One of the most common problems small animal vets see in dogs, almost daily, is anal gland trouble. Although cats have anal glands too, they rarely cause trouble.
All dogs have two anal glands (or anal sacs) situated just inside the rectum, one on each side. The cells which line the glands produce a foul-smelling substance which dogs use as a territory- marking device. When the dog passes faeces, the anal glands get squeezed and the scent is deposited as well. The normal anal gland is about the size of a pea in a small dog or a grape in a larger dog, depending how full it is. The anal gland secretion travels down a short tube or duct to enter the rectum. It can be liquid or more like a paste in texture.
When everything is working properly, the anal glands empty naturally and cause no trouble. Unfortunately it is quite common for the glands to become over-full or for the duct to become blocked, and then they cause discomfort. When they do not empty naturally, they are described as impacted and the condition is called anal gland saculitis. The dog will then try to lick at the area or will “scoot” their bottom along the ground in an attempt to relieve the irritation. This may well make things worse and allow infection to enter, leading to an abscess. If things get this bad, the main sign will be pain, or a blood-stained discharge if it bursts.
Dogs who suffer from this problem regularly will tend to show similar symptoms each time. As well as scooting or licking under their tail, dogs which cannot easily reach the area may chew themselves on their back or their feet instead. Sometimes the first sign of trouble is a distinctive and very unpleasant fishy smell. Owners will usually recognise the signs in their own dog and have the glands emptied promptly by their groomer or vet.
Luckily the anal glands can be emptied fairly easily once the knack has been acquired, and as long as there is no infection present, this will be all that’s necessary. If an owner feels confident to do this job themselves, they could ask the vet to show them how to do it. It is not the nicest job in the world, because of the smell and because of the uncanny ability of the contents to squirt in unexpected directions! On the other hand, it is quite rewarding to bring almost instant relief to the dog in most cases.
If an abscess forms, it may have to be lanced and flushed out, and antibiotics will be needed. Pain-killers may also be advised as an abscess is very painful.
When anal glands cause repeated problems it is sometimes advisable to have them surgically removed under anaesthetic by your vet. Like any other operation, the advantages of this type of surgery need to be weighed up against the possible risks. It would not be recommended in cases where symptoms are mild and easily sorted out by manual emptying.
Prevention may be possible by changing the diet or increasing the amount of fibre to make the dog’s stool firmer, for example by adding bran to the diet. Anything which causes a soft or runny stool can cause anal gland problems.
Further advice can be obtained from your own veterinary surgery.
Jenny Sheriff BVM&S MRCVS