Anal glands! Dogs have them. Cats have them.
Humans, thank God, don’t have them.
Some dogs have a lifetime of trouble with them, and need them expressed (emptied out) often. Other dogs act like they don’t even have them. What gives?
First off, a little anatomy. Anal glands produce a stinky, almost fishy smelling fluid, that is contained in the anal sac. Dogs and cats have two anal sacs. If you look at your pet from behind, they are at about 4:00 and 8:00 on the anus. You can’t see them though – they are under the skin, nicely incorporated with the rest of the pooping apparatus.
These sacs can become filled with the lovely fluid produced by the glands. There is no official name for this fluid, and most vets I know refer to it as “anal juice” or some derivative there-of. In theory, when a dog or cat defecates, a little bit of this fluid comes out, and the fluid does not build up in the anal sacs. Each sac has a small opening toward the center of the anus for the fluid to exit.
Some dogs have a design flaw, particularly beagles, pugs, and many small breed dogs. Don’t drop your guard though – ANY dog or cat can have anal sac problems! Instead of the fluid gradually coming out, it builds up, and it is VERY uncomfortable.
Imagine two giant blisters in your butt that need to be popped. It’s kinda like that. At least that’s what my patients tell me.
If you see your dog licking his or her anal area excessively, this could be the cause. Or if your dog is scooting his bum across the floor, he’s a suspect. Sure, there are other possibilities as well for this anal discomfort (parasites, food allergy, etc) but it’s best to get the anal glands checked first. Easy to check, and a fast fix if that is the problem!
OK, so your dog or cat is really licking back there. What happens when you go to the vet? This is the part of my day when I think “I’m so glad I’m six-figures in debt so I can do THIS!”
First, your vet will likely take your pet to the back for this. Not that there is any major secret, but because the smell of the fluid from these glands is so foul and potent, the exam room will pretty much be unusable for a few hours if we do it in the room! In a housecall setting, I try to do them outside for similar reasons.
Your vet will “express the anal glands.” Kinda ironic, since it isn’t the glands, but the sacs we are actually expressing (squeezing/emptying). Still for some reason, it’s come to be known as an “anal gland expression” in a lot of clinics. Your vet will insert her (gloved!) finger up your dog’s anus (no, we don’t make a lot of friends doing this) and gently squeeze each gland to empty out the contents. Sometimes the contents are very thick, like toothpaste, and other times they are very watery. This is a hazardous procedure for the veterinarian, as some of these glands can really squirt when expressed! Every vet has, at some point, gotten anal gland fluid in her mouth, eyes, or in her hair. Then you smell the rest of the day. Back to that whole “I love my job” thing.
My personal record was squirting anal gland contents on the ceiling. It was not on purpose! I just squeezed, and they were SO full, and the angle was just right…. We kept cleaning the room and couldn’t figure out why it still smelled until we looked up…..
Groomers can express anal glands as well. They do not use the same technique as your vet, but do a pinch from the outside. Some dogs can even express their own! Fear can do that (some dogs express them during nail trims at the vet clinic), or some can just lick themselves until the contents come out. I’d recommend no kisses after that. For some dogs these work well, while other dogs that just doesn’t cut it, and they need the more thorough, veterinary technique.
And finally, anal sacs can become infected. Those are very frustrating, as it can take weeks for the infection to resolve. Your vet can tell right away if the sacs have abscessed, because they are very painful, and the contents are bloody. These dogs are usually licking his rear pretty much every waking moment, and some owners notice blood where the dog was sitting.
Bottom line – anal sacs that are full are way uncomfortable! If your dog is licking or scooting, have the vet check the anal glands. If they are full, your dog will have instant relief from them being emptied!