumors of the sacs that present as an infection. It is best not to try to empty these at home.
How often should dogs have their anal glands expressed?
It is not necessary to do anal gland expressions, unless there is a presenting problem. With some dogs it happens once in their lifetime, while other dogs have this issue fairly often. Sometimes anal gland issues can also be associated with a food allergy.
One major preventative measure is giving your dog a diet that is balanced with higher fiber and ensuring they are well hydrated. If they are constipated, or have very soft stool, the constant straining can irritate the anal sacs. Having the right consistency of stool, often with a fresh food diet, will ensure that as the stool passes and that the anal sacs empty properly and are not irritated.
Most commercial dog foods do not have the right percent of fiber to help alleviate this issue. A fresh cooked diet such as the recipes by Kabo, are well balanced and include the right amount of natural fiber from fruits and vegetables.This helps to help keep stool the right consistency, to allow for proper anal sac empyting on a natural and regular basis. As a dog owner, it is important to remember that iet plays such an important role on the inside and outside of the gastrointestinal tract of dogs.