“This is an emergency, there’s something wrong with my dog’s butt! There are two holes and blood oozing out!” cried the voice on the phone.
I hastily donned my stethoscope and got ready for action. Within minutes, the owner burst into the clinic carrying her greyhound, Prince, for me to assess. A wad of toilet paper was taped to his butt, plastic cling bundling his back side, and a custom doggy coat draped over his poor shivering body. Contrary to Prince’s usually noble demeanor, I caught a look of embarrassment emanating from his face.
A sharp metallic and fishy smell hit my nose as soon as I peeled away the jumble of dressings. There was no mistaking the origin of the problem: this was a pain in the butt, the anal glands.
“I’m glad you brought Prince to the clinic,” I reassured the owner.
Back in the treatment room, I carefully assessed Prince and started methodically flushing and cleaning the gaping wound next to his anus. The anal gland had indeed ruptured and become abscessed. Bloody, foul-smelling secretions sprayed all over my hair, glasses and lab coat. One of the biggest tips I’ve ever learned is to keep my mouth shut during these procedures; the taste of anal gland secretion is certainly worse than the awful smell! After the infected secretions had finally drained away, I infused the wound with an antibiotic ointment. I started Prince on medication to prevent further infection and to ease the pain. Once I finished cleaning his hind end, a sense of dignified relief washed over Prince’s face. As his owner rained kisses over him, I saw a happy wag of his tail for having survived this atrocity.
I had to get another lab coat, clean my glasses, and wash my hair. Chlorhexidine does not excel as shampoo.
Prince made a full recovery. Now that he comes in regularly to have his anal glands expressed, having wadded up, bloody TP taped to his butt is not something he cares to discuss.
Anal glands are scent glands located on either side of a dog or cat’s anus. Technically, the accurate term is anal sac, and glands are within that sac, but that's how most folks refer to it. The secretions inside are brown and have a consistency between water and oil. When your pet has a bowel movement, the action applies pressure to these glands. This pressure allows a small amount of secretion to be released for scent marking and identification purposes. It’s meant to come out a bit at a time, and certainly is not meant to form its own exit route. In skunks, the anal glands are used as a potent defense mechanism, one which we all know to avoid.
The inner workings of healthy glands are hidden, and you will not notice them excreting or refilling. Usually, the only hint of their existence is your pet sniffing another’s butt. In those instances, they are exchanging scents much like we exchange business cards.
Occasionally, these small, smelly glands can cause some large issues. Anal sac diseases tend to occur more frequently in smaller breeds of dogs, but they can happen to any dog (ask greyhound Prince; he might have a few words on the subject).
Signs your dog may be experiencing anal gland problems include:
- Frequent scooting and butt dragging
- Excessive licking and biting of the butt area
- Discoloration or loss of hair under the tail
- Difficulty passing a bowel movement
- Circling or posturing strangely
- Crying out for no apparent reason
- Swelling or redness next to the anus
These signs can signal one of the following problems.
The secretions inside the gland usually exit from a small duct opening into the anus. If the duct opening becomes blocked or too inflamed to pass, your pet may not be able to express the secretions out. This state is called an impaction of the anal gland. The secretions turn from a liquid consistency to a thickened peanut butter-like goo (sorry if that ruins your peanut butter and jelly lunch). The gland will fill and stretch, causing discomfort. This is the point when you may see your pet scooting and rubbing her butt along the floor. If you are lucky enough to have white carpet, invariably you will find brown streaks crisscrossing it. If this is just an occasional dance that your pet does, there is nothing to be alarmed or worry about. Most pets can empty their anal glands on their own with some dedicated effort. If there is licking and continual scooting, however, the anal glands should be checked by your veterinarian. Some pets require assistance despite their best scooting dance. This help can be in the form of regular veterinary anal gland expression, or surgical removal in chronic and recurrent cases.
If the anal gland stays impacted, an infection and abscess can develop. The secretions become pungent (to say the least) and sometimes tinged with blood. Because the duct opening is blocked, the gland reaches critical mass and ruptures to forge a new exit. This is painful for your pet, to say the least, and gives the appearance of a second hole next to the anus. The area can be swollen, inflamed and ooze with bloody anal gland secretions. The resulting smell can clear a room! Treatment involves flushing the affected area and infusing medication into the gland. Antibiotics and pain medications are prescribed to help with recovery.
Rarely, problems with the anal gland can indicate something more serious. Tumors can develop and spread in the anal gland and adjacent areas. If caught early, treatment options are available to increase the chance of survival.
At this point, you may be staring at your pet’s butt and glaring at your carpeting, wondering what you can do to avoid internal combustion of the ER kind. Anal gland problems are not an emergency you want to have at 2:00 a.m., not that you ever want it at any time. While I cannot guarantee you won’t ever have to arrive at an ER with wadded toilet paper taped to your dog’s butt, there are some things you can do to lower the risk.
- Feed a Proper Diet: A high-quality food with adequate fiber levels help keep defecation regular. Bowel movements of a good size help apply pressure on those anal glands, thereby helping them release regularly.
- Manage Weight: Ensuring that your pet is a healthy weight will minimize the risk of developing anal gland problems, among other concerns. Obesity causes the glands to be surrounded by fatty tissue, thus making it more difficult to empty them. Vigorous exercise can also help with weight management and allow glands to empty smoothly. If your dog hasn’t been exercising vigorously, talk to your veterinarian about how to start her off slowly; you don’t want to drag a couch potato out to lure coursing without any training. Even Rocky had to work up to vigorous.
- Supplement with Fiber: If the dog’s diet does not have enough fiber content, supplementation is an easy way to pack more punch into the bowel movements. Ask your veterinarian about how much to start giving and when to increase it. Gradually, add small amounts of fiber to the diet to ensure that your pet stays regular. Be sure to keep your pet hydrated because it’s easier to poop when you’re not dehydrated, same as for us. (Please note: humans do not have any equivalent of anal sacs, in case you were existentially wondering about your own potential for exploding.)
- Reduce Inflammation: If your pet has any food sensitivities or allergies, discuss a treatment with your veterinarian. This could include a hypoallergenic diet, medication and supplements to reduce inflammation within the body. This will aid the normal function of the anal glands.
- Express the anal glands regularly: If your pet’s anal glands are chronically impacted or abscessed, regularly scheduled visits to your veterinarian are necessary, or at least going in as soon as you see your dog scooting. During these times, the anal glands are emptied before they become diseased. Groomers also express the glands, but they don’t do it as deeply as veterinarians, and it’s not deep enough for dogs who need to have it done regularly.
Getting that stuff on you is one of the worst things that can happen to a veterinarian’s day, and poor Prince was unable to prevent it. It’s just an occupational hazard that can be cleaned up, although it is hard to get that smell out of an exam room.
At a follow up visit, Prince’s owner jokingly offered to buy me a new lab coat for my troubles. Luckily, the stench of the anal gland explosion had faded after multiple rounds of laundering. I continued to monitor her greyhound’s hind end and am happy to report that everything onward was healthy. Exploding anal glands are a huge, literal pain in the butt, but with a bit of prevention, luck, and timely veterinary care, most pets can keep their anal glands excreting smoothly for years to come.
Next time, I just might go for a new lab coat.
October 12, 2019
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Dr. Scott W Reid
April 30, 2018
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.