Have you thought about your dog’s anal glands lately?
When we imagine bringing our furry family member home from the shelter or breeder, we envision a life of playing catch, snuggling on the couch, and long, relaxing walks. Nobody daydreams about anal glands.
But anal glands and anal gland health are a very real part of life with dogs. It may not be as fun as picking out that shiny new collar, but expressing your dog’s anal glands may keep your dog feeling great so he or she can enjoy the more exciting parts of life with you!
What are anal glands?
Your dog’s anal glands are actually a big part of his or her identity. Located on either side of your dog’s anus (at approximately “4 o’clock” and “8 o’clock”), they are glands that impart your dog’s unique scent when they defecate. So, in a healthy dog, the glands excrete a strong-smelling fluid that marks their poop as their own. When dogs meet each other by sniffing each other’s butts, they are getting a sniff of each dog’s special scent.
If your dog’s anal glands are working well, fluid flows into the glands or sacs, and is excreted efficiently during bowel movements. Apart from some pungent odors — even healthy glands don’t smell like roses — your dog should not exhibit any signs of discomfort. The fluid should not fill the anal glands to the point of feeling discomfort, swelling, or in worst cases, bursting.
However this isn’t always the case with modern, domesticated canines. Because dogs’ diets, activity levels, and genetics have changed over generations to reflect domesticated life, the vestigial (no longer needed for survival) anal glands can become impacted, abscessed, even entirely non-functioning. All of which can lead to varying degrees of discomfort for your dog.
What causes your dog’s anal glands to “malfunction”? How can you help prevent it?
In many cases anal glands do not excrete properly due to a diet lacking in fiber and roughage resulting in soft stools. If a dog’s stool is too soft, the glands do not receive adequate pressure from defecation to expel anal gland fluid. A firmer stool puts pressure on the glands during defecation.
Dogs on a high carbohydrate diets heavy in grains may experience anal gland impaction. Foods that have the primary ingredients listed as corn, soy, wheat, or potatoes can contribute to soft stools thus contributing to anal gland impaction. Some dogs suffering from anal gland issues benefit from switching to a grain free or low carbohydrate diet. Dogs on a raw or biologically appropriate diet also tend to have firmer stools. Adding raw meaty bones (never cooked bones!) into your dog’s diet can also greatly aid the firmness of their stool (raw meaty bones being part of a balanced raw or biologically appropriate diet).
Plainly, your dog’s poop is a strong indication of your dog’s health. If your dog’s stools are consistently soft, “messy”, or watery, it might be time to consult your vet about a diet change.
Obesity can also be a cause of anal gland malfunction in a dog. If your dog is very overweight, the skin may fold into or over the anal glands pushing them deeper into the flesh of your dog. In this case, the anal glands may get blocked or be unable to properly expel fluid. Again, the long-term solution to this is to alter your dog’s diet and exercise in order to lose weight, but in the short term you, or a professional may need to express your dog’s anal glands.
Injury to your dog’s spine and/or pelvic region (be it skeletal or muscular) can also inhibit or completely stop natural anal gland excretion. In this case the only choice may be to manually express your dog’s anal glands in order to avoid problems. Whether your dog suffers an acute or chronic injury, be sure that enquiry into your dog’s future anal gland health is part of the conversation with your vet.
While ideally your dog’s anal glands are expressed naturally through defecation, it is not uncommon for many dogs to need some help.
What are the symptoms of an anal gland issue?
Scooting. While most dogs will do this from time to time (might be a signal to add more fiber into their diet!), if your dog is doing this a lot, it might be indicative of an anal gland issue. However, if you are “new” to anal glands, definitely consult your vet first before attempting to express them yourself or asking a groomer to express them.
Licking or nipping at bottom, tail chasing. If your dog’s anal glands have become impacted and irritated, your dog may start paying extra attention to their backside. Contact your vet immediately, as the problem, if left untreated could quickly escalate from blockage to infection or abscess, causing your dog a lot of pain and potentially permanent damage.
Bumps and bulges, redness. If you notice any new lumps, bumps, or swelling on your dog’s rear-end, it should certainly be checked out by a vet. The glands may or may not be painful to touch, but if your dog’s anal gland region looks inflamed or swollen, there’s a good chance the glands are impacted.
Problems in defecating. If a dog appears to be straining or suffering discomfort while defecating, it might be a symptom of anal gland impaction or infection. If the glands are causing your dog pain, pooping may be an entirely unpleasant experience. Of course, any time your dog exhibits distress when either urinating or defecating, the vet should immediately be called. Also, beware of impacted anal glands after a bout of diarrhea, as the soft stool probably did not express the glands properly.
Stinky odor. If a bad, “fishy”, “rotten”, pungent odor is emanating from your dog’s backside, it is very likely an anal gland issue. While a healthy dog will express this foul liquid during defecation, if there is infection and/or impaction present, the fluid might be built-up and unable to escape without veterinary intervention.
NOTE: Be sure to consult with your vet the underlying issue for your dog’s anal gland problems. If your otherwise healthy dog suddenly, rather inexplicably suffers from problems with their anal glands, there might be something else going on. Problems from diet to even tumors could be the culprit, and unless explored the condition could persist and even get worse.
Expressing Anal Glands: A Personal Experience
Anal gland expression is a very common thing among dog owners. While it probably won’t be your favorite thing to do with your dog, it doesn’t have to be a bad experience.
If you and your vet decide that your dog’s anal glands need to be manually expressed at regular intervals, you need to decide if you are going to do it yourself or have a vet or groomer do it. Many groomers will express your dog’s anal glands at every grooming, unless you specify not to. Be sure you know how often is right for your dog.
Our very own Joanna, Calvin & Susie’s General Manager, has become our in-house “anal gland advocate”. Passionate about canine anal gland health, Joanna is always more than happy to talk about how she takes care of her dogs’ anal glands.
Expressing your dog’s anal glands may or may not be right for you, but if you do decide to explore that option, Joanna’s experience might help make you less “squeamish”!
Joanna, how do you go about expressing your dogs’ anal glands?
Joanna: I usually do it before I give my dogs a bath because the discharge is pretty foul and it can get messy when it squirts out. I lift up the dog’s tail and cover the anus with a piece of folded paper towel. (The sacks are located to the left and to the right of the anus.) Then with the paper towel, I use my index finger and thumb to push in, up and out. I do this about 2 times to make sure the anal glands are empty.
Is it hard to do?
Joanna: It’s quick and it gets easier with practice. The dogs may not like it since you have to lift up their tail and push your fingers into their anus. (I don’t know anyone who would be happy with that!)
And if you’re not comfortable doing it on your own then you should ask your vet for assistance. But it is something that needs to get done whether it be naturally, or through owners or vets [or groomers]. If the anal glands get impacted then the dogs may need surgery to clear them.
When did you realize that anal gland expression was an important part of dog care?
Joanna: Being a first time dog parent, I didn’t realize that expressing anal glands was something that I had to do until I saw my dog Max scooting on the ground and biting his tail and his back area.
He was biting his back area so much that a sore developed in that area. I took him to the vet to address the sore and that’s when he told me that Max’s anal glands were full. The vet said that it’s really itchy for the dogs if they have full anal glands, and that’s what causes them to scoot and bite their back area. After the vet expressed and emptied Max’s anal glands, I noticed that the scooting and biting subsided.
Thank you Joanna for sharing your experience with us! It’s always encouraging to have an experienced pet parent explain the less “glamorous” aspects of pet care.
And in case you want to see anal gland expression in action, here is a video from Full Circle Veterinary Care that demonstrates anal gland expression and offers some helpful information.
Life with pets can be messy sometimes, but any devoted pet parent will agree that getting your hands dirty (or stinky) sometimes, is always worth it to have a happy, healthy pet!
Woof! Woof! Meow!
~Your Loyal Calvin & Susie Blogger
Note: Always check with your vet before making any changes to your pet’s diet or lifestyle. The Calvin & Susie Blogger always researches to the best of her ability, but she is not a vet. This blog is not in any way meant to replace veterinary advice or care. When in doubt, always ask a vet.
“Dog Butt” photo via Flickr/Creative Commons License