Dogs and cats have anal glands (sacs) located under the skin on either side of the rectum in the 5 and 7 o’clock position. These small glands secrete a foul smelling fluid into the anal area via small ducts. In most cases glands empty naturally due to pressure from each bowel movement. Check out our video about anal glands!
What is the function of these glands?
There is some debate on the true function of anal glands in dogs and cats. One theory is that they serve as territory markers, and even relay information about sex and age. Another theory is that the anal gland secretion acts as a lubricant for hard stools so they pass more easily. Some people believe the glands are vestigial and have no real function as domesticated dogs and cats lack the ability to empty the glands on their own volition.
Do anal glands cause problems for dogs and cats?
Sometimes the anal glands do not empty normally. The reasons are varied but narrow ducts, obesity, chronic soft stools and allergies all may play a role. Small breed dogs have a greater incidence of problems than do large dog breeds and cats. When the anal glands do not empty normally the secretions becomes thicker. This in turn makes it mare difficult for the anal gland secretions to pass normally through the small ducts (tubes) into the anus. The end result can be impaction, and if impaction occurs the anal gland may burst resulting in an abscess (infection) under the skin.
How would I know if my dog or cat is having an anal gland problem?
When the anal glands fail to empty properly an uncomfortable or itchy sensation occurs. In dogs this can lead to licking at the anal area or scooting their rear end on the floor which may be an attempt to empty the glands or to relieve itching. If an abscess develops you may see a swelling or draining in the perianal area. In cats with impacted anal glands they sometimes become reluctant to use the litter box as they associate it with discomfort while defecating.
What should be done if we notice these symptoms in our dog or cat?
Initially the pet should be examined. If the anal glands are too full they can usually be expressed (emptied). If an abscess or infection is present this will need to be addressed, usually be establishing drainage (if not present) and treatment with antibiotics.
How are anal glands expressed (emptied)?
There are two main methods: The external method involves holding a paper towel or tissue up to the anus and gently squeezing with your thumb on one side of the anus and three fingers on the other. The full anal gland may feel like a grape under the skin. Sometimes it is not possible to express the glands using the external method. The internal method involves inserting a lubricated, gloved index finger into the anus and then isolating the gland between the thumb and index finger and gently squeezing. With the internal method each anal glands is expressed separately.
How often should my pet’s anal glands be expressed?
There is some debate but many veterinarians believe it is not a good idea to routinely express the anal glands if no symptoms are present. It is felt that there is a risk of damage to the gland or ducts doing the procedure doing this on a regular basis, and many pets do not have issues with their anal glands anyway.
If symptoms do develop then expressing the glands is warranted, and if the symptoms recur regularly then it may be wise to get on a schedule. Some pet owners are comfortable with being trained to do this at home. But since this can be challenging and is frequently messy, many prefer to have a vet tech do this at the clinic. If an infection is suspected an exam with a veterinarian is warranted.
Call our office if you have any questions.
Carl Anderson DVM