Many mammals, including cats, have special glands called anal glands or sacs located around their rectum. These glands typically go unnoticed until a cat owner smells the secretions from the glands or there is an issue with them. Knowing the purpose of these glands, as well as the potential issues that they can develop, will help you keep your cat happy and healthy.
Cat Anal Gland Anatomy
Both male and female cats have two pea-sized anal glands located around their rectal openings. From the outside, two very small holes on either side of the anal opening may be seen. If the rectal opening was the face of a clock, each anal gland would sit at about five o'clock and seven o'clock around the rectum.
These tiny, visible openings lead to the small, balloon-like anal sacs that are under the skin of a cat. These sacs naturally fill with a foul-smelling fluid that is naturally expressed when a cat defecates. The fluid in the glands is typically a liquid but it can thicken and become gritty, or even chunky, if it is stored for too long in the sacs or there is an underlying issue.
Why Do Cats Have Anal Glands?
Anal glands serve a specific purpose by helping a cat mark its territory. In the wild, cats mark their territory several different ways, and secreting anal gland fluid is just one way to communicate their presence to other animals. As a cat defecates, its feces naturally push against the internal portion of the balloon-like anal gland which causes it to be squeezed and secrete the anal gland fluid out with the feces. A cat can also manually express its anal glands, much like a skunk does, if it is scared or frightened. This is often seen when a stressed cat needs to visit the veterinarian or groomer. The anal gland liquid may spray or just drip out resulting in a very bad odor.
Signs That Your Cat Has Anal Gland Problems
Your cat may be showing signs that it is having issues with its anal glands.
Cats that have an uncomfortable hind end due to anal gland issues are likely to scoot or drag their hind end on the ground. This may be an attempt to relieve the pressure and discomfort that a cat is experiencing from having full anal sacs. You may smell or see a smelly fluid after your cat does this, too. Obsessive licking at the rectal opening and crying when defecating are also signs that there may be a problem with the glands. Finally, if you see blood in your cat's feces or on the carpet after your cat scoots its hind end, this could be a sign of an anal gland issue as well.
Problems With Cat Anal Glands
While most cats do not need help expressing their anal glands, occasionally these glands need a little help. Manual anal gland expression is not a pleasant job for the person doing the expression or the cat but it can be necessary if they don't naturally drain when a cat defecates. If these glands are not expressed naturally or manually, your cat will experience discomfort, infection, impaction, and potentially even painful anal gland rupture. Several reasons exist as to why cat anal glands may not express on their own.
- Anal Gland Inflammation - When internal anal gland tissues and/or the duct that normally allows the fluid to empty out of the gland becomes inflamed it can make it difficult or impossible for the secretions to exit the body.
- Anal Gland Tumors - If a growth or tumor is present in or around the anal gland it may be blocking the anal gland duct, making the fluid unable to exit.
- Anal Gland Infection - The fluid in the anal sacs can harbor bacteria if not regularly emptied. Bacteria will then reproduce and cause an infection which will consequently make the anal gland secretions thickened, bloody, and often unable to exit the gland through the small duct.
- Low Fiber Diet - If a cat is not regularly expressing its anal sacs on its own it may need more fiber in its diet. This will help to add bulk and firmness to the stool so more pressure can be applied to the anal glands as the feces exits the body.
- Obesity - Some cats are so overweight that the anal glands are unable to be naturally expressed due to the excess fatty tissue and anatomy of the obese cat. Weight loss is the best course of action for overweight cats who are having issues with their anal glands.
Treatment for Cat Anal Gland Problems
If a cat needs to have its anal glands manually expressed it is likely it has an underlying reason for why the glands aren't naturally expressing.
Usually, anal gland issues begin with inflammation which can lead to an infection. If a cat develops an infected anal gland, it will receive antibiotics and may need the glands flushed and cleaned out. But if the anal glands are impacted due to the thickening of the fluid and are unable to be emptied with manual pressure, then a veterinarian will need to sedate or anesthetize your cat in order to remove the contents of the anal glands. If the impaction is not addressed, the glands will rupture and will need to be cleaned out under anesthesia while the pain and infection are also managed. If a tumor is found then surgery will be necessary to remove it.
If no inflammation, infection, impaction, rupture, or tumors are found, your cat's weight and diet may need to be addressed to help manage the anal gland issues.
Manually Expressing Cat Anal Glands
Manual anal gland expression is easy to learn how to do but cats do not enjoy it. Ask a veterinarian about restraint methods, distraction techniques, and exactly how to safely express a cat's anal glands if your cat needs it and you want to try and do it at home. Manual pressure is applied to the glands by inserting a finger into the rectum and firmly but gently squeezing the small, balloon-like gland on the edge of the rectal opening. This causes the anal gland secretions to come out.
Preventing Cat Anal Gland Problems
The best thing you can do for a cat to help prevent anal gland issues is to feed it high-quality cat food and don't allow it to get overweight.
If you're still worried about it developing anal gland problems, be sure to let your veterinarian know if it's scooting its rear end on the floor or has any inflammation around the rectal area. Monitor your cat's stool for diarrhea and do not attempt to express the anal glands unnecessarily. Manually expressing anal glands without them needing it can actually irritate the glands unnecessarily so it is best to leave them alone unless a reason to express them arises.
Miyazaki, Tamako et al. Olfactory Discrimination Of Anal Sac Secretions In The Domestic Cat And The Chemical Profiles Of The Volatile Compounds. Journal Of Ethology, vol 36, no. 1, 2017, pp. 99-105. Springer Science And Business Media LLC, doi:10.1007/s10164-017-0532-x
Anal Sac Disease-Digestive System. Veterinary Manual, 2020
Anal Sac Disease In Cats. San Bruno Pet Hospital, 2020