One of the most frequent questions I get asked in my veterinary clinic involves an area of a dog that I like to visit as infrequently as possible. The anal glands are not only smelly but they’re difficult (at times) to get to and no one has a good time.
So how often should anal glands be expressed in a dog? You should only have the glands expressed when the dog exhibits signs of discomfort in that area. Those signs include scooting the rear on the ground, trying to lick at the area, and seeing blood in the area under the tail. The glands do not need a regular emptying schedule – a dog does that for itself 99.9% of the time when it defecates.
How Do I Know If My Dog’s Anal Glands Are Full?
You won’t unless there’s an issue. The anal glands on a dog are in a constant state of slowly filling and are then normally emptied in the act of defecation.
There may be times when your dog accidentally empties part of their anal gland (or an anal gland that is only half full) on the couch or the floor. That happens when a dog contracts the anal sphincter suddenly such as when they get startled or scared.
Should My Groomer (Or I) Express My Dog’s Anal Glands Regularly?
No, please don’t. This is sensitive tissue and it should be left alone. If your dog isn’t acting like there’s an issue then there isn’t one. Expressing the anal glands once monthly at the groomer’s doesn’t do anything anyway. These glands express at least once daily on their own.
So when the groomer says the anal glands were full all that means is that your dog hadn’t defecated in a little bit.
Why Do Anal Gland Issues Happen?
There is a very tiny, almost imperceptible, duct from the anal gland to the outside world. It’s located at both the 4:00 and 8:00 positions (if the dog’s anus was a clock face).
When stool passes from the dog’s colon and out the anus, the anal gland is squeezed between the stool and the dog’s butt muscles. If the pressure on the anal gland isn’t strong enough the gland can’t empty. So if the stool is too small or soft, or the dog doesn’t have the proper butt musculature, anal gland issues can start.
Why Do Some Dogs Have Chronic Problems With Their Anal Glands?
There are two main reasons for why a dog can’t properly empty their anal glands on a regular basis. It goes back to how the anal glands are normally expressed:
- Their stool is chronically small or loose
- The butt muscles aren’t doing their job squeezing on the other side of the anal gland
- Butt muscles can be small and saggy in overweight, weaker dogs
- Butt muscles can also be a lot smaller and not in a position where they can readily empty
When owners tell me their dogs seem to be having issues with their anal glands when they never have before, I always ask if they’ve had a recent bout of soft stool. I’d say 80% of the time they tell me that there had been some diarrhea lately.
What Can Happen If The Anal Gland Can’t Empty?
If the duct opening is unable to drain out the material inside the anal gland, and the anal gland continues to fill, eventually it ruptures open to the outside of the body. There will be some blood and maybe some dark brown material that is actually the secretions from inside the gland.
As a veterinarian, I will clean the area and make sure that there’s nothing left in the ruptured anal gland that needs to also come out. I then check the other anal gland to make sure it’s okay. Usually the dog is fairly painful right after (or right before) the anal gland ruptures so I usually prescribe pain medication and antibiotics.
Most anal gland ruptures should heal up completely within a week without the owner having to do too much to it besides giving the medications.
How Can I Prevent (Or Treat) Chronic Anal Gland Issues?
There are those dogs that are always coming in for their anal glands to be checked and they usually fall into one of two categories:
- They don’t have enough fiber in their diet to produce big, hard stools
- They’re small, overweight, and not very active
Being more active and in good body condition will help with the physical act of expressing the glands during defections. For those dogs that don’t have enough fiber in their diet (this isn’t a recommendation for a high-fiber diet – just add in fiber-rich snacks), the following fiber sources are recommended:
- Baby Carrots
- Green Beans
- Pumpkin Pie Filling
- Unflavored Metamucil
I have some patients that are on all four of the above food items and that’s what it takes to keep their anal glands empty. For most dogs, however, simply giving them a handful of baby carrot snacks or a cup of green beans in their food bowl during dinner will be enough.
What Does Anal Gland Cancer Look Like?
Anal gland carcinoma can happen in any dog. One of the glands will begin to harden and get bigger. This can happen over a relatively quick period of times (weeks) to the point where the gland is the size of an egg (on larger dogs like Labs). It usually reaches a size where it’s visible right next to the anus.
How do vets tell the difference between an infected/overfull anal gland and one that is cancerous? The infected gland usually is open or will open with pressure.
In my experience, a cancerous anal gland is usually very obvious to me because of its size but, sadly, the dog owner isn’t even aware that there’s an issue because they usually don’t look at that area of their dog.
Can A Dog With Chronic Anal Gland Issues Get Anal Gland Cancer?
Any dog can potentially get anal gland cancer. However, do anal gland infections lead to anal gland cancer? No.
Can’t You Remove Anal Glands If They Are A Constant Issue?
It used to be quite common for veterinarians to remove anal glands from dogs but that’s fallen out of favor in the past decade. Much of that is due to the knowledge we know have of just how effective adding in extra fiber can be to keeping the anal glands empty.
It’s also a case of anal gland surgery having a potential complication of causing the dog to become fecal incontinent. It can also be a difficult recovery for some dogs, having an incision so close to the anus.
In the past 5-6 years, I’ve done this surgery only a handful of times and it was always to diagnose a cancer of anal gland cancer and not to treat chronic anal gland issues.
Take Home Points
- Anal Gland expression should not be part of a regular maintenance schedule for dogs
- Use added fiber in the diet if your dog seems to have chronic issues with its anal glands