Most people never think about their dog's anal glands until there's a problem with them. These glands are designed to provide lubrication when a dog passes a stool, and they also give each dog their own unique scent. Find out how these glands work, how to spot when there's a problem, and how to take care of it.
How Anal Glands Work
Every dog has two small glands located on either side of their rectal opening. Each gland holds a small amount of a brown, noxious-smelling liquid substance. Whenever your dog urinates or defecates, these glands receive a small amount of pressure that releases a tiny bit of the fluid along with your dog's custom-blended scent.
Your dog can also express a little of their personal essence when they meet a fellow canine. Have you ever noticed how two dogs raise their tails on high alert when they first meet? This action applies pressure to the anal glands, and this leads to the traditional butt sniffing humans cannot seem to fathom. However, this greeting is as normal to dogs as shaking hands is to people. Sniffing helps the dogs learn to identify each other by their scents.
If you're alarmed at this point about all this expressing going on, don't be. Remember that a dog's sense of smell is light years beyond a human's, so the amount of liquid expressed is minute, and you'll likely never smell anything unless your dog develops a problem.
Gland Problems and Diet
Many dogs never seem to have a problem with their anal glands. However, bacteria can build up in the anal glands if they don't express properly, and this can lead to an infection. Left untreated, the infection can produce an abscess that may eventually rupture through the skin and cause further complications. View the accompanying video for an in-depth explanation about anal glands and associated problems presented by Karen Becker, DVM.
Some anal gland problems may be linked to the quality of pet food a dog receives. Inexpensive brands of dog food often use cereal fillers that tend to result in soft stools. The soft stool isn't able to press firmly enough against the dog's anal glands to provide the necessary pressure to express them, and there the trouble begins. Higher-quality dog foods will help your pet produce firmer, more compact stools that actually help the glands express, so those foods may be a better food choice for your pet.
Signs the Glands Are Impacted
If your dog's anal glands fail to express properly, they may actually become impacted and make your dog very uncomfortable. Watch for these signs and symptoms that can occur in both male and female dogs:
- Your dog begins scooting or dragging their rear across the floor in order to alleviate the pressure in their anal glands.
- Your dog keeps licking or chewing near their rectum.
- Your dog's stools have become soft and mushy.
- Your dog strains to pass feces and appears uncomfortable.
- You'll likely notice a foul or "fishy" odor coming from your dog's rear.
- Your dog is leaking a brown fluid from their rear.
If you notice one or more of these signs, it may be a good idea to take your dog in for a check-up with their vet. The glands may actually need to be manually expressed, a job best left to the professionals. Some professional dog groomers will also perform this procedure at your request. Anal gland expression is done regularly for both male and female dogs, as both sexes can suffer from impacted glands.
One of the most common ways people first realize their dog has impacted or enlarged anal glands is they notice an odor. If you've noticed your dog smells like poop, or smells like poop even after a bath, chances are good that you need to check out your dog's anal glands. The glands secrete a substance that can have a strong odor that reminds one of the smell of feces or fish.
How to Express Your Dog's Anal Glands
Many breeders and owners feel capable of expressing their dog's anal glands themselves. However, consider yourself warned that this is a smelly and unpleasant task. Please be advised that you should only perform this procedure on your own dog and never someone else's. Note too that every dog's system is different, so other than looking for the signs and symptoms, it's hard to know when to express a dog's anal glands without consultation with a veterinarian.
It's also important to note, expressing a dog's anal glands when it's not necessary can do more harm than good. If your dog is exhibiting symptoms of clogged or impacted anal glands, as discussed above, that's the only time (unless veterinarian or groomer recommends otherwise) that you should consider expressing anal glands yourself. Many dogs go all their lives without needing manual expression, so keep in mind, not to try to fix a problem that isn't there.
If you still think anal gland expression is necessary, utilize the following steps with caution when performing the expression on your own.
- Prepare a warm, moist washcloth.
- Grab a pair of disposable gloves to avoid getting any fluid on your hands.
- Locate your dog's anal glands by raising their tail and using your other hand to feel for two lumps at approximately five and seven o'clock on either side of the anal opening.
- Holding the cloth over the anal opening to prevent an unpleasant squirt, begin applying firm but gentle pressure to the sacs. This gentle squeezing is necessary to cause the fluid to be expelled through the rectal opening, thereby emptying the glands. Wipe your dog's behind clean, and the job should be finished.
Normal anal gland fluid ranges from yellowish to tan in color and should not appear to be cloudy or milky. Impacted anal gland fluid may present as a greyish color. If you notice blood or pus in your dog's anal gland secretions, or if the fluid is not watery in consistency, it is likely a sign of infection, and you should contact your vet for an appointment and treatment.
The following video shows a different method many veterinarians use to express the glands.
Risks of DIY Expression
If you're experienced with expressing a dog's anal glands and comfortable doing it on your own, it can be less stressful for your dog to not have to go to a veterinary clinic or groomer. It also is obviously cheaper to do at home. However, there are risks to doing it yourself. Expressing the glands incorrectly can lead to bruising on your dog. Your dog may also be suffering from additional conditions and infections you are not aware of, and only a qualified veterinary professional will be able to correctly diagnose them. Doing it too often can also hurt your dog and cause them unnecessary pain or complications.
Frightened Dogs May Involuntarily Express
Dogs who are frightened can involuntarily express their anal glands as part of their fear response. Because a fearful animal can contract their muscles tightly and quickly, this contraction can lead to a squeezing of the glands and secretion of the fluid. This often happens in a spray and the expression "shooting the glands" is used often among pet care professionals to refer to this event. A dog that does this does not generally need regular anal gland expression, as this happens as a result of a fearful stimulus and not a medical condition.
Intervene Only When Necessary
While it's natural to wonder how often to express your dog's anal glands, it's important to realize that there isn't a specific timetable for you to follow. Under normal circumstances, the anal glands are able to function completely on their own without human intervention. Unless your dog has developed a problem, it is better to avoid routine expressing of the glands and let your dog's body function the way it was designed to do. Some dogs never need to have this done, while others may need the procedure occasionally or fairly regularly.