vet examining jack russell terrier butt anus tail anal glands

What Causes Anal Gland Problems In Dogs? And How To Treat Them

It's a stinky situation to be in and not many people want to talk about it, but that won't make it go away. We're talking about anal gland issues. And while we're not experts in them (as we are not vets), we are very experienced. Both our older dog and our younger one have had past and recurring issues with their anal glands. So here's an overview of anal gland problems in dogs and what you can do about it.

What Are Anal Glands?

Anal glands (also known as anal sacs) are two small, oval-shaped sacs found in both male and female dogs near the anal opening. They sit between two layers of muscle inside the anus, one on each side approximately at the four and eight o'clock positions. The size of the sacs can range from that of a pea to that of a grape.

What Is The Purpose Of Anal Glands?

The only known purpose of these glands is for communication between dogs. These sacs fill with fluid that produces a strong, pungent odor (mostly fishy with hints of feces) that is unique to each dog. When dogs sniff each other's butts, they're often smelling the glands. But dogs also express (squeeze out) a little each time they poop, which is another form of scent and territory marking. This is why you may notice your pup is eager to smell another dog's poop. Sometimes, dogs involuntarily express the sacs when scared or stressed. Fun story, our puppy projectile expressed all over me one evening when she was scared.

What Are Anal Gland Problems?

When the anal glands are working properly, they will get emptied when your dog poops. But many dogs have anal gland issues that will need attention. If your dog isn't able to naturally express his or her glands, they can become full, impacted and infected. These conditions are generally referred to as anal sac disease and more specifically anal sacculitis, anal sac impaction and anal sac abscess:

  • Anal sacculitis is the inflammation of the anal glands and the ducts through which the anal sac fluid is released. It can progress to infection, impaction or abscesses. 
  • Anal sac impaction occurs when the glands are plugged, often caused by inflammation. The fluid inside impacted anal glands will thicken, causing the glands to become swollen and distended. Your dog may have trouble or pain while pooping and bacteria can easily grow. This can cause the fluid to become infected, bloody, fill with pus and form abscesses.
  • Abscesses present as red, swollen, warm and painful on one or both sides of the rectum. If they burst, they will release greenish yellow or bloody pus and can cause damage to your dog's anus.

Symptoms Of Anal Gland Problems

There will almost always be signs when your dog is having anal gland issues. These include:

  • Frequently scooting their butt on the floor or ground
  • Fishy or pungent smell
  • Leaking this smelly liquid
  • Excessive licking, biting or itching of the rear area (including the base of the tail)
  • Discomfort while sitting or walking
  • Redness, bleeding or swelling of the anus
  • Straining to defecate or constipation
  • Blood or pus in the stool or near the anus
  • Not allowing touching of tail or anus

Causes Of Anal Gland Problems

Anal gland problems can have many causes and often it's a combination of things. Causes include:

  • Soft, loose or small stools (that won't produce enough pressure to naturally express the glands)
  • Change in stool consistency or excessive constipation
  • Gastrointestinal issues, like food allergies and inflammatory bowel disease
  • Skin allergies that affect the are around the anus
  • Anatomical abnormalities (some anal glands are positioned too far in or too low)
  • Infection
  • Frequent unnecessary, manual expressing (like at the groomers; this can cause scar tissue that prevents the glands from natural expression)
  • Chronic skin dermatitis or yeast infections
  • Low thyroid function
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Insufficient dietary fiber
  • Genetics
  • Small breeds are at higher risk (such as Chihuahuas)
  • Older dogs
  • Cancer or tumors (less common)

When To Seek Help From A Vet

Once you notice your dog have anal gland issues, it's best to talk to your vet. They will be able to identify the problem and proper treatment. If the glands are just full, your vet will manually express them. Infections, impactions or abscesses are typically treated with antibiotics, while a ruptured abscess may require surgery and pain medication for recovery.

Treatment And Prevention Of Anal Gland Problems

There are a few things you can do at-home to manage anal gland problems. The most common causes of anal gland issues are related to defecating, so your vet will likely want you to try to bulk up your dog's poop first. As aforementioned, we are not vets so it's always a good idea to consult your vet if you think your dog has anal gland issues.

1. Change your dog's food.

You may need to change your dog's food, as some proteins don't work well for certain dogs. Our older dog Brody has a particularly sensitive stomach, so salmon and turkey work better for his poops. Your vet will be able to give you suggestions based on common food allergies.

2. Add pumpkin, fiber and other supplements.

You may also need to add pumpkin, fiber and other supplements like fish oil and Glandex. Even with the proteins that worked for him, Brody isn't able to naturally express his anal glands and would need to go to the vet every six weeks. Once we added pumpkin and Glandex to his diet, he now goes every three months for an expression. It's best to talk to your vet about what supplements to add in. You can also talk to your vet about starting your dog on a high-fiber diet.

Pro Tip: Make sure you use pure pumpkin purée, not pumpkin pie mix or any pumpkin with Xylitol.

3. Provide plenty of exercise.

Dogs who are overweight or obese are at a higher risk of having anal gland issues. Because of this, it's best that your dog maintain a healthy weight. Either help your dog lose excess weight or keep his or her ideal body weight through plenty of exercise.

4. Manually express your dog.

Some brave dog owners decide to express their dog's anal glands at home. We tried it. It was neither easy, nor fun. That's why it's recommended you take your dog to a vet where trained professionals can do the deed and do it properly.

5. Tell your groomer not to do it.

Some groomers will (unnecessarily) express anal glands as part of the routine grooming appointment. This can lead to the development of scar tissue that prevents your dog from being able to naturally express his or her glands, particularly if your dog goes frequently to the groomers.

6. Surgery, as a last resort.

If all else fails and the anal gland issues are really bad, you may need to turn to surgery. Anal sacculectomy, as it's called, is only recommended for the most severe and chronic conditions as it is costly and comes with side effects and potential risks. One side effect is fecal incontinence (the inability to control her poop). This is totally normal after this kind of surgery and usually only lasts for a few weeks. Though rare, some fo the risks include: fecal incontinence, anal stricture (narrowing or closure), rectal prolapse (the protrusion of recital tissue or membranes), as well as general surgical risks such as infection and dehiscence (opening of the surgical site). If this is the only solution left, make sure to find a vet who has expertise in anal gland surgery as it's a complicated and details procedure.

This is what we had to do with our puppy Luna, after everything else failed. We switched the protein she was eating and added pumpkin, Glandex and other probiotics. But her poops were always firm, she was just unable to express her glands naturally. We were taking her to the vet every two weeks, on average, for expression after she would leak on our furniture. Remember the story about the time she projectile expressed on me? She had just gotten her glands expressed a week before that. Fortunately, our vet clinic had a vet who had expertise in these surgeries and did a wonderful job. Luna has had no long term issues and is totally healthy back there!

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