So what is an anal gland? Both dogs and cats have them. They are small glands that sit just inside the anus, not visible from the outside. They typically sit in about the 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions, with some variations, if you are looking at your dog’s anus from behind. Anal glands fill with a smelly fluid that has a very distinct odor. With the passage of normal firm stools, most dogs anal glands are expressed to the outside through a small opening in each gland. The odor helps dogs identify themselves and each other (hence why dogs tend to sniff each other’s rear end). For a pet owner, the odor is far from pleasant. Some dogs will express their glands in situations of fear or stress/ struggle. Some dogs have difficulty expressing their anal glands on their own, sometimes because they have softer stools, but sometimes there are other reasons. In general smaller dogs tend to have more problems with anal glands, as well as dogs that are obese, but any dog can have problems with them.
Common anal gland problems are difficulty expressing them, which leads to discomfort for the pet, anal gland impaction, infection, abscessation, and rupture. Signs that your pet is having a problem include scooting his or her rear on the floor, licking and biting at their rear end, and acting uncomfortable when sitting or posturing to defecate. Also, some owners will notice a fishy smell or find brown leakage on furniture or the dog’s bed. While not all dogs have these problems, most dogs need to have their anal glands expressed every so often, while others need it done regularly. Pet owners can learn to do this at home, but many people prefer their groomer, bather, or veterinarian to do it. Normal anal gland fluid can vary from pet to pet, but typically it is light brown to darker brown and relatively thin in consistency. Some dogs will have very thick secretions and are more likely to end up with impaction problems.
If the anal glands become too full it can lead to an abscess (swelling of the gland) which can lead to the gland rupturing on the outside of the anus (the above picture shows and abscessed gland that is about the rupture). Some owners do not realize the pet is having an issue until the gland ruptures and they find blood on the pet or the floor, etc. This needs to be treated by your veterinarian with antibiotics, flushing of the wound and often pain/ anti- inflammatory medications. Some pets have chronic problems with glands leading to fistulas. Anal glands can be removed surgically, but it is only recommended in extreme cases due to the difficulty of the surgery and possibility of complications.
Another less common issue with anal glands is an anal sac carcinoma, which is a malignant cancer. This is why it is important to have them checked if any symptoms of discomfort are present, although some animals with this cancer do not exhibit the typical symptoms.
To help prevent problems with the anal gland, have them checked by your veterinarian if you notice any of the above symptoms. Normally, if you take your pet to be bathed or groomed they will express the glands at that time. Cats also have anal glands, although they do not tend to have as many problems with them as dogs do. Cats can develop impaction, abscess and infection though, so it is important to monitor them for any symptoms, which could potentially include defecation outside of the litter box.
Written by Dr. Jennifer Hawthorne
Jennifer Hawthorne, DVM
Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice and In-Home Euthanasia
Dr. Jennifer helps families in the Mecklenburg, Cabarrus and Iredell counties including Charlotte, Concord, Kannapolis, Huntersville, Mooresville and more. Click here to read Dr. Jennifer's biography.