I love dogs and (almost) all things dog, but one thing I did not want to become an expert on is anal glands. I think most any dog owner is vaguely aware of anal glands. If your dog is licking their hind end more than usual, or scooting their butt all over your freshly cleaned floor, or smelling like a 10 day dead fish marinated in liquid poop…the culprit is probably their anal glands.
If you have not heard of anal glands (lucky you!), they are at the rear end of the dog. The smelly end. They are two little kidney bean sized glands seated just inside of the rectum, at “5 and 7 o’clock around the anus.” The normal order of things is that these little glands fill up with foul smelling fluid and they then empty themselves out when your dog poops, leaving behind a nice reek for other dogs to sniff. Except, sometimes they don’t empty themselves. Sometimes things go terribly wrong. That’s where the butt-rubbing on your carpet comes in.
Why, dear God, why?!
The stools need to be firm enough to squeeze those glands into emptying themselves. Firm poop, you want your dog to have it! If the dog’s diet is too low in fiber, they can suffer chronically from too-full anal glands. If the dog goes through a bout of diarrhea for any reason, it can leave the glands full and uncomfortable. Dogs with chronic tummy upset and the resulting soft stools are also at risk. Obese dogs or dogs who are not exercised frequently can also be prone to poor rear end muscle tone and that can result in the glands not emptying properly. Some dog’s glands are simply situated “deeper” and “lower” than they should be, and this unfortunately means that when the stool passes out of the dog’s rectum – the full pressure of the bowel movement is not pressing on the glands and they are left with fluid inside.
What can be done?
Prevention! The dog’s poop needs to be firmer. This can mean a total diet change, either to a different kibble formula or even to a raw food diet. It can mean supplementing the existing diet with more fiber. Pumpkin is touted as the go to diet additive to introduce more fiber into the dog’s diet. Always use pure pumpkin, never pumpkin pie filling. Diggin’ Your Dog makes an easy to use pumpkin fiber supplement. My dog and I are extremely happy with a powdered fiber supplement called Glandex. The most important thing to remember is that every dog is different, and while it can be frustrating to find the right solution to keep your dog’s anal glands happy, it is worth the trial and error.
When your dog is scooting, licking/chewing and cannot get those glands empty…someone has to manually empty them. This means a trip to the veterinarian’s office where the staff can express your dog’s glands, and teach you how to do so at home if you so choose. Some groomers express the anal glands. If you do learn how to express your dog’s glands, remember to be patient, use plenty of praise and treats (especially peanut butter or squeeze cheese that takes focus to consume.) Have a gentle assistant help you to restrain your dog and feed him treats while you do the expression.
However! If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! Expressing a dog’s glands if they are not showing symptoms of discomfort/fullness is extremely unnecessary. If your dog’s anal glands are working as they should be, just leave them do their job be happy about that. Manual emptying of the glands can cause tissue trauma and swelling and there is no reason to do so unless it is truly necessary.
This will not be considered a how-to on how to express a dog’s anal glands! I highly recommend getting an experienced veterinarian, technician or skilled groomer to show you how to express your dog’s anal glands if it is necessary. The glands can be expressed externally or internally. External expression is exactly what it sounds like: pressure is placed on either side of anus until the fluid expresses (if the glands are very full you can actually feel them). It is less invasive, but in my experience, less effective – external expression does not always completely empty the glands. Internal expression is also exactly what it sounds like: straight to the source! Finger inside of the dog’s rectum while the thumb places opposing pressure on the gland externally with slight pressure applied until the gland expresses the fluid.
I don’t have to tell you: Manual expression is not fun for man or beast. Most dogs are not likely to take the finger probing without a struggle. When the fluid expresses it often shoots straight out of the rear end and it is best to stay out of the way! (TU’s Katie’s wise words: Make sure your mouth is closed when you express anal glands!) It takes some practice to learn to express a dog’s glands, and it helps if you can grow four extra hands.
And sometimes, things go extra terribly wrong.
My dog Molly is a poster child for bad anal glands. She came to me as a very young shelter puppy, a stray on the streets of a big city. She always had a difficult tummy. We tried a lot of different foods and she still had chronically soft stools as a pup, often diarrhea. She often licked her hind end and was able to relieve her full glands this way. She was rather tidy and efficient about it even if she was smelly - we called it “busting a gland.” We have visited the vet or groomers countless times for manual expressions. The vet tried to teach me how to express them myself one time and it was a miserable failure. I DIY just about every aspect of dog care and grooming, but anal gland expression was the one thing I said “No!” to.
Molly is the perfect storm. She continues to be very prone to stomach upset and gets soft stools rather easily from dietary changes or too many treats and she also has very deep set, recessed anal glands. She is a challenge to manually express, even for the experienced. It is amazing that we went 6 years without a major issue.
A few months ago my husband chose to share three chicken skins with Molly. (Sigh.) She had a few days of diarrhea followed by soft stools and then she was busy “bustin’ a gland” like nobody’s business. Then she started….leaking. Gland fluid on my couch covers, blankets, bathrobe, floor, crate padding. On my pillow. One night I woke up and my pajama pants had a big smelly wet spot on them from where Molly had her butt cozied up to me. Yuck! This was excessive, but it just felt like another chapter of Molly being kind of gross and having butt trouble. I took her to the vet and had her glands expressed and was dismayed that the very next day she continued leaking. This went on for about two weeks before Molly woke me up at 3am with her licking and when I turned on the light, her tail and hind end were covered in blood. Whoah.
Back to the vet office and this time we made an appointment to see the vet rather than to just have her glands expressed. The vet on duty that night told me he had never expressed more difficult glands on a dog, and he told me that Molly’s right anal gland was badly infected. And let me just tell you, an infected anal gland is a pain in the butt, literally. There is a lot of bacteria in the area, the dog is licking at it and irritating the tissue even further. If an infection progresses without treatment, the gland can actually abscess and rupture externally. Ouch.
The treatment for Molly’s infected anal gland began with several courses of different oral antibiotics and warm compresses to the anus. I soaked a washcloth with hot water, wrung it out and placed it right underneath Molly’s tail and applied gentle pressure for 5-10 minutes each evening. We visited the vet weekly for manual anal gland expression to evaluate Molly’s progress. I groaned every time I saw blood fly out onto the exam table – that meant the infection was not going away. When the first two rounds of (different) oral drugs did not work, we moved on to direct “infusions”. Infusing the anal gland involves using a small catheter to access the anal gland’s emptying duct and packing the gland full of antibiotics directly. The rectum has to be pulled out slightly in order for the vet or tech to be able to access this duct – not very fun for the dog at all. Molly’s infection took two rounds of infusions before the fluid that was expressed was a mixture of blood and regular fluid. It was the first sign of improvement! Another infusion, and the next week, all regular fluid. It took nearly two months to resolve. I did not think it would ever resolve.
For the first month after the infection cleared up, I was instructed to express the glands weekly. By now I had gotten over my shyness of doing Molly’s gland expressions myself. I wanted to be able to keep an close eye on that gland fluid to be certain that the infection was not returning. Weekly expressions are definitely not necessary anymore – if I notice Molly “bustin’ a gland” I take her into the bathroom and express her glands for her now. And if she is not fussing at her hind end, we leave well enough alone. Less manipulation to the tissue back there is best.
If infections or abscesses become a recurrent issue, it is possible to surgically remove the anal glands. This was very much a Last Resort decision as far as I was concerned. The anal glands are uncomfortably close to the nerves that control the anal sphincter. In other words…if there is a complication your dog could become unable to control their bowel movements. I am hopeful that Molly and I will never have to face that sort of decision, and that her anal glands stay happy and empty for many years to come!