Your Pet’s Anal Gland Health: More Important Than You Think

Written by:

Ken Tudor, DVM
Published: December 29, 2015

You have friends over for your holiday party and your dog Muffy scoots across the living room carpet leaving an odor that clears the room. Or worse, your cat Morris keeps licking his rear and when you look under his tail there is a hole next to his anus that is bleeding profusely.

Both are experiencing a problem with anal gland health. For Morris the problem is more serious, but in both cases it is important to remember that dogs and cats need an anal gland wellness program. Anal glands need to be relieved, or “expressed,” periodically to avoid scooting or rupture—as in Morris’s case.

So what are these anal glands that caused Muffy to scoot and Morris to rupture and bleed?

Anal Gland Function

Anal glands are the scent glands of dogs and cats, located under the skin near the anal opening (potty port). If you used the clock as a reference the glands are located at 8 and 4 o’clock around the anus. These glands secrete a creamy substance that has a unique odor to other animals of the same species. Think of this odor being your pet’s name to other pets. This is why dogs and cats immediately sniff a new pet’s anal area. They are getting acquainted by learning their new friend’s name.

In the wild, dogs and cats often voluntarily express anal gland fluid to mark their territory. This alerts other dogs or cats that the space is off limits. Anal gland marking is far stronger than urine marking and is not easily “erased,” as is common when dogs and cats urinate where others have done the same. So why do pets scoot and why do the glands rupture?

Surrounding the anal glands are muscles that squeeze to release the anal gland fluid. With domestication and selective breeding many pets have lost the ability to voluntarily squeeze these muscles and empty their glands.

Obesity also plays a role. Approximately 60% of pets are obese. Fat accumulation around the muscles of the anal glands makes it very difficult for pets to “squeeze” the contents of the glands. They must scoot or lick to relieve the build-up of fluid. Fat accumulation around the anus makes scooting ineffective at expressing the contents of the anal glands. Excess fat makes it difficult for pets to reach their anus with their tongues to massage the sac contents out. The fluid accumulates to overflow, becomes inflamed, and ruptures spontaneously, like Morris’s glands. This is quite painful and secondary infection can be severe. Sometimes surgery is required to clean up the mess, but most respond to 2-3 weeks of antibiotic therapy. In all cases glands generally return to normal function.

Anal Gland Wellness

There is a common myth that diet has an impact on anal gland health. You have probably heard, read, or received information from the web that certain foods with certain amounts of fiber can promote a stool size that will regularly empty the anal glands. There is absolutely no scientific data to support this belief. The anatomy around the anus is so diverse and the force of stool exiting the anus so low that the idea of a universal food type and fiber content will solve the problem is misguided.

Some pets never need their anal glands professionally expressed; some need it weekly. Others fall in ranges from needing it weeks to months apart. What is important is finding the regular interval that meets your pet’s needs. For those needing weekly attention, the solution of surgically removing the gland may be a good alternative.

You need to know which interval is right for your pet because anal gland health is as important as other grooming health needs, and even vaccination health.

Don’t wait until you have to catch your pet scooting across the floor and wrecking your holiday party.

Dr. Ken Tudor

Image: Alan Levine / Flickr