There are countless wonderful things about dogs. Anal glands are not among those things.
There is really nothing to like about anal glands. But for better or for worse anal glands are a part of life for dogs and their owners. And owners of dogs need to know what they are and how they can cause problems for their pets. So let’s talk about those nasty glands.
Anal glands, as their name implies, are glands located adjacent to the anus. Each dog has a pair of them. They are relatively simple as far as glands go: They consist of a bulb and a duct. They produce a fluid with a a singular odor. It smells like a combination of rotting fish and feces. Once you have smelled it you will never forget it — so I hope you never smell it. Sadly, most dog owners’ noses have been tainted with the aroma of anal glands at some point or other.
The purpose of anal glands is somewhat debated. For some time the prevailing theory was that anal glands exist as proof that God hates us. However, most reputable experts now believe that anal glands serve to scent mark territory and feces. As such, anal glands appear to play a very significant role in the butt sniffing that is so common in our canine companions.
Under normal circumstances the anal glands produce and store their fluid. When the dog defecates the glands contract and some of the fluid is expressed through the duct and onto the feces. The feces, and the dog’s territory, are therefore scent marked.
Sometimes, however, things go wrong.
Dogs’ anal glands may empty spontaneously. This commonly is referred to as “shooting the glands” because the nasty fluid, with its concomitant strongly unpleasant odor, has a way of spraying onto nearby objects. Anything that causes fear, stress, or excitement may trigger a dog to shoot his glands. This appears to be linked to sudden contraction of the muscles in the area.
Many things unrelated to fear, stress, and excitement also tend to cause dogs to shoot their glands. Examples include being invited onto a new sofa or into a new car, being invited onto the bed for the first time, being in the presence of a person who is wearing especially fancy clothes (in which case the fluid will be directed onto the clothes), and the presence of guests (especially one’s boss or a new romantic interest) in the house. In these cases the cause of the anal gland release appears to be Murphy’s Law.
In the event of a dog shooting his glands, the people present can take solace in one (and only one) thing: The odor of anal glands is typically very transient and it therefore does not linger for too long.
In other instances dogs can suffer from a problem that is the opposite of spontaneous anal gland release. If a dog experiences abnormal bowel movements, the glands may not empty in their normal fashion. Or, if a piece of grit clogs the duct or if the anal gland fluid becomes abnormally thick, the glands may remain full during defecation.
These circumstances may result in distended (or impacted) anal glands. Nobody know precisely what this feels like, but it clearly causes some degree of discomfort in affected dogs. And it also may result in another unpleasant development: scooting.
A dog scoots by sitting on his rear with his hind legs straight out in front of him. He then drags his rear on the ground, often leaving an unsavory brown trail in his wake. Scooting is usually a sign of distended anal glands; however, it also may be triggered by new carpet, dinner parties, or being invited into a new friend’s house for the first time.
Dogs who scoot should have their anal glands checked and, if necessary, manually expressed. Some people do this at home, but most elect to have a vet or groomer do it since the most effective method involves inserting a finger into the dog’s anus.
Unfortunately, anal gland problems can progress beyond the merely unsavory albeit slightly comical scenarios described above. Because of their proximity to the anus, the glands are at high risk of infection if they become impacted. Infected anal glands can cause significant pain, which may be manifested by reluctance to defecate or wag the tail.
Severely infected anal glands can cause visible swelling and redness adjacent to the anus. The swelling can progress to the point that the gland bursts, leading to an unsightly gaping hole adjacent to the anus. Over the years I have had many panicked owners rush dogs with ruptured anal glands to my office under the impression that their dog had developed a second anus.
Mildly infected anal glands can often be treated with a combination of antibiotics and manual expression. Severely infected, or abscessed, glands often must be lanced in order for healing to occur. Ruptured glands generally must be cleansed and flushed. Fortunately, even ruptured glands usually heal and most often return to normal function.
Rare and unfortunate dogs develop chronic problems with their anal glands. It is possible to surgically remove the glands in these cases, but the procedure carries a relatively high rate of complications, including pain, infection, and fecal incontinence. I therefore recommend the surgery only if the dog’s anal gland problems are causing him to suffer significantly. The surgery should not be performed on dogs who simply scoot or shoot their glands more often than their owners would like.
Finally, some extremely unfortunate dogs develop malignant anal gland tumors. I am sorry to say that these tumors spread rapidly and are hard to remove. Like all malignant tumors, the best chance for successful treatment occurs if they are caught early. Therefore, any dog who appears to have something wrong with his most sensitive and private area should see the vet sooner rather than later.
Got a question for Dr. Barchas? Ask our vet in the comments below and your topic might be featured in an upcoming column. (Note that if you have an emergency situation, please see your own vet immediately!)
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