By Dr. Karen Becker DVM
The ‘What’ and ‘Why’ of Canine Anal Glands
Your dog’s anal glands or sacs are small and oval-shaped and sit just inside the rectum on either side of the anus at about the 8:00 and 4:00 o’clock positions. They’re located within the muscle of the anal sphincter and the tiny openings to the ducts aren’t easily visible along the anal mucosal junction.
The glands secrete an oily substance with a potent odor that humans perceive as unpleasant, to put it mildly. This fluid may function as a territorial marker in the world of canine communication, allowing dogs to leave personal biochemical information for other dogs to investigate.
When your dog poops, if the stool is of normal consistency, the oily fluid is expelled from the anal glands through tiny ducts and onto the feces. Anal glands empty from the pressure of the stool as it passes through the rectum and anus. This is a useful design of nature, but unfortunately, today’s dogs often have loose stools or irregular bowel movements that don’t provide sufficient pressure against the anal glands during evacuation.
“Scooting,” as the behavior is affectionately called, signals an itchy or irritated backside. Once in a great while, the problem is caused by tapeworms or other parasites in which case there are usually other symptoms such as weight loss, poor coat or skin condition, a distended or painful abdomen, or diarrhea.
You might also see worm segments near your dog’s anus, but other parasites that cause an itchy anus and an irritated rectum are microscopic and require a stool analysis for correct diagnosis.
Scooting can signal a problem like a perianal tumor or irritation caused by diarrhea or a perineal yeast infection, but most often the reason is an anal gland issue. Your dog is dragging or scooting her bottom across the floor to try to relieve the discomfort of inflamed, infected or impacted anal gland(s).
Impactions, Infections, Abscesses, and Tumors
When a dog’s anal sacs malfunction, it’s most commonly a problem of impaction. This occurs when the oily substance builds up in the glands and thickens and isn’t expressed, resulting in enlargement and irritation of the glands. Anal gland infections are usually bacterial in nature and cause irritation and inflammation. As the infection progresses, pus accumulates within the anal gland.
An anal gland abscess is the result of an unaddressed anal gland infection. The abscess will continue to grow in size until it eventually ruptures. My recommendation for these extreme cases is to infuse the anal glands with ozonated olive oil or silver sulfadiazine (diluted with colloidal silver).
Anal gland tumors, classified as adenocarcinomas, are usually malignant. Occasionally anal gland tumors cause elevations in blood calcium levels, which can result in significant organ damage, including kidney failure.
Other contributors to anal gland problems can include obesity where there is insufficient muscle tone and excess fatty tissue, certain skin disorders, and infections. But in my experience, the three most common causes of anal gland problems in dogs are diet resulting in loose stools, trauma to the glands, or the position of the glands.
Cleaning Up Your Dog’s Diet
The unnecessary carbohydrates found in commercial pet food are allergenic and inflammatory, especially to your dog’s digestive system. The last part of your dog’s digestive tract is her rectum, anus and anal glands, which tend to be excellent indicators of food-related irritation.
If your dog is experiencing recurrent anal gland issues it means there’s systemic inflammation present and the first thing you should do is address the most logical causes of inflammation, the first step being food. Eliminate excess inflammatory foods from her diet, including all sources of grains and legumes. Stop feeding any food that contains corn, potato, legumes, oatmeal, wheat, rice or soy.
I also recommend ordering a NutriScan test to identify food sensitivities, followed by a novel diet depending on the results of the scan. When a dog is having a reaction to something in her diet, her body needs a break from that food. After determining her food intolerance(s), my recommendation is to introduce a novel diet to promote healing. This means transitioning her to a different food she isn’t sensitive to made up of ingredients her body isn’t familiar with.
Unfortunately, many dog foods claiming to contain “novel proteins,” don’t. In addition, pet food mislabeling is a widespread problem, so if you’re planning to go with a commercially available processed novel diet, be aware it will almost undoubtedly contain ingredients you’re trying to avoid.
The very safest approach, especially for the first few months, is homecooked meals that allow you to control virtually everything that goes into your dog’s mouth. Second best is a human-grade commercially available fresh food containing an uncommon protein, produced by a company you trust.
A common reason for sudden anal gland issues is an episode of acute diarrhea. If there is suddenly no pressure from firm feces to expel the contents of the glands, secretions can accumulate quickly, leading to scooting.
If your dog’s poop is frequently unformed, soft, or watery, her anal sacs aren’t consistently getting the firm pressure they need to empty on a daily basis and recurrent scooting may be seen. Feeding a nutritionally optimal, species-specific diet will address both food sensitivities and intermittent poor stool consistency.
Adding probiotics, fiber (for example, 100% canned pumpkin or slippery elm powder) and digestive enzymes to her diet can also assist in creating consistently firm stools. Address an episode of loose stools immediately with these suggestions and a bland meal to correct the bowel imbalance before it creates anal gland issues.
If your dog has regular episodes of diarrhea, you need to investigate the root cause as soon as possible. The most common reason pets have poop issues are problems with their food. You can find an in-depth discussion of food sensitivities and the havoc they can wreak on your pet’s health here.
Has There Been Trauma to the Anal Glands?
Many injuries to dogs’ anal sacs are caused by well-meaning but misguided groomers, veterinarians, and even pet parents. Many groomers are in the habit of expressing the anal glands of every dog they groom, as a part of “included services,” along with cleaning ears and trimming nails.
Routine expression of healthy anal glands is unnecessary, unpleasant for both dog and human, and potentially harmful, so if you take your pet to a groomer, make sure to mention that no anal gland expression is necessary. Over time, regular manhandling of these little sacs can interfere with their ability to function as nature intended.
Some veterinarians offer anal sac expression as an included service for pets who are being anesthetized for some other procedure. In addition, many veterinarians immediately express the anal glands if the owner mentions their dog scoots now and then. This approach doesn’t identify or address the cause of the problem, only the symptom.
And then there are dog parents who feel it’s in their pet’s best interest to express their anal sacs on a regular basis. Just as manually draining other glands in your pet’s body is unthinkable, expressing healthy anal glands can create problems.
If your dog is having recurrent or chronic anal sac issues, it’s important to identify the root cause rather than repetitively treating the symptom by manually expressing the glands.
The anal sacs are delicate little organs that can be easily injured through squeezing and pinching. They were designed to function optimally without assistance. Trauma to the glands causes tissue damage and inflammation, which in turn causes swelling. Swollen glands can obstruct the exit duct through which the fluid is expressed. If blocked secretions build up and thicken in the glands, it can lead to impaction and anal gland infection.
Sometimes, the Problem Is Structural
Certain dogs have anal sacs that are located very deep inside their rectums. As stool collects in the colon, the pressure should cause the glands to empty. But if a dog’s anal glands aren’t adjacent to where the greatest amount of pressure builds in her large intestine, they won’t express properly.
This is a situation that may require surgery to correct because the location of the glands is dictated by genetics.
If your four-legged family member is having anal gland issues, your veterinarian should investigate thoroughly to determine the cause of the problem rather than just treating it symptomatically by manually expressing the glands.
It’s important to try to re-establish the tone and health of malfunctioning glands using a combination of dietary adjustments, homeopathic remedies, and natural GI anti-inflammatories. Sometimes manually infusing the glands with natural lubricants or herbal preparations can help return them to normal function.
The goal should be to resolve the underlying cause and return your pet’s anal glands to self-sufficiency. If your dog doesn’t have anal gland issues, I recommend telling both your groomer and your veterinarian to leave these little glands completely alone to avoid problems down the road.