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Why is my dog itching its bottom, is it an anal gland problem?

Posted by Claire Cable on 12 May 2017

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Owners’ frequently bring their dogs to see us because their dogs are itchy around their bottoms, and we hear some interesting descriptions of the problem such as ‘sliding’, ‘scooting’ ‘nibbling’ ‘skidding’ and ‘pulling wheelies’

Regardless of the words used to describe it, we are talking about dogs rubbing their back ends along the ground and or persistently licking and biting around their anus and tail base area. Some will itch their sides, or seem uncomfortable when defecating. Owners will often observe the skin around the anus and tail base looking moist and red, and there may also be hair missing. Sometimes there can be fishy odour and occasionally a swelling next to the anus and leakage of foul fishy smelling fluid.

Three common causes of itchy bottoms are fleas, worms and anal glands issues with anal glands being top of the list and the main focus of this discussion.  Less common causes are allergies, skin infections and tumours.

The first thing we do after a good general examination is check on the worming and flea treatment history (what products have been used on all the pets in the household and how frequently) and have a good look for evidence of fleas (live fleas and flea dirt).

Worm issues can be a little tricky to diagnose on examination unless the infestation is severe and there are adult worms or tapeworm segments obvious in the faeces or stuck in the fur around the bottom. If we suspect that worms may be a problem we usually just treat the dog with a good quality wormer at the correct dose and repeat it again in a few weeks’ time to see if the problem resolves. In some cases we may send a faecal sample to the lab for parasite analysis.

Once we are happy we have flea and worm issues covered our next step is to check the anal glands – you know this is coming when you see us reaching for the latex examination gloves and KY jelly!

So what are the anal glands?

  • Anal glands are small paired pockets located just inside the anus at the 4 and 8 o’clock position. The gland empties through a short and narrow duct to the surface near the inside edge of the anus. The cells lining the glands produce a brownish to grey coloured really foul smelling oily fluid.
  • We are often asked what the purpose of anal glands is other than to cause dogs’ problems. There a couple of theories; one is that the secretion is involved in territory marking and the other is that the secretion helps to lubricate the faeces and assist in their smooth passage.
  • Anal gland problems are more common in small breeds of dogs than the large breeds.
  • In normal dogs small amounts of secretion leak out naturally during defecation and periods of activity keeping the glands empty. For some unknown reason some dogs' anal glands produce a rather thick, semi-solid material which is much more prone to blocking the gland because the thick secretion can’t pass through the narrow duct to the outside (we call this impaction).  In many of these cases the gland will become infected, causing pain and inflammation. In some cases these blocked glands may burst causing an abscess to form. The abscess may also burst leaking a mixture of anal gland secretion, pus and blood.
  • Infections of the gland are treated by expressing the gland, flushing it and then infusing a topical antibiotic into the gland along with pain relief and sometimes a course of antibiotic tablets. We usually repeat the treatment about once a week for two to three weeks until we are happy the infection has resolved. In very relaxed dogs we can do this consciously but many require sedation.
  • Anal gland abscesses are more serious and may require surgery to get the gland draining and to remove the unhealthy tissue, along with a couple of weeks of antibiotics and pain relief medication.
  • We recommend that dogs that produce a thick anal gland secretion come and see us every couple of months to have their glands expressed to try and reduce the risk of glands becoming impacted and becoming infected/abscessing.
  • In dogs with repeated anal gland issues we may recommend surgical removal of the glands.

 Prevent that Itchy Bottom:

  • Keep worming and flea treatment up to date using safe effective veterinary products on all animals in the household.
  • Watch out for your dog dragging its back end along the ground or frequently turning to lick or bite at the base of its tail or anal region, or showing signs of discomfort when defecating.
  • There are some theories that increasing the fibre content of your dogs’ diet to bulk up the stool and encourage natural emptying of the gland may be of benefit, but in our years of experience we have not seen any benefit in this.
  • Keep your dog in shape and active. Active and slim dogs with good muscle tone are more likely to naturally release their anal gland secretions while going about their normal daily activities.

If left untreated, anal sac impactions, infections and abscesses can be a real ‘pain in the butt’ for your dog so don’t ignore your dogs’ signs of discomfort and come and see us.