What Are Anal Glands?
Let me guess, before owning a dog you had no idea what anal glands were, nor did you want to, and that’s totally understandable. I’m a rare species, one of those “popaholics” who stays up late watching Dr. Pimple Popper videos on Instagram, so naturally I found learning about anal glands quite fascinating. These scent glands are superficially located within the anus at 4 and 8 o’clock. They secrete an oily, strong and foul smelling fishy odor. These secretions allow dogs to identify with one another and mark their territory, which is why dogs tend to smell each other’s rear end when first being introduced.
Impacted Anal Glands
I hope I haven’t lost you yet because while anal glands are not the typical topic of conversion, they certainly are important for all dog owners to be aware of. When a dog has a bowel movement, the normal pressure exerted by passing a fully formed stool against the rectal tissue causes secretory release. Ok, probably about now you are wondering why this unpleasant topic is of great importance. While some dogs have no problem releasing their glands, others are unable. One cause of this super annoying and frustrating problem could be your pet’s chronic loosely formed stools. Inability to release these glands creates a significant problem. The glandular tissue does not stop producing liquid, causing an increase of pressure. Impacted anal glands are very uncomfortable and increase the risk of infection and rupture, both urgent complications.
Clinical symptoms of impaction include scooting and chronic rectal licking or chewing.
My Dog's Impacted Anal Glands
I rescued Emma, a beagle/shepherd mix from North Shore Animal League, the largest non-kill animal rescue in North America located in Port Washington, New York in 2015. She was around four months old at the time and her adorable floppy ears could almost touch the floor. She was underweight and had a “wormy belly,” the term I like to use to describe abdominal distension or bloating caused by intestinal parasites. Don’t be alarmed if your rescue has intestinal parasites. It’s a very common occurrence in shelter animals and is easily treated with antibiotics. However, most intestinal parasites are “zoonotic” meaning transmissible from animal to human and vice versa via fecal-oral route, so just make sure to wash your hands after cleaning up parasitic fecal matter and especially before eating or touching your face. The reason I am mentioning Emma is because she suffers from chronic anal gland impaction. To give you an idea of the severity of discomfort these glands can cause, I’m going to tell you a brief, but relevant story.
Emma is a very vocal dog. She’s in tune with her emotional and physical wellbeing, as well as those around her. Everyone who knows me will tell you that Emma saved my life, but that’s a story for another time. Emma can be quite the drama queen especially when she doesn’t get her way. In school, we learned that vocalizing is not the best indicator of pain. At around eleven o’clock one evening while we were laying in bed together, Emma began vocalizing. It started out periodically, perhaps a little whine every ten minutes or so. My suspicion and worry quickly arose, but then I remembered learning in class that vocalizing is not a good indicator of pain. I laid my head back down on the pillow and tried to go back asleep since her whining ceased. A couple minutes later, Emma began vocalizing again, but this time it was much louder and more often. I thought to myself, something is not right. I woke up both my roommates who also happened to be veterinary technology majors and asked for their opinion. I don’t think it would have mattered what they said by this time, Emma’s constant vocalizing was abnormal and I knew something was wrong. I got up out of bed, still in my pajamas and drove Emma to a nearby clinic. After being seen by the veterinarian, I was notified that her anal glands were indeed impacted. Her large and swollen anal glands were the cause of her discomfort. Before sending us home, the veterinarian released her anal glands and explained to me that if impaction occurs once, it will typically be an ongoing problem. She was right.
Treating Impacted Anal Glands
The good news is that anal gland impaction is easily treated by anal gland expression. This involves physically squeezing or “milking” the glands. Frequent trips to the vet office can become annoying; however, you usually don’t have to make an appointment, walk-ins are welcome. The whole procedure, usually performed by a licensed veterinary technician only takes a couple of minutes. Before learning how to release Emma’s anal glands on my own, I would take her to the clinic about every three to four weeks, which is typically when she would begin scooting and biting at her rear end again. I asked her veterinarian if there are any medications or supplements to treat this ongoing issue. She recommended adding a few tablespoons of plain canned pumpkin to her food. Pumpkin is an excellent source of fiber. Fiber aids in bulking up the stool, promoting regular, formed bowel movements, as well as feeding healthy gut bacteria.
Once I learned how to express anal glands, my frequent trips to the vet ended. I will explain how to express your dogs anal glands later on; however, if your dog has just recently started scooting, licking or biting at their rectal region, or displaying clinical symptoms of pain and you have not yet seen a veterinarian about this issue, I would refrain from expressing them at home. There could be an abscess or infection present and expressing the glands could cause more harm than good. It’s also important to mention that frequent anal gland expression can actually make matters worse by diminishing the body’s natural need to secrete; therefore, it is important not to express them more frequently than needed.
Lastly, before I explain how to express your dog’s anal glands at home, I want to mention a surgical procedure called an anal sacculectomy. This surgical procedure completely removes the anal glands. Bilateral, if both, unilateral if one. This surgical procedure is a last resort option as there are always risks when undergoing surgery. Chronic infections and cancer are good reasons to have this procedure performed. The sphincter muscles that allow a dog to control his/her bowels are located in close proximity to the anal glands. If accidentally injured during the surgical procedure, your dog will lose his/her ability to control when they go to the bathroom. This is a rare side effect, but not worth the risk if you are simply just annoyed with having to frequently take your dog to the clinic
Recommended Supplements and Supplies
Organic canned pumpkin (not pumpkin pie mix)
Welactin Omega-3 Skin and Coat Support Liquid, 16 oz (anti-inflammatory)
What you’ll need to express your dog’s anal glands at home…
- Disposable medical gloves (for those with a latex allergy, these types of gloves typically contain latex. Make sure to purchase latex-free. I’ll provide a list of latex-free medical gloves at the bottom for your convenience.)
- Medical lubricant: non-irritating (flavor and scent free) and non-spermicidal. It does not have to be sterile. You can also use a small amount of Vaseline. (please, please do not use a tingling or warming sensation lube!)
- Paper towels or tissues
- Baby wipes, wet wipes for dogs or wet paper towels
- Possibly a muzzle (Your dog may have not displayed any type of aggression towards you before, but you have yet to stick your fingers in their anus. Please be careful!)
- Someone to hold your dog
- Garbage bag
- Dog treats for positive reinforcement
The Steps To Express Anal Glands
Find someone willing to hold. Having a partner will increase efficacy and efficiency. Be prepared that not everyone will want to or feel comfortable doing this. Don’t try to convince or force them to help. Find someone you trust to hold your dog, remember dogs can sense human emotions, so if you or your handler is afraid or nervous than your dog is more likely to be nervous and uneasy.
Most importantly, if you are not comfortable expressing your dogs anal glands, that’s totally fine, don’t. If you start to express but feel like you aren’t doing it correctly or something is wrong, stop and make an appointment with a veterinarian.
Find an appropriate location. I like to take Emma outside in my backyard at least a few feet away from the door since the fishy odor lingers.
If needed, put on a muzzle. Make sure it is properly secured.
Put on disposable medical gloves and apply a minimal amount of lubricant to one finger and have a paper towel in the other hand.
While placing the paper towel near the site of entry, gently insert your index finger. If full, you should feel a grape-sized gland (varies depending on the size of your dog) on either side at four and eight o’clock. If this is your first time expressing anal glands, spend a few minutes feeling around and locating the glands.
Before beginning to apply pressure, it is important to note that this process is uncomfortable, but SHOULD NOT be painful. If your dog is screaming, crying, or displaying abnormal body posture, please stop IMMEDIATELY and go to the clinic as there could be something more serious going on.
With you index finger pressed against the left gland inside the anal cavity, use your thumb on the same hand outside the anus to firmly grasp on the gland. Gently apply pressure in a “milking” motion. It’s normal for the gland to slip out of your hold. That’s fine. Relocate the gland and repeat the same steps. Once again, gently pressure. If you use too much pressure you could rupture the gland. After a little practice, you’ll know how much pressure is just right to express your dog’s glands.
After applying gentle pressure and “milking” the gland, you will start to feel liquid releasing and the gland getting smaller. Keep doing this until you cannot release anymore fluid. The gland should be around the size of a pea in a medium sized dog. As the fluid is being released, use the paper towel in your free hand to soak up any liquid exiting the cavity.
Repeat the process on the right side using your clean gloved hand. The reason why it’s recommended to use different gloves is to prevent possible spread of contamination from one gland to the other.
Once finished, clean the area. Wipe off any excess lubricant and expelled fluid around the outside of the anus with baby wipes or wet dog wipes. I prefer not to use wet paper towels as they are rough on skin and the anus can be a little red and irritated afterwards, which is normal.
Remove the muzzle. Immediately after removing, give praise and a couple of treats for positive reinforcement. This step is extremely important and can help encourage obedience during future gland expression.
Look at the fluid secretions. Does it appear to be normal looking, smelly secretions or does it look abnormal, infected, filled with pus?
If the appearance is abnormal, please contact your veterinarian. It’s best to have your veterinary clinic express the gland a few times. By doing this, you will have an idea of what your dog’s “normal” looks like and whether or not it is something else going on like an abscess or infection. Talk to your veterinarian about whether or not they feel comfortable with you expressing the gland at home. You can also ask for advice regarding frequency of expression.
Normal: clear, yellow or brown tinged, oily
Abnormal: thick creamy brown or yellow, yellowish-green, green or red