The Big Stink

Did you ever wonder why anal glands were invented? I mean, how could they smell so terrible without having some important evolutionary purpose? Some of you don’t know what anal glands are… others have much more detailed knowledge of this subject than they’d ever wish to possess. Anal glands are actually the tissue lining the anal sac, which is a paired grape-like item flanking the anal opening of dogs and cats. It’s the sac that demands occasional attention, not the glands, but—for whatever reason—veterinary staff and clients alike seem to avoid using the expression “anal sacs”. Huh.

Like most other glands, these cells are hard at work, 24/7. Their output accumulates in the sac until it’s eventually squeezed out by the muscles around it, at what we hope is a convenient and appropriate time. Defecation, outdoors in the open air, would be nice. Sometimes, though, those muscles spasm at a more inopportune time, when the pet is startled or engaged in conflict of some kind. The scent emitted is …memorably unpleasant. If this happens at home, don’t be alarmed. The anal sac is performing its natural function, fulfilling its destiny, stinking the place up. That stuff will smell awful for a good while, as you search in vain for the spot each tiny drop may have landed. It cannot be coincidence that skunks have the same anatomy under their tails; however, skunk musk is so strong that it will dissolve plastic and temporarily blind an opponent.

Anal sacs create a bigger disturbance when they fail to empty at regular intervals. They overfill and become uncomfortable, sparking behaviors that range from simple carpet-scooting to jumping up from a peaceful rest as if jabbed with a pin. Some patients whine when passing a bowel movement or lick the area under the tail until it’s hairless and raw. Ouch! If this continues long enough, the anal sac can swell to the point of bursting. That situation is precisely as ugly as it sounds, but usually the pet feels much better once the pressure is relieved. Ruptured glands actually heal faster than you’d think and quickly return to service. In fact, the only way to shut this thing down is to surgically remove it from the animal. The surgery isn’t completely without risk, though, so anal sac removal is not a decision to be taken lightly. Weight loss and a high-fiber diet are the preferred approach in most cases.

So what is the purpose of these troublesome little organs? Some say that the secretions allow stools to pass more easily. Others believe that the scent released with a bowel movement is meant to mark territorial boundaries. I’ve found myself in the line of fire countless times while examining frightened and resistant pets, and I can report that properly employed anal gland secretions do have a slight dampening effect on my attempts to approach and engage. Maybe our beloved pets are referring to the skunk self-defense manual when they fire off these ferocious little weapons. I actually think my theory has a whiff of truth about it.

Dr. M.S. Regan