Anal Glands — An Unpleasant Reality

After a 14-hour day, I slowly trudge up the staircase. Right before I ascend the last step, I am hit with an odor that defies sensory perception. I think to myself that chemical warfare is taking place…No, someone has thrown 12 skunks into my living room! My eyes begin to tear and my nose begins to burn…it's all over! I'm snapped back to reality only to find my 90-pound Chesapeake male "hydroplaning" on his butt across the hardwood floors of the living room. Once again, it is time to express his anal glands.

All humor aside (although there is very little humor to be found outside of the ritualistic "butt dance/scoot"), anal glands are a commonality in all dog breeds, from Dachshunds to St. Bernards. Anal sacs are the reservoirs for the secretions of anal glands which are located on either side of a dog's anus, found at approximately four and eight o'clock. These sacs contain a secreted liquid that ranges in color from a brownish-yellow to a light gray in healthy dogs. This liquid is usually emptied during normal bowel movements, or when a dog is frightened, scared or marking territory. In most dogs, these sacs empty easily. However, some dogs (lucky me!) are not able to empty the sacs properly and become susceptible to anal sac disease.

Sure signs that your dog may be suffering from anal gland/sac impaction are: scooting across the floor or grass, self-tail chasing or chewing/licking/biting at the anus. Presumably this is all done to alleviate the dog’s discomfort.

Recently there has been much talk on Chesapeake Bay Retriever interactive forums regarding anal gland problems. My personal veterinarian (Dr. Kristine Conway*), a long time Chesapeake fancier, told us that this disease does not discriminate. Dr. Conway's personal belief as to why my dog suffers on a monthly basis is because he is slightly higher in the rear and carries some fat as well as muscle in this area making it difficult to express his anal sacs independently. His stools are "rock solid firm," but he does not have the ability to completely express his anal glands on his own.

There are three stages to anal gland disease:

  1. Anal Gland Impaction - This occurs when liquid accumulates and thickens, causing the anal sacs to become distended and difficult to empty. A veterinarian, a groomer or owner can usually relieve this impaction by rectally squeezing the grape-like sacs individually until the aqueous substance is expressed.
  2. Anal Sacculitis or Inflammation of the Anal Sac - In this stage the anal sac material continues to accumulate and may become infected with various bacterial forms.
  3. Abscess Formation - This stage is the most painful to the dog and most severe as well. An abscess could possibly rupture through the skin, leaving a weeping or oozy red sore that is visible next to the anus.

It is important to note that ALL stages of anal sac disease are treatable by a veterinarian. If your dog is a chronic sufferer from anal sac impaction, there is a surgical removal option, an increasingly routine and popular procedure involving anesthetization of the dog. There are also studies currently being done in which silver nitrate sticks are inserted directly into the anal sacs as a potential form of treatment (published data findings are not yet available).

It's important to consult with your veterinarian about this disease. A dog can suffer from the disease and not show any of the typical physical manifestations described previously. You can ask your veterinarian about this during a normal physical exam of your dog. My veterinarian was MORE THAN PLEASED to teach me the technique of "expression." Like clockwork, every two-months I

don my latex gloves…get the jar of lubricating jelly and break out the MilkBones and bring my dog onto the deck to begin the ritual. After four years of this, he has become well adjusted to this uncomfortable and embarrassing routine. When it is done and the discarded materials are safely thrown away in a bio-hazard marked trash bag, my dog always gives me a look that says, "Thanks!" Unfortunately, I have not yet mastered returning this form of "thanks."

Anal glands and anal sacs aren't a popular topic of conversation among dog fanciers. They are, however, a part of your dog. Responsible owners owe it their dogs to recognize symptoms of a potential problem. Early intervention and identification of the disease state will make all parties involved much happier…trust me.

—Michael McCarthy, MD

* Special thanks to Kris Conway, DVM of the Hodes Veterinary Group in Mine Hill, NJ for her time and discussions on this topic