All dogs and cats have two anal glands (one on either side of their bum hole). These glands secrete a substance that is usually brown and oily. Dogs use it for territorial marking or as a form of communication, which explains why these glands can also be referred to as "scent glands." In dogs and cats, every time they pass stool, it should put enough pressure on the anal glands that some of the secretion is deposited on the surface of the stool. Other dogs and cats are then able to tell who has been in the neighborhood, just by sniffing the stools they find. Since each animal’s anal glands produce a unique scent, dogs can often tell who they are meeting from sniffing each other's bums.
Problems can arise when your pet's anal glands do not express properly. You can tell that your pet is having problems with his anal glands if you notice him either licking his anal area or scooting along the floor. Your dog's anus may be smellier than usual as well. When the anal glands fail to empty normally, the result can be impaction. Impaction is most common in small dog breeds, but can occur in any dog. Among the causes of anal gland impaction are: soft stools, small anal gland openings and overactive anal glands. The anal gland secretions become thick and pasty. Anal gland impaction is treated by manual emptying of the glands.
How do I empty an anal gland, you ask? My first answer is don’t do it yourself. Your dog is having enough trouble without you trying to empty those things and not knowing what you are doing. Take your dog to the veterinarian and let him or her do it. If you are stubborn and would like to do it yourself, though, here's how:
Prepare a warm moist wash cloth or towel. Raise the dog's tail and locate the anal glands. The glands should be at approximately 5 o'clock and seven o'clock positions in relation to the anal circumference. You will feel the glands as small firm nodules. Place the cloth over the area. Position your thumb on one gland and index finger on the opposite gland. By pressing in and squeezing your fingers toward each other the glands should empty. Wipe the area clean with the cloth. Repeat if necessary. If the discharge is bloody or purulent in appearance there is probably an anal gland infection - go to the vet.
While that is one description of how to do it, I have had different veterinarians show me different ways of doing it, one of which involved actually putting your finger in the dog’s anus. Yuck. Have your veterinarian do it or show you how.
When anal gland impaction is left untreated, your dog could suffer an anal gland abscess. These are no fun. Abscesses must be lanced by a veterinarian, and antibiotics are usually given to the pet. Yes, lanced! When my dog had his first problem with his anal glands, we didn't notice it soon enough. One of his glands became abscessed and had to be lanced. We heard him screaming all the way out in the vet's waiting room. Then we had to use warm compresses on the area to relieve some of the pain, reduce the swelling, and drain the anal gland of blood and anal fluid.
Pets with recurrent anal gland impactions are often placed on a high fiber diet. The high fiber makes the animal's stool more bulky. The stool will put more pressure on the anal glands and hopefully the glands will express themselves when the animal defecates. This has helped my dog greatly. We have only had to have his glands emptied once a year since we started feeding him a high fiber diet. Obviously, a high fiber diet might mean that your dog has to go to the bathroom more, mine had doubled his trips out for "number two" on his high fiber diet. I have found that mixing a high fiber food with my dog’s regular food has done the trick.
For pets with chronic problems, surgical removal of the glands can be an answer. Complications such as fecal incontinence can occur with this operation, though. My vet says this is a rare result, but it doesn't sound good. Incontinence is not something that would be easy to handle for you or your dog.
So, pay attention to those anal glands!