What, where, why…the yucky stuff!
Anal glands are two small scent glands, located under the skin on
either side of the rectum. They are present in both dogs and cats. They
can reach the size of small grapes when full of secretion, and are
connected to the mucosal edge of the rectum by two small ducts. They are
designed to empty their secretion onto the animal’s bowel motions, being
stimulated to contract by the stretching of the anal sphincter muscle
when stools are passed. If your dog has never had a problem with them,
you are unlikely to know they even exist.
In the canine world, dogs mark out their territorial boundary
using their urine (which is also scented), and faeces. The unique scent
produced by each dog’s anal glands sends out a clear message as to
“who’s turf you are on”. The scent produced by the animal’s anal gland
is totally unique to that animal, (as
unique as a human’s fingerprint) and acts as an identifier to other
dogs. Given that a dog’s sense of smell is over 10,000 times greater
than a human’s, it makes sense that such a strong smell to we humans (if
you are familiar with the “potent” smell of anal gland secretion) must
be incredibly powerful to a dog. This is also the reason why when
unfamiliar dogs meet, they always indulge in session of tail lifting and
bottom sniffing….the canine equivalent of a hand shake and formal
Anal gland blockage, or infection, is a common problem in domestic
dogs, and occasionally in cats. The classic signs of anal gland problems
in dogs, is “scooting”. Scooting is the term used to describe a dog when
it drags it’s bottom along the ground. This is commonly mistaken as a
sign of worms (tapeworm infestation can occasionally cause scooting),
but is far more likely to be anal gland irritation. Dogs will also lick
and chew at the base of their tail, or around the general area of the
rectum, in an attempt to relieve the irritation. If an anal gland
becomes blocked, the secretion continues to build up in the gland,
causing it to swell, and become painful. If it remains blocked for a
long enough period of time, it will become infected, and can continue on
to burst, and form an anal gland abscess.
Recurring anal gland blockage is also increasingly common. As a
general rule, it is relatively easy for your vet to diagnose, and may
often be noticed during a routine check up or vaccination. Expressing,
or unblocking, the gland(s) is an unpleasant job, for both dog, owner,
and veterinarian. It is achieved by physically squeezing the glands,
either externally, or per rectum, and manually removing the secretion
build up. It can be quite painful for the dog, if the glands are very
blocked, or infected. And the smell…aaaagh !! ....it doesn’t get much
worse, and I’ve smelt some pretty bad things, as a vet!
Once the glands have been expressed, the signs of irritation will
usually disappear quickly, unless they are all ready infected. But it is
unfortunately common that they can be blocked and full again within
months. If infection has occurred, there can be permanent changes and
scarring of the gland and ducts, that can prevent normal emptying. These
dogs end up with chronic anal gland problems, and can be regular
visitors to the vet clinic.
If your dog has developed chronic infection and / or blockage of the
anal glands, there are only a few alternatives. A normal course of
antibiotics does little to clear up anal gland infections, because the
gland has very little blood supply, and the source of the infection (the
secretion) is constant.
Your vet may offer to flush out the anal glands, under sedation or
anaesthetic, and implant an antibiotic directly into the glands. This
can work about 50% of the time. If it doesn’t work, or the problem is
obviously too severe, then the only other choice is to surgically remove
the glands. This procedure is not easy, and not without potential
To remove the glands under surgical anaesthesia, first they are emptied,
and then filled with a quick set gel, via the ducts. They are then
carefully dissected out, using the gel to outline the gland. Leaving
even a small piece of glandular tissue can result in ongoing problems.
Also, due to their proximity to the anal sphincter muscle, any damage to
this muscle during surgery, can result in ongoing faecal incontinence,
which is obviously disatrous.
Like most diseases, prevention is better than cure. But even for the
badly affected dogs out there, there are a few simple tricks that can
The key to correcting anal gland dysfunction, is to understand what is
going wrong. The principle cause of dysfunction is improper emptying of
the glands. It is a lack of stimulation to the glands, to fully empty.
This, quite simply, is caused by a lack of faecal bulk. Without correct
faecal bulk, the anal sphincter muscle is not stretched, and the glands
are not forced to empty.
This lack of faecal bulk has been caused by two major changes to the
average domestic dog’s lifestyle. Firstly, the confinement of modern
dogs, to the average back yard, has significantly reduced the normal
roaming and scavenging habits of dog’s. A wild dog will eat an
incredible range of indigestible material every day, including bark,
wood, vegetation, clay and soil, feathers and fur, bones...etc. A vast
amount of this material is passed by the dog in it’s daily faeces. The
resultant faecal motions are large and firm, and cause full stretching
of the anal sphincter, and complete anal gland emptying. The second
major change to modern dog’s has been the introduction of commercial pet
foods. These processed diets are extremely low in residual faecal bulk
and consistency (most readers I am sure, can relate to a tin of food
going in, and coming, out looking the same). In fact, many premium dog
foods are designed specifically to reduce faecal volume…how convenient.
But at what price?
It is precisely this lack of stool bulk, normally provided by a dog’s
natural scavenging habits, and raw food diet, that is resulting in the
anal gland epidemic we face today in veterinary medicine.
So the simplest answer to correcting anal gland dysfunction is to
bulk. Raw bones provide an excellent natural source of faecal bulking.
The digestion of raw bones produces those characteristic hard “white”
dog motions you often see. If you feed bones every other day, your dogs
are extremely unlikely to get anal gland problems. The other very simple
form of faecal bulk I use, is whole grain oats and vegetables. Whole
oats and vegetable fibre are indigestible, and will pass through a dog’s
digestive tract and appear in the faeces. Using a natural diet like
Vets All Natural Complete Mix, or even adding a tablespoon of whole oats
(husk and all) to any soft food diet, will create good firm stools at
the other end. The end result, pardon the pun, will be normal
functioning anal glands.
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