Want a client for life? Start expressing their dog’s anal sacs. That’s the exact piece of advice a veterinary technician shared with me while having my first Cocker Spaniel’s anal glands expressed during a routine visit.
There is definitely a time and a place for anal sacs to be expressed and have all that fishy-smelling material removed from a dog’s scent glands. The problem is there are:
- Too many people expressing a dog’s anal glands too often
- Too many unqualified people manipulating a dog’s anal glands
- Too many dogs experiencing too much discomfort and undue trauma from improper and sometimes needless emptying of anal glands
It’s a messy but important topic, particularly because anal gland expression is becoming the new norm. It’s not always necessary and can be downright dangerous.
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Anatomy of a Dog’s Anal Glands
Anal sacs are actually glands. Humans don’t have anal glands but dogs don’t get hemorrhoids, so it’s a trade-off of sorts. Since a dog’s gastrointestinal system is different than ours, they have anal sacs and we don’t.
Anal glands are located between a dog’s external and internal anal sphincter muscles. You can’t see them with the naked eye. Looking at the anal area of the dog, imagine the dog’s anal is a clock. The anal glands, or sacs, are at around the 4 or 8 o’clock position, as indicated in the photo below.
The gland is what secretes a foul-smelling material, but it’s the ducts of the glands that expel the material out of the dog’s anal area. These glands contain both oil and sweat glands. The liquid expelled from anal glands acts as a biochemical marker for other animals, particularly dogs. Some experts say the secretion from anal sacs lubricates the anus to help the dog during defecation.
When a dog poops, the fluid from the anal glands travels through the anal gland duct near the anus and leaves behind a distinct scent. If you’ve ever wondered why your dog smells another dog’s butt or why they smell the markings left behind on the ground, your pooch is gathering information about other dogs.
Another species that has anal glands is the skunk. Skunks use the oily materials in their anal glands as a defensive tactic. If skunks feel threatened, they will spray the material. If your dog has ever been sprayed, you know that repulsive odor well.
In her book, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, Alexandra Horowitz writes, “These anal sacs also release involuntarily when a dog is afraid or alarmed. It may be no wonder that so many dogs fright at their veterinarian’s office: as part of a routine examination, vets often express (squeeze to release the contents of) the anal sacs, which can get impacted and infected.”
How Anal Gland Expression Of Dogs Became Popular
Often times the first sign of anal gland issues is a dog “scooting” on his or her back end across the floor, as if sliding. The sacs are likely itchy, irritated, inflamed, or all three. A dog’s anal area may be swollen or tender to touch and there can sometimes be associated redness along with straining to defecate.
Back when I was learning to groom my Cocker Spaniel at home, one of the courses I enrolled in came with a textbook that talked about anal sac expression. The author advised students to empty the anal sacs of a grooming client on a regular basis. Many groomers who are taught to provide services to their clients which include cleaning the ears, brushing teeth, clipping nails, and emptying anal sacs.
“This is quite a simple procedure once you are used to locating the sacs,” she wrote, “and it will only take a few seconds to complete. It’s not necessary on all dogs, only those where the sacs feel full.”
The problem with this is that every dog, like every person, is different. The vet techs who expressed our first Cocker Spaniel’s anal sacs over the years had varying degrees of experience. We also allowed our dog’s then-groomer to express the glands if needed, but I was naïve to the process. There are many qualified groomers who have done this for their clients without a problem, but the process can also create issues.
Expressing and emptying these sacs is often done too frequently. Famed veterinarian Dr. Karen Becker says many dogs have problems with these glands due to unnecessary trauma.
“If every day I told you to wake up and squeeze your parotid salivary ducts every single time you needed to eat, you could end up with soft tissue trauma,” she says.
Dr. Becker says groomers can create unnecessary trauma by constantly squeezing and expressing these glands, as can veterinarians. She advises dog parents to tell their pet’s groomer and veterinarians to leave their dog’s anal glands alone if the dog isn’t having problems.
Think about the muscle around the anal gland as a balloon. If you are constantly inflating a balloon and then letting air out, eventually that balloon will never go back to its original taut consistency. The muscle tone is lost because the glands are weakened with over manipulation.
Bottom line: Just because anal glands exist does not mean they must be manipulated, cleaned, drained, expressed, etc.
It’s not a matter of when a dog needs her glands expressed, but if she needs them expressed at all. Some dogs have their sacs expressed monthly, others once or twice a year. I wish I could go back in time and stop my first Cocker Spaniel’s groomer from ever expressing her anal sacs. She had to have them expressed regularly for a large part of her life or the material would expel on our bedding and carpeting and she would have clear discomfort.
Causes of Anal Gland Problems In Dogs
Sometimes, a dog will have anal gland issues, and this is when a veterinarian and/or qualified veterinary technician should get involved.
Like people, every dog is different. For constipation, maybe you try Benefiber but someone else finds success with Metamucil. Some people can easily digest popcorn, seeds, and beans and other folks have diverticulitis wherein they cannot process those foods with extreme discomfort, bloating or constipation. Some dogs have gastrointestinal problems, digestive issues, or anal gland issues, and some do not.
Some of the many causes of anal gland problems include but are not limited to:
Unhealthy Diet: A low-quality diet, including kibble, may produce an imbalance in a dog’s digestive tract which can compromise anal glands. Soft, mushy, or liquid-like stool can lead to anal sac issues. You want a dog’s stool to be firm and well-formed without causing distress on defecation.
Obesity: In addition to heart disease, kidney and liver disease, and much more, overweight dogs may have issues with anal gland emptying. The fat surrounding the gland may put pressure on the gland and even compromise the sac’s ability to express the fluid when defecating.
Inactivity: Dogs who don’t move a lot or don’t exercise or get some sort of physical movement in their daily routine can have anal sac issues.
Unnecessary Trauma: Pet parents, groomers, and vets or vet tech may cause undue trauma to sacs that need not be bothered in the first place. The duct can get swollen or closed and then the glands may not properly secret. Unless there is an issue, leave the anal glands alone.
Medications: Sometimes supplements and/or prescription medication like antibiotics can affect the integrity of anal glands in dogs. Even vaccines can cause anal sac imbalance, as the dog’s body tries to excrete the toxin through the liver, skin, and even anal glands. We aren’t anti-vaccine, we are anti-over vaccination in dogs.
Lumbar Spine Issues: Dogs with arthritis in their backs or those who suffer from lumbar nerve or disk issues may have anal gland problems. Because the nerves leading to and around the anal glands are directly supplied by the lumbar-sacral area, nerve flow may lessen with back problems. Always address lumbar problems with your dog’s vet, consider things like cold laser therapy, physical rehabilitation, non-steroidal supplements, all under the care of a holistic or regular veterinarian skilled in this ailment.
Allergies or Food Sensitivities: There are many symptoms of food and environmental sensitivities in dogs, including itching, redness, licking, and sneezing. Dogs may chew at their paws or itch at their ears. They can also have anal gland issues from allergies, something they are eating, something to which they are sensitive, or something in the environment like grass, mold spores, pollen, etc. Identifying the cause of the allergy or sensitivity may help prevent anal gland issues.
Parasites: Have a fecal test done by your vet. Sometimes parasites such as worms can wreak havoc, and there are many different types of worms a dog can get.
Not Enough Water Intake: Because water is the most important nutrient to a dog, clean, fresh water should be available at all times. You want your dog to consume fresh, clean water because water is needed but also because it helps to flush the kidneys and overall digestion, including maintenance of healthy anal glands.
Here’s how to get your dog to drink more water.
Anatomical Position Issues: Glands that are simply not positioned properly may cause anal sac problems. Maybe a dog’s anal sacs are too high, too low, or spread too far apart internally. A veterinarian should assess this for a proper diagnosis and treatment. It doesn’t mean the dog will have sac emptying problems, but it can contribute to issues in some dogs.
Growths or Tumors: Cocker Spaniels are prone to growths such as lipomas, and a growth or tumor can occur anywhere on the body, internally or externally in dogs. The Merck Vet Manual says anal sac neoplasms are generally nonpainful and apocrine gland adenocarcinomas of the anal sac are generally seen in older female dogs. They advise diagnosis of tumors via biopsy, so always check with your pup’s veterinarian.
On a regular basis (for me, it’s weekly during Touch Me Tuesday), examine your dog’s tail, back end, private areas, feel inside the groin gently for any lumps, bumps, lesions, or anything outside the norm. Is there a strong odor? Is it anal sac expression time at the vet? Praise your dog the entire time, never yell, and if your dog is not happy about it, do the touches in short bursts as if they are a reward. Be happy, you could be saving a life by catching things early.
Remember, a vet can NEVER tell what a lump is unless an aspirate or biopsy of some sort is performed. The naked eye cannot replace lab equipment. (I know, we have had more lumps with Cockers aspirated over the years than I can count).
Bigger Issues: If anal glands cause problems and go unchecked or properly cared for, an infection, abscess, or rupture can occur. I’ve had a Cocker Spaniel with an anal gland infection and had no idea! The first sign was a slightly offensive odor emanating from her anal area, which merited a vet visit.
(hint: I wipe my dog’s butt with these unscented baby wipes after each bowel movement to keep the area clean).
The veterinarian said our Cocker’s glands felt full, which I would have no idea about since I didn’t empty her sacs. She expressed our dog’s anal glands and some blood came out along with a thick brown material. Sometimes the infection can be discolored such as yellow or green or blood-tinged, as was our case. She was put on a round of antibiotic, Clavamox, and I never would have known unless our vet “felt the fullness” and saw the fluid expressed.
Abscessed anal sacs generally have a reddish-brown exudate and may be swollen or red in the area of the anus. The folks at petMD say anal glands may be impacted when the material being expressed is thick, pasty and brown. Again, a veterinarian needs to be involved in doing this.
Ruptured anal glands are the result of anal sacs that are so swollen and infected that an abscess forms and eventually ruptures. Most often, the rupture is visibly seen if allowed to get that far. This is painful and can lead to severe infection if not treated emergently.
Should I Empty My Dog’s Anal Glands Manually?
In many cases, no your dog’s anal glands should not be manually expressed. There are a lot of videos online and well-meaning websites that instruct pet parents on the practice of internal and external anal sac expression.
We recommend leaving anatomical assessment and manual manipulation of canine body parts up to the experts at the veterinarian. Again, your vet need not express sacs on a routine basis unless there is a major reason to do so. Tell your vet you don’t want sacs expressed as a courtesy. Ask why they are expressing the sacs and facilitate a conversation before your dog is removed from the exam room. The only dumb question is the one we don’t ask, right? You have rights at the veterinarian’s office and that includes asking questions.
Removing A Dog’s Anal Glands
This is a huge surgery and not something to be considered for most dogs. In some extreme cases and when it is absolutely necessary, anal glands can be removed. Dr. Karen Becker calls anal gland removal a salvage procedure that can have complications. Anal sacculectomy can cause fecal incontinence. This surgery is a last resort, get a second opinion type of scenario.
How To Keep a Dog’s Anal Glands Healthy
- Keep your dog’s weight healthy
- Exercise your dog regularly
- Feed a high-quality diet. Here’s what we feed and how to choose the best dog food for your pooch.
- Ensure the dog is consuming enough clean, fresh water daily
- Get any allergies or sensitivities under control
- Ensure your dog has firm healthy stools, as anal gland issues can be a secondary condition to a bowel issue. A change in diet can help in many cases.
- Get regular blood work to assess your dog’s overall health including the liver and kidneys
- Enough quality fiber in the diet: Some dogs, even on the best diets and with the best pet parent, can still have anal sac issues. Not all fiber is created equal, and feeding a low-quality food with additional fiber sprinkled on will likely not help. Too much fiber can be a bad thing as can the wrong type of fiber. Things with powdered cellulose or heavy starches or grains are likely the wrong types. Dogs with chronic diarrhea and constipation may be helped by insoluble fiber, but always talk to your vet, a veterinary nutritionist, or a holistic vet.
- Glandex: Available in a powder to sprinkle on food or a chewable, Glandex is an anal gland supplement to help support the underlying cause of issues so the dog can more easily and naturally defecate. I know folks who swear by this product and if my pup ever has an issue, we would try the chews. It’s the fiber in Glandex composed of pumpkin seed powder and a few others that are designed to help a dog’s anal sac issues.
- Canned pumpkin: Not the pumpkin pie canned, but the actual pumpkin in a can. Adding a very small amount to a dog’s food may soften the stool.
- Omega-3 fish oils: Fatty acids in the form of fish oil can help and as part of your dog’s overall health in general. We like the Dr. Harvey’s fish oil pump and fish oil capsules.
- Probiotics may help on a regular or as-needed basis. I’m also a fan of Answers Raw Goat Milk and my Cocker Spaniel loves it as a treat in the morning several times a week.
- Vet check: If you suspect your dog has anal gland issues, have your vet check if they are full and if expression is needed.
Dogs, like people, are each individual beings and what works for one dog may not work for another. Sometimes a dog will need his or her sacs expressed, perhaps regularly, and that’s perfectly okay if necessary.
Has your dog ever experienced anal gland issues? Let us know in the comments below.
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Note: The above post contains some Amazon affiliate links for which I earn a small income if you click through and purchase something on the links. Please see my disclosure policy for details.