Both dogs and cats have anal glands, which are typically the size of a small grape. The anal glands are a pair of small sacs that sit just inside the anus.
They normally release a few drops of thick, foul-smelling, oily marking fluid whenever your pet defecates, as a way of marking their territory.
It is why many dogs will sniff other dogs’ rear ends when they meet, often standing erect and trying to swap the smells. Dogs may also sniff dog poo which has been left in public places by irresponsible owners.
Usually, dog anal glands empty of their own accord when your dog defecates. But their poo has to be firm in order to assert pressure on the sacs.
If their anal gland sacs aren’t emptied regularly, the glands can become overfilled, blocked or irritated. They are internal, so can’t be viewed by owners, yet cause a lot of discomfort for your pet.
It is most common in canines but can occur in cats too.
How do dogs empty their anal glands?
Usually, your dog can deal with this fluid naturally. When they pass ordinary, firm and easy to rid stools, the glands can contract and empty along with the stools.
This fluid can actually act as a natural lubricant for your dog’s anal opening, making it easier to pass their waste.
Most mammals have long lost the ability to express the sacs at their own will, but the most famous which still has this ability is the skunk
When dogs are stressed, they may also empty, which can create a pungent smell. If your dog has ever got incredibly nervous, such as at the vet, you may have smelt a horrid fishy scent in response.
How can I tell if there is an issue with my dog’s anal glands?
You may have noticed your dog scooting along the floor as though they were cleaning their back end after going to the toilet. While they can clean their bottoms this way, it is actually typically seen when their anus is irritated. This can happen for a number of reasons, but anal gland impaction is a common reason.
They are also commonly found to try and lick the area. This behaviour is meant to try and relieve pressure on the area.
You may also notice a slightly fishy or foul odour coming from your dog as they walk past, or after having been sat down if they have left a mark.
Other signals include struggling to defecate, discomfort when walking or standing, or redness around their rear end.
These can often be a signal of something else as well. So if there is no scooting or licking but they are showing one of these three symptoms, you should still get them checked out.
Causes of dog anal gland impactions
The most common reason why your dog may suffer from anal sac issues is because of a poor diet.
If they are not able to go to the toilet regularly because they are not getting the correct nutrition to produce hard, easy to pass stools, then their glands will not empty naturally.
Soft stools and diarrhoea do not place enough pressure on the rectum walls. So, the sacs cannot empty of their own accord. After a few days, it can start to cause issues.
If your dog has had an upset stomach and diarrhoea for a while, there is a chance they could be having issues with their anal glands.
If your dog has any allergies, it may also struggle with this. Atopy is a common cause, which is red and inflamed skin that can often manifest around your dog’s anus as well as on ears, belly and paws.
Any allergies to food can also cause an upset digestive system. This again will mean irregular stools. Low thyroid issues and obesity may also cause this.
If your dog’s anal sacs have regularly been emptied unnecessarily, it could cause thick scar tissue to develop as a way to heal the gland if it has been damaged in any way.
Ensure your groomer knows not to empty anal sacs with every visit
Overweight dogs can also suffer, as they have fewer muscles around the anal area.
Unfortunately, some dogs are simply biologically prone to problematic anal sacs too. If they are positioned abnormally, such as too low or too far in, they can struggle to empty naturally. Smaller dogs are often more prone to problems too.
What you can do to help at home
The main way you can improve your dog’s anal gland situation is by giving them a good, balanced diet. High-quality ingredients, with the right amount of nutrients, should produce regular, hard stools.
Fibre is essential for healthy dog digestion – just like with humans
There are anal gland supplements out there, which can improve your dog’s daily intake of fibre. Keep an eye on their toilet habits at all times, so you can spot any issues (which includes worms or diarrhoea).
Talk to your vet if you are concerned about your dog’s diet. They can recommend high-quality food with good fibre content, specifically created for top digestive performance.
Secreting your dog’s anal sacs at home is not recommended. It can be messy, is uncomfortable and possibly painful for them, and can be hard to press in the right place.
Plus, placing pressure on these sacs when it isn’t actually needed could cause a rupture or bleeding, and lead to difficulties in future as mentioned above.
You are best left to spot the issue, and then take them to the vet.
When to take your dog to the vet with anal impaction
Scooting may seem funny at first, with videos of dogs seemingly dancing to pop music going viral. But actually, at the first sign of scooting or discomfort, reach for your phone to ring your vet rather than record it.
Your vet will have to express their glands manually if the issue persists. Make your vet aware of the issue, and they will give you a timeline and other signs to look out for based on your dog’s breed, size and age.
An expression can be painful for some dogs, so they may have to be anaesthetised or placed on pain relief in order to carry this out.
If left untreated, swollen anal sacs can lead to infections such as an anal gland abscess. This will require a prescription of antibiotics, and possibly a minor operation to drain the abscess.
This abscess could be on the outside of your pet, in which case you will be able to see it. Through regular behaviour, if left untreated, this could burst and produce blood and puss.
Should I regularly empty my dog’s anal glands?
Never interfere with anal glands unless there’s an obvious issue. Only have them examined if they are causing discomfort. So, if a groomer asks if you want this service, say no.
Anal gland issues in cats
As mentioned, cats also have anal glands. While issues with these are less common, they can still be hard to spot.
Cats are very good at masking any symptoms of illness, so you will usually not get the scooting and uncomfortable behaviour as with dogs.
The most common way to spot if there is an issue is if your cat usually uses a litterbox, but starts going outside of the litter box or straining when going to the toilet. If they go to the toilet outside, this could prove difficult.
Any signs your cat is in discomfort and you should take them to the vet.