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The Truth About....Anal Sacs.

 
In any other profession, if a little old lady walked into the office and asked me to "squeeze Muffy's butt," I'd be looking for hidden cameras.

anal sac diagram
I went to vet school, not art school. Obviously.
Anal sacs, also referred to as anal glands, are pockets that sit right by your dog or cat's anal opening at 5 and 7 o'clock. They produce a thin, nasty smelling fluid which is supposed to be excreted through a small pore every time the pet defecates (apparently in the animal kingdom, it doesn't stink enough on its own). There's muscle pressing up against them also, so pets can express them when stressed out, as anyone who's ever really ticked their cat off can testify.

So, there's my first point - every pet has anal sacs, it is perfectly natural that they fill up and empty, and unless there's a problem they should not need manual expression. There is absolutely no reason for your vet (or more likely, groomer) to empty them unless the pet has a problem that prevents them from doing so on their own. In fact, messing with them unnecessarily may even cause problems.

That said, it is not uncommon for pets to have trouble with their anal sacs. Because the opening they empty through is very small, if the tissue becomes irritated and inflamed those openings may become too constricted to allow complete emptying. As the fluid sits in the gland it tends to thicken, making emptying even more difficult and creating a cycle that will worsen without intervention. This is very uncomfortable for the pet - you can liken it to having a big zit that doesn't want to pop - and often results in signs like:

  • Scooting (dragging their rear on the carpet)
  • Licking/biting at their rear
  • Acting uncomfortable when defecating

 
Moderately abnormal anal sac secretions.
However, anything that causes irritation of the anus, such as allergies or parasites, will also cause those signs. So when signs first crop up, you should visit your veterinarian to figure out exactly what the problem is. They can identify if the sacs are too full (again, it's perfectly normal for some fluid to be in there) or if the fluid is abnormal; and, if neither is the case they can pursue other problems that may be causing the irritation. Most of the time there's no infection involved, but when there is the vet can also flush the sacs out and infuse them with an antibiotic/steroid cream to calm things down. 
 
Likewise, if there is a problem with the anal sacs we should be trying to figure out why if possible. In my experience quite a few of these pets have underlying allergies that get the tissue inflamed in the first place; when we address the allergies, the other problems decrease or disappear. Small or soft stools may be part of the problem as well; in these cases adding some fiber to the diet can be quite helpful. Tumors may also develop in this area and prevent emptying of the sacs. 
 
There are definitely some pets who will have chronic, recurring anal sac issues regardless of the underlying causes or what we do about it. Once we know that, having them expressed by a groomer or technician is a great way to keep them comfortable and save some cash on veterinary visits. But it's important to remember that your vet is the only one who's really qualified to diagnose the problem and make sure something else isn't going on. Occasionally, with repeated infections or ruptures, we may even decide to surgically remove the sacs. And, for those brave, willing souls whose pets have trouble a few times a year, I'm happy to teach them how to properly express them. "Squeezing Muffy's butt" is one thing I have no interest in cornering the market on, after all.