Anal glands are small sacs located just inside the anal opening in both dogs and cats. They are scent glands that secrete a smelly, oily, brown material that is part of the animal’s way to differentiate the stool of individuals. This is actually the same gland that allows skunks to make their distinctive odor; only (luckily) they are smaller in dogs and cats! Normally, the glands are emptied daily as the feces pass by them when your pet defecates. If the stool is soft, if the gland openings are small or blocked, or if the glands happen to hang down farther away from the rectal wall itself, then the stool may not apply enough pressure to empty the glands. If this happens, the animal is likely to feel uncomfortable over time as the glands expand. From the animal’s perspective, this is like having a piece of stool that he or she cannot expel. This will make the pet try to solve the problem by licking the area, or dragging the area along the ground—“scooting”—to alleviate the discomfort. Another possibility is that the pet’s glands may leak material onto surfaces where the pet lays or sits.
You may notice the fishy-type smell, or brown, greasy spots where your pet spends time. Owners often also see that their pet is licking his/her hind end a lot or is rubbing it on the carpet or grass. If this happens, it is best to bring your pet in for a visit to the veterinarian to have the anal glands checked. Some animals have persistent problems with these glands and may need them emptied on a regular basis. It is best not to have the glands squeezed often if they do not need it, as the pressure can cause some trauma and result in scar tissue formation. If this occurs, it may further narrow the anal gland opening and result in more frequent issues. An infection in the gland can also cause the same signs because, in that case, the glands are secreting more material than normal.
Anal glands that stay overfilled may rupture. When this occurs, you will notice that same brown material, but it will be bloody, and will be coming from the skin below, and just to the side of the anal opening itself. The animal will be very sore and will likely not let you touch the area. Often the animal will be licking constantly as well. In this case, the animal will need antibiotic treatment and may need a sedated flush and cleaning of the glands to help them heal.
If excessive anal gland filling is a problem, a sedated anal gland flush may be recommended before the glands are allowed to rupture to clean out the glands. This is a common procedure with minimal side effects. There is also a surgical option to completely remove the glands and eliminate the problem. This surgery does have a few potential complications. If the gland is incompletely removed, then the remaining glandular tissue could get infected and cause persistent draining tracts that are quite hard to fix. In very rare cases, there could be damage to the muscle of, or nerve supply to the anal sphincter muscles that allow the dog to hold feces in the rectum. If that occurs, the animal could have fecal incontinence, meaning that he/she would not be able to hold the stool in the house, and would have accidents on a regular basis. This is obviously a significant problem, so we take all precautions to prevent it.