Most non dog owners will never have heard of an anal gland but, for us pet parents, they can be quite important. For some individual pets, anal glands can become problematic and it is important that owners are aware of what they are and what can go wrong with them.
As humans do not have anal glands, many of us are unfamiliar with what they are. They are small sacs; about the size of a cherry, that sit inside the anus. If we were to say the anus was a clock face, the glands are found at about 4 and 8 o’clock.
The sacs are lined with sebaceous glands and they produce a strong, foul-smelling liquid that dogs use to mark territory and communicate with other dogs in the vicinity.
Anal glands cannot be seen externally and can only be felt by inserting fingers into the anus. This is done with a gloved hand, using lubricant to minimise discomfort.
One of the quintessential signs of anal gland issues is ‘the scoot’. Scooting or bum dragging is a dog’s way of trying to relieve the irritation they are feeling. Many owners mistakenly assume that this is a sign of worms, but it is simply an indication that the anal area is very irritated.
You might notice your dog sitting down abruptly and/or quickly looking behind them with an alert or concerned expression on their face.
A swelling may be visible around the anus and we might also detect a fishy smelling, brown discharge being leaked from the anus.
Some dogs will stretch to lick and chew at their back end. While some can reach, others may lick and chew their rump and legs instead. This can lead to fur loss and red skin.
We see anal gland issues much more commonly in small breeds, due to their conformation. They seem to be more prone to narrow openings of the anal glands. Obese dogs are also at higher risk. This is thought to be due to them having weaker muscles.
It is relatively uncommon for larger breeds to suffer with chronic anal gland issues, but it certainly happens.
Pedigree dogs are at highest risk. This is likely due to the fact that atopic dermatitis (allergies) is more common in these dogs and anal gland issues go hand in hand with atopy.
Anal glands will need to be squeezed and emptied if they are impacted. This is something owners can be taught to safely do at home. We should only empty glands that require emptying; if the dog has no anal gland issues, there is no need to empty them.
Many owners are (understandably) not confident to empty the glands at home and this is always something a vet will be happy to do. Some dogs require their glands to be emptied very regularly (every 4 to 6 weeks), while others may only need it a few times in their life.
If there is an infection, the dog will need a course of antibiotics and anti inflammatories.
A dog who is licking at their back end due to the discomfort should be given a buster collar to protect the surrounding skin and tissue.
Uncommonly, surgery is needed to treat ongoing anal gland issues, particularly if they cannot be managed medically and are significantly affecting a dog’s quality of life.
Thankfully, there are lots of things we can do to help prevent anal gland issues. This includes:
Your dog will usually let you know something is amiss by scooting their bum along the ground and stopping abruptly to look quickly at their back end. They may also lick or chew obsessively at their back end.
Full anal glands cause discomfort and can quickly become infected, leading to an abscess forming. If not treated on time, the abscess can burst out onto the skin.
Most dogs never need their glands expressed. The fluid is released naturally when they pass stool. However, some dogs will need their glands emptied for them. This can be an infrequent occurrence (once or twice a year) or something that is done every 4-6 weeks. It all depends on the individual.