You may have witnessed your dog scooting on its butt across the ground (or your favorite rug). Or maybe it suddenly started licking its behind obsessively or you noticed an abnormal, room-clearing odor wafting around your pup. On the other hand, perhaps your best buddy is constipated or experiencing pain when it tries to poop or even just sit down.
Although any of these behaviors and symptoms could be a sign of a variety of maladies, they may indicate a problem with your dog's anal glands and its need to relieve the pain or discomfort associated with impaction or infection.
Why Do Dogs Have Anal Gland Problems?
The anal glands, technically called anal sacs, are two small pouches of tissue located just under the surface of the skin on either side of a dog's anus. The anal glands make oily, smelly secretions that contain chemicals that dogs use in marking territory and identifying each other.
Domesticated dogs empty their anal glands when stool pushes up against them during defecation. It can also empty when external pressure (generated during scooting) pushes on the anal glands or even spontaneously if a dog is fearful or in distress. When full, these glands may range in size from that of a pea to a small grape, although the size varies with the size of the dog and the fullness of the glands.
When the anal sacs are full or impacted, it can be very uncomfortable for the dog, who may cycle through a range of behaviors in an attempt to ease its discomfort. Although it's possible that bottom dragging, chewing the anal area, tail chasing, and the like could indicate the presence of worms or skin problems, these types of behaviors are very common in a dog with anal sac problems.
The fluid in anal glands is routinely released during defecation and may aid in lubrication. The problem arises when the material isn't released as it should be. This may be due to soft stool, increased fluid production, thick fluid, or simply because of the specific dog's anatomy. For this reason, it's sometimes necessary for a dog's anal glands to be manually expressed or emptied by a human.
Manually expressing a dog's anal glands is best taught in person by someone who is familiar with the process like a veterinarian or veterinary nurse. Any dog owner can learn to do this at home as long as there's no infection present, but most people leave it to a professional because it's unpleasant.
There are two ways to express the anal sacs: externally and internally. Remember, before you attempt to express your dog's anal sacs, it's important to have your vet or a vet tech show you how. An improper expression can be very uncomfortable for your dog.
- The external expression is done by using a tissue or cloth to gently squeeze the anal area from the outside and massage out the fluid. It's usually not possible to completely empty the anal sacs this way.
- An internal expression is done by inserting a gloved index finger into the anus and gently squeezing each anal sac (one at a time) between the index finger and thumb. The internal method is more effective, especially if the material in the anal sacs is thick. Since this is invasive, you'll need help to keep your dog distracted and calm during the process. If the anal area appears red, inflamed, thickened, has an open sore, is painful, or uncomfortable. Have your vet handle the expression as there may be an infection or abscess present and manipulation of the area may cause your dog extreme pain and will need proper treatment.
How to Prevent Anal Gland Problems
In general, a dog's anal glands don't need to be manually expressed unless there's a problem. Many dogs are able to release the fluid regularly during bowel movements.
In some cases, anal glands can become impacted or infected (abscessed). This is usually due to a long-term inability to empty the anal sacs during normal defecation. If your dog's anal area becomes reddened or you see pus around its anus, this may indicate a problem with its anal sacs. Other possible but less common anal gland complications include benign or malignant tumors. See your veterinarian right away if your dog has ongoing issues with its anal glands.
If your dog is continually scooting or engaging in other behavior that seems to center around its butt, it may be because of recurring anal gland issues. A common cause of this is a food allergy or intolerance. Because the anal sacs usually only empty when they get firm pressure from a solid bowel movement, if your dog's bowel movements are frequently unformed, soft, or watery, the anal sacs may not get the pressure they need to empty. Speak with your veterinarian about elimination diets or the creation of a balanced and appropriate diet that may address any possible food sensitivities and improve poor stool consistency. Finally, some dogs may not have underlying medical conditions but simply require routine anal gland expression to prevent impaction or infection.
Anal Sac Disease in Dogs and Cats. Merck Veterinary Manual.