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A smelly problem

It’s an anatomy term that applies to both dogs and cats- that when you hear it, you might think your veterinarian was talking about something else, but they’re not. We’re talking about anal sacs. Anal SACS. If you’re not paying attention during the conversation, it may catch you off guard. But… I digress.

Labrador retriever puppy looking at the butt of an English Bulldog and puppy, isolated on whiteYour dog or cat has two of these sacs, one on each side of their rectum. The best way to tell you where they are, is if your dog’s backside was a clock, the sacs would be at 4 o’clock and 8 o’clock. There was a time (see what I did there?) when these sacs served a purpose. They are like the scent glands of skunks and ferrets, who release their stinky contents when they’re nervous or threatened. We think that dogs and cats at one time used a similar method to communicate with others in their packs to warn of threats or danger.

Fast forward through the evolutionary process- our dogs and cats no longer deal with the same types of threats they faced in the wild, so the anal sac doesn’t really serve any purpose in our domesticated pets today. No predators routinely stalk your dog on your living room sofa. If they do, we need to talk.

Although anal sacs have pretty much become obsolete, dogs and cats have not evolved to the point that they’re born without them. Both dogs and cats can live a perfectly healthy and normal life without them- kind of like our appendix. We can consider surgically removing them if they’re chronically infected, or if your pet is constantly licking them or if they’re consistently draining on the new carpet and recliner. This may be an option if bringing your pet in every few weeks to have the sacs expressed is inconvenient- or if your pet is groomed regularly- having your groomer do it. The benefits of expressing your pet’s anal sacs is it minimizes normal draining as well as the risk of infection.

Smaller breed dogs tend to have more issues with anal glands than large breed dogs- and cats rarely have chronic issues- but no breed is completely immune to this problem. Some of the more problematic breeds when it comes to anal glands are:

  • Toy/Miniature Poodles
  • Chihuahuas
  • Lhasa Apsos
  • Cocker Spaniels
  • Basset Hounds
  • Beagles

Every so often, the anal sacs may become infected. Infection often follows a bout of diarrhea. This is a design flaw- the bacteria from the diarrhea gets into the sac via the duct causing an infection. When this happens, the sac becomes filled with pus and has the potential to rupture. If you’ve ever experienced this, you probably would agree that it’s one of the worst smells on the planet. If you have not experienced it, consider yourself lucky. If you’re really lucky, they’ll rupture while we’re treating them at the hospital- and not on your La-z-Boy.

Ruptured anal glands are serious, but they’re not life-threatening unless they go untreated. While they are painful for your pet, we can easily treat them with antibiotics and pain medication. If they’re a chronic issue, we can discuss their removal.

On rare occasions, we find tumors in the anal sac. If your pet is regularly groomed, and your groomer is astute, they can sometimes know if there’s a problem back there. If they tell you they sense something is wrong in the hind-end, call your veterinarian to investigate. A typical symptom is increased water intake and urination as the tumor will cause a spike in blood calcium, making your pet drink more water. If caught early enough, the entire tumor can be removed before it spreads to the lymph nodes in the pelvic area.

I will spare you the photos, and fortunately smell-o-vision hasn’t been developed yet for the internet. If you have questions about this topic, I’m happy to discuss them during your next visit.

Excerpts of this blog were inspired by and are attributed to my good friend and colleague, Marty Greer, DVM of Veterinary Village, Lomira, WI.