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Everything you always wanted to know about anal glands but were afraid to ask

Although you may not think of your cuddly pooch as a predator this is what he essentially is. And like all predators dogs have a set of glands located on the both sides of the rectum, with their ducts emptying slightly below the anus.

Ferrets and cats too have these glands but in cats anal gland impaction is very rare.

Anal glands are often misunderstood and many vets don’t learn enough about them in school. Well at least this was true in my case. Not surprisingly most of the dog owners are not even aware of their existence.   Today we will try to demystify this unsightly and smelly part of your dog’s anatomy.

ANAL GLAND ANATOMY AND FUNCTION

Correct medical term for these glands is para-anal glands or sacks as they are situated on the sides and slightly below the anus. At approximately 4 and 8 o’clock in relation to the anus there are two tiny holes, which are the openings of the glands duct. Paranal glands should not be confused with Perianal or Circumanal glands which are smaller and located in the cutaneous zone around the anus.  

Anal glands produce liquid with very strong and pungent smell, and in healthy dogs with properly functioning glands this liquid is transparent and should not be very viscous. When everything is working properly these glands empty every time your dog has a bowel movement. We can think of anal glands' scent as your dog’s unique identity card or smell imprint in the environment. This is how they mark their teritory in addition to urinating, and anal gland secretion odour gives information to other dogs about sex, approximate age, health status and possibly other things we still know very little about. In addition their function is also to help the body eliminate toxins and substances that are not needed. Therefore we can think of anal glands as garbage bins that are supposed to be emptied periodically.

ANAL GLAND PROBLEMS AND THEIR CAUSE

In certain breeds anal glands are more deeply set then in others which may hinder their regular emptying.In certain breeds anal glands are more deeply set then in others which may hinder their regular emptying.

Anal glands often get inflamed which leads to the swelling of the ducts preventing the glands from emptying properly. The liquid inside the glands becomes more and more viscous and in some cases turns into a thick paste of very dark color. Such environment is perfect breeding grounds for bacteria and consequtive build up of the toxins can  cause allergic reaction that will manifest as pruritic skin rash. Dog with inflamed anal glands also very often suffer from inflamed ear canal and sometimes conjuctivitis. Affected dogs often scoot on their behind or spend considerable amount of time licking under the tail. Sometimes the glands can rupture- infiltrating the surrounding tissue and creating a very painful abscess. Very often this abscess can burst through the skin, creating fistula.

Dogs can also suffer from anal glands tumors, which are not to be confused with perianal glands tumors.

The causes for anal gland dysfunction are manifold:

  • Species inappropriate diet is certainly one of the biggest factors. Same as their wild relatives dogs are supposed to eat bones, which will make their faces hard enough to exert adequate pressure on anal sacs thus facilitating their emptying. As discussed on this page, commercial diets often don’t contain enough moisture keeping the dog in constant state of mild dehydration. These diets are also artificially flavored and loaded with inflammatory anti-nutrients such as gluten as well as various toxins, which contributes to vicious circle and causes inflammation.
  • Obesity due to diet based on carbohydrates, lack of exercise and overfeeding.
  • Certain breeds like Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and Pug seem to suffer more then others from inherited malformations.
  • Liver imbalance related to general toxicity and wrong diet.
  • Lumbo-sacral spine and muscle injury that leads to decreased energy flow to the anal glands and lack of tone.

 

LOOKING AT THE BODY AS A ‘WHOLE’

Same as with the eyes and ears, problem with anal glands is usually a signal that something in the body is not functioning properly. Glands cannot be healthy if the rest of the body is not functioning well.

Conventional treatment mostly focuses on the issue locally – expressing the content, possibly a flush, antibiotics or surgery.  However, this approach doesn’t address most of the causes mentioned above and it will never solve the problem permanently.

TO SQUEEZE OR NOT TO SQUEEZE?

Manually expressing anal glands should be left to qualified professional. In some cases this is required but just expressing the glands will not prevent them from filling up. It is much better to help them to empty naturally.  When you are just emptying the glands without tackling the contributing factors, the more you empty the more they will fill up.

If you smell the pungent anal gland smell once in a while and no other symptoms are present, it is just a sign that your dog’s anal glands are working well. Also, nervous dogs will spontaneously empty their glands in any stresfull situation. If this happens, there is no need to rush to the vet or a groomer to have the glands squeezed. Remember, when it comes to anal glands -  the less is better. To be safe, semiannual physical exam is ideal.

SURGICAL REMOVAL

Routinely removing anal glands is in my opinion nothing but mutilation and I consider it one of the most barbaric practices which is sadly still performed by some veterinary surgeons. Many ferret owners ask about this procedure and my standard response is : “Imagine if someone wanted to surgically remove your sweat glands just because they didn’t like the way you smell". "If you dont like ferret' smell dont get a ferret!“ Although ferret's scent glands are different to dog's anal glands the implications are the same. It has to be understood  that anal glands amputation in any carnivorous animal can severely affect their body’s detox cycle.

In most cases such drastic measure is simply not called for. Based on what we discussed so far you can understand that removing anal glands is like removing garbage bins from your house. It would not be long before your house ( or in this case animal’s body) becomes a mess.

 

TACKLING THE PROBLEM

  • Feed your dog species appropriate diet rich in moisture and fresh uncooked bones. Raw bones are fully digestible. It is only cooked bones that are not and can cause problems. Apart from being laden with all sorts of preservatives, artificial coloring and different anti nutrients most kibble creates soft and sloppy stools.
  • Feed your dog raw bones. Many dog owners are worried when they see their dog’s feces after feeding them bones, which leave very hard, rock like feces of crumbly consistency. But this is how it should be, it is the only natural way for preventing the impaction of the glands. The faces of modern dog on commercial diet are just not hard enough to service this part of ancient carnivore design.
  • Reduce obesity, most of the commercial diets are based on grains and consist mostly of carbohydrates, which are the leading cause of obesity in dogs. In obese animals glands ‘sink’ into the fat tissue, which prevents natural emptying process. In such animals it is difficult to express them even manually.  Do not overfeed your dog. For complete guidelines on quality and quantity of your dog’s meals visit The Complete Diet for Dogs page.
  • Exercise your dog regularly, this is important not only for maintenance of appropriate body weight but also for proper blood flow, muscle tone and general well being which are all the contributing factors in gland problems. Too much exercise can also cause problems. The lumbo-sacral area supplies the nerve and energy flow to the anus and anal glands. The muscles become tight, the nerve flow decreases and the anal gland tone is diminished. That is why some seemingly healthy but very active dogs on raw diet continue having anal gland issues. Doing less sprinting, frisbee and ball retrieving and engaging in more varied exercise often does the trick.

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