What Are Anal Gland Disorders in Cats?
Anal glands are small pouches inside a cat’s bottom on either side of the anus. Anal glands are also called anal sacs, because they are little sacs lined with glands that produce an odorous brown substance.
When a cat has a bowel movement, a little bit of the anal gland secretions is squeezed out with the feces. This unique odor, or “scent signature,” allows cats to readily identify one another’s excrement.
Anal gland disorders are not common in cats; however, some cats may struggle with anal gland impaction, which is when the cat’s anal glands become plugged up.
When a cat experiences anal gland impaction, the anal gland is unable to empty its contents and becomes swollen and painful. This can lead to severe discomfort in a cat. If they are unable to express the impacted sac, their anal gland can rupture.
Most anal gland disorders in cats are readily treated, but anal gland disorders can be a medical emergency. If your cat has an impacted or infected anal gland and is experiencing swelling, pain, or is not willing to eat or cannot get comfortable, seek veterinary care immediately.
Types of Anal Gland Disorders in Cats
Anal gland impaction—The blocking of the anal glands. This is caused by the overaccumulation of liquid inside the glands and its inability to be discharged.
Anal gland abscess—A painful, inflamed swelling on one or both sides of the anus. This is caused by an infection in the anal glands.
Anal gland rupture—The bursting of the abscess on the anal glands. This is caused by an untreated infection and the building pressure of fluid inside the anal glands.
Anal gland cancer—The overproduction of abnormal cells within the anal glands, which can cause a tumor to grow within the anal sacs.
Symptoms of Anal Gland Disorders in Cats
Symptoms of anal gland disorders in cats may include:
Redness or swelling of the rear end near the anus
Chewing, biting, or licking at the anus or tail
Licking or pulling hair from their back end or tail if unable to reach their anus
Draining or oozing wound near the anus
Discomfort or pain when sitting or having bowel movements
Hard swellings on either side of the anus
Causes of Anal Gland Disorders in Cats
Anal gland impaction occurs when the little duct that drains the sac gets plugged up. Often this is the result of an infection by bacteria.
There are always bacteria in poop. Sometimes, strains of bacteria can overgrow, or the bacteria can travel the opposite direction through the ducts to the anal sac.
Usually this is not problematic, as it is just expelled from the sac when it empties.
If the bacteria lead to inflammation or irritation of the duct however, then the sac cannot empty and it serves as a perfect breeding ground for the bacteria to rapidly multiply.
This can lead to infection of the anal sac and formation of an abscess, or large pocket filled with pus. Abscesses cause a lot of pain and swelling until they rupture, leaving a draining wound or sore in their wake.
Cancer in the anal glands is rare in cats and has a suspected genetic component, with Siamese and Burmese breeds having a higher incidence rate. The most common type of cancer seen in the anal gland is anal sac adenocarcinoma.
Normal emptying of the sac is triggered by exercise and passage of stool out of the anus. Obese cats are more likely to struggle with delayed emptying of their anal sacs than cats with a healthy body condition score.
Overweight cats tend to exercise less, and thus have less natural emptying of the sacs. Additionally, their extra weight can compress the duct openings, making emptying more challenging.
If a cat does not have enough fiber in their diet they can also struggle with soft stools, which affects emptying.
Sometimes, genetics plays a role in a cat having tiny openings of their ducts. That means they can more readily become impacted even if your cat has a healthy weight and a good diet.
How Veterinarians Diagnose Anal Gland Disorders in Cats
Your veterinarian will start by doing a thorough physical exam. After donning gloves, your vet will palpate (feel) each anal gland in your cat’s rear end.
Anal gland disorders can be very painful in cats. If possible, your vet will want to express the anal glands by applying gentle pressure to empty their contents. Don’t be alarmed if your cat seems upset by the procedure.
Sometimes sedation is necessary if they are too impacted and/or painful, or if a cat is fractious and will not allow a thorough exam.
Most anal gland disorders are diagnosed with a physical exam. If there is a draining sore or wound associated with an anal sac, your veterinarian may elect to do impression smears where they get some of the discharge and look at it under the microscope to identify bacteria.
They may also elect to culture the drainage to determine the best antibiotic to clear the infection.
If a mass is felt associated with the anal sac, they may remove some of the cells in the mass, then look at the cells under the microscope or send them to a lab for further study. Biopsies may be required if cancer is suspected.
Treatment of Anal Gland Disorders in Cats
Treatment of anal gland disorder in cats is geared toward restoring normal function of the anal gland.
If your cat’s anal gland is impacted, treatment may be as simple as manually expressing the gland to empty its contents by hand.
Sometimes this requires an infusion to soften the material in the sac if the contents are too hard and dry to be expelled.
Sedation may be necessary if the anal gland area is especially swollen, tender or painful. Most of the time this procedure can be done with no need for your cat to be hospitalized.
Your veterinarian will then most likely recommend that your cat get on a regular schedule to have their anal glands expressed to prevent future anal gland impaction.
If the anal sac has ruptured, then your cat may need wound care in addition to antibiotics.
Very rarely, such as in the case of cancer or chronic infection issues, surgery is recommended to remove the anal gland.
Recovery and Management of Anal Gland Disorders in Cats
Most cats with anal gland disorders respond well to treatment and recover quickly after their anal glands are emptied. Occasionally, like in the case of a ruptured anal gland, they may require additional veterinary visits for wound care during the healing process.
A recovery cone is helpful to prevent your cat from licking/chewing at the wound.
Sometimes, topical products are recommended during wound care. Be sure to use a recovery cone if a topical is being used so that your cat doesn’t ingest the medication.
Never use any products on open wounds without talking to your veterinarian about it first.
Prevention of Anal Gland Disorders in Cats
With nutrition and obesity linked to anal gland disorders in the cats, the best thing you can do as a pet parent to prevent problems with the anal glands is to feed a healthy diet and keep your cat at their optimum body condition.
Several supplements contain fiber and probiotics that may benefit a cat with anal gland disorders. Glandex® for Cats comes in a powder that you can sprinkle on their food to make administration easy.
If your cat has been diagnosed with an anal gland disorder , keep them on a regular schedule to have their anal glands expressed to prevent anal gland impaction.
Anal Gland Disorders in Cats FAQs
How can you tell if a cat needs their glands expressed?
Cats that need their anal glands expressed will often lick or chew their rear ends.
Sometimes they will pluck hair off their back ends or even their tail. They will occasionally scoot, and sometimes swelling can be seen on either side of the anus.
Can you home-treat an anal gland abscess rupture?
Anal gland abscesses that rupture usually need to be addressed by a veterinarian because antibiotics may be needed to facilitate recovery.
What are impacted anal glands in cats?
Impacted anal glands cannot empty normally and require intervention to have them expressed by hand.
Featured Image: mediaphotos/iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images
Corbee R, et al. A Cross-Sectional Study on Canine and Feline Anal Sac Disease. Animals. 021;12(1):95
Shoieb A, Hanshaw D. Anal Sac Gland Carcinoma in 64 Cats in the United Kingdom. Veterinary Pathology. 2007;46(1):677–83.
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