The body is messy. Eyes tear, mouths drool. Snotty noses, hair dandruff, ear wax, sweaty armpits. The body is messy. Veterinary medicine can proudly compare complaint for complaint with its human counterpart, and then some! Dogs and cats have anal glands. Beat that, huh? Talk about one-up-man- ship! Humans lack these anal sacs or glands. As with any other body part, if it exists it can become diseased, break down, suffer infection, get cancer. Cats are less frequently afflicted by anal sac disease, so we will continue our focus on the dog.
The anal glands are tiny tear-drop shaped sacs lined with glandular tissue. They sit at about 5 o’clock and 7 o’clock around the anal sphincter, if you imagine the anus in the shape of a clock and the tail stands at 12 (Noon or midnight, your choice). These tiny glands produce a thin brown fluid. Two ducts, or holes from the sac, open onto the anal sphincter and every time your dog defecates a tiny amount of fluid is expressed with it. Considered a scent marker unique to each dog, the fluid is best described as having a pungent, “fishy” odor. Ideally they are emptied on a regular basis.
Sometimes the fluid thickens and won’t pass easily. Like an impacted wisdom tooth that gets blocked as it tries to push through the gum, this thickened fluid becomes “impacted” in the sac. The resulting pressure hurts, and dogs will often drag their bottom or “scoot” trying to relieve the pressure. If bacteria gain entry, pus and blood add to the misery. I have seen dogs barely able to walk as their entire thigh becomes swollen and poisoned with an infected, impacted sac. The skin may rupture under pressure and the whole mess drains to the outside. Usually on your couch.
That’s where we come in, your family veterinarian. Definitely reason for a visit, your veterinarian will examine both anal sacs and appropriate medication will be prescribed. Occasionally surgery for abscess care is required. Should your pet have recurrent problems with their anal glands then they can be removed in a surgery called an anal sacculectomy. Anal glands are routinely “expressed” from the outside by dog groomers before bathing. For impacted glands your veterinarian is trained and equipped to drain the sac more effectively.
Of course, the discussion of medical or surgical management of these ailments becomes a bit dry. Perhaps boring? A shift in focus would be to question other uses for the anal gland fluid, which brings us straight to …. The perfume business. Whaaaat? Of the five (5) major senses : sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, scientists believe that SMELL is the main determinant of flavor in food. Your sense of smell is powerful. Perfumes are constructed with layers of fragrance. Start with a flower like a rose. By itself that might be overly sweet. To add complexity, you could balance the sweetness with a spice or perhaps with musk. “Musk” in its strictest definition refers to a substance found in male musk deer but today “musk” is used in a more general definition to include similar secretions from other animals. The anal sac secretions of Civets (a small cat-like wild animal) were and are valuable in the perfume industry for producing a “warm, base note” in many perfumes. A single drop of essence of tom cat urine may provide the counterpoint to an otherwise floral perfume that benefits from this addition in much the way we balance sweet and salty tastes. Modern chemists struggle to replicate these complex scents synthetically for the perfume industry. It is said that our “animal nature” is expressed most keenly in our response to the sense of smell. I must confess, it’s been a hard sell at the office.
Christine B. McFadden, DVM