All dogs have anal glands. Most of the time your dog won't need any help from you, but sometimes these glands get impacted and require human or even veterinary intervention to clear them out.

Most dog owners know about anal glands from the stinky odor they give off. But while these glands may be gross, they still sometimes need some extra love and care.

Why Do Dogs Have Anal Glands?

The anal glands, also called anal sacs, are scent glands that aid in communication with other dogs. Your dog has two of them located at approximately 5 and 7 o’clock between the muscles just inside his anus. Every time he defecates, the pressure of the stool and contracting muscles expels a small amount of the smelly material inside the glands. This is what gives his stool that distinctive stinky odor. 

Dogs can also express their anal glands when they are afraid as a defense mechanism to distract an attacker. If your dog has been scared or startled by something, such as getting chased by a neighbor’s dog or even a loud thunderclap, you may have noticed a foul smell afterward. That smell is courtesy of his anal glands being emptied.

Impacted Anal Glands and Infection

If the anal glands do not empty properly, they can swell up and become uncomfortable. Glands can also overfill if the exit duct becomes blocked. This is an impaction. And since anal glands are warm and moist, an impacted gland is the perfect place for bacteria to set up camp and start an infection. Alternatively, an anal gland can become infected first and the infection lead to an impaction.

Anal gland impactions and infections are extremely uncomfortable for your dog. Infected glands tend to form abscesses, filling the already overstuffed gland with pus. Eventually the gland will rupture, usually through the body wall on your dog’s backside as that is the path of least resistance. As you can imagine, this is a messy and unpleasant affair. 

Impactions and infections can affect one or both of the anal glands.

illustration of dog scooting
Credit: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

Signs of Anal Gland Issues

The classic signature of anal gland problems is scooting. Your dog will drag his butt across the ground or floor, attempting to relieve the pressure and discomfort in his glands. But not all dogs with anal gland issues will scoot, and your dog may show other signs as well. Signs of an impacted or infected anal gland include:

  • Scooting
  • Licking at his anus persistently
  • Strong odor
  • Redness and/or swelling around the anus
  • Straining to defecate
  • Crying out when defecating
  • Blood or pus in stool
  • Blood, pus, or anal gland material draining down dog’s rear
  • Blood, pus, or anal gland material left behind in places where your dog rests

What Causes Anal Gland Problems?

A variety of things can contribute to anal gland issues. Some common causes and contributing factors include:

  • Diarrhea (soft stools don’t properly express the anal glands during defecation)
  • Constipation (no stool = no anal gland expression)
  • Obesity
  • Chronic skin infections (bacterial or yeast)
  • Allergies (environmental and food-related)
  • Mites
  • Hypothyroidism

More rarely, anal gland impaction can be caused by a tumor or a congenital defect that prevents normal drainage.

Small breed dogs are somewhat more likely to have issues with their anal glands, but these problems can beset dogs of all sizes.

When to Call the Vet

Any sign of anal gland issues is an appropriate reason to call your vet, although for minor cases you can handle expression at home (more on that shortly!). Most anal gland problems are not an emergency and can be scheduled during regular business hours, but be sure to notify the veterinary staff if your dog has a ruptured anal gland.

Most anal gland impactions can be resolved by manual expression. Your veterinarian or a veterinary technician will reach just inside your dog’s anus to gently squeeze the impacted anal gland to release the contents. Your vet can tell if the gland’s contents are normal or not by their color, consistency, and odor. Normal anal gland material is muddy brown in color and the consistency of slightly runny toothpaste. It has a stinky, distinctive smell (often described as fishy or even metallic). Thick glandular material or the presence of blood or pus can indicate an infection. If an infection is suspected, your dog will likely be started on an antibiotic. 

If an abscess is present, your dog will probably need to be sedated so that he isn’t in pain during treatment. For anal gland abscesses that haven’t ruptured yet, your vet will drain the abscess and then flush the gland and surrounding areas thoroughly to remove as much debris and bacteria as possible. Ruptured abscesses will also be cleaned thoroughly in a similar manner. Your dog will be started on an antibiotic and you may be sent home with antiseptic wipes to keep the area clean while it heals. For a large abscess, your vet may place a drain that will be left in for a few days to allow fluids to continue to drain from the area.

Severe or chronic anal gland problems may require anal gland removal. This is a complex surgery due to the number of muscles and nerves around the anus, and there is a risk of permanent nerve damage. While your regular veterinarian may be comfortable doing this surgery, he or she may refer you to a boarded surgeon at a specialty clinic.

How to Express Anal Glands

Basic anal gland expression is something you can do at home if you’re feeling a little brave and your dog has just started scooting. It is also highly recommended to have your vet or a veterinary technician show you how to do an anal gland expression before you try it the first time.

Supplies you will need:

  • At least one exam glove
  • Lube
  • Paper towel
  • Dog-safe anti-odor spray
  • Another person to help
  • Muzzle (only needed if your dog does not like to be handled—if he is in pain he should be examined by a veterinarian)

Once you have everything ready, you can get started.

  1. Put on the glove(s) and get your paper towel ready to catch anal gland material before it shoots out at you or across the room. One trick is to poke your index finger through the middle of the paper towel so it forms a skirt around your finger.
  2. Have your helper hold your dog in a standing position. An easy way to hold most dogs is to loop one arm around his neck and the other under his abdomen.
  3. Apply lube to the end of your gloved finger. Gently insert your fingertip into the anus. Feel for pea-sized sacs at approximately 7 and 5 o’clock (bottom left and right of the circle). They may be larger in big dogs or if they are impacted.
  4. Gently squeeze and milk the glands to release the trapped material. This may take a few tries if you haven’t done it before.
  5. Go to the next gland and repeat. Both glands can be done with one hand, but if needed you can switch.
  6. Wipe off any material on your dog’s rear with the paper towel. Spritz with the grooming spray to help with the stink.

If the glands are difficult to express or the contents contain blood or pus, your dog may have an infection and should be seen by a veterinarian.

How Often Should I Express My Dog’s Anal Glands?

Anal gland expression should only be done on an as-needed basis. Most dogs go through life without ever needing a manual expression or only on rare occasions. Do not express his anal glands without cause. Expressing them frequently can cause irritation and damage to the tissues, potentially causing scar tissue to form and block the drainage duct.

If your dog has chronic issues with his anal glands, he should be examined by a veterinarian to determine the cause. Your vet will treat any underlying conditions that may be contributing to his troubles. Weight loss and increased fiber intake are common pieces of a treatment plan. Two safe sources of fiber for dogs are canned pumpkin (not canned pie filling—the only ingredient should be pumpkin) and psyllium. Your vet may also recommend an Omega 3 supplement to help with inflammation and skin health.