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It’s an age-old question: Why do dogs sniff butts? It's not just bad manners; there’s a good reason behind it. Scent is how dogs communicate with and identify each other. Instead of spraying on Chanel No. 5, they rely on the odor produced by a pair of sacs located on either side of the anal sphincter (the band of muscle that encircles the anus). If you picture the anus as a clock face—bet you never thought of it that way before!—the anal glands are usually at the 5 o’clock and 7 o’clock positions.
The odor produced by the anal glands helps dogs lay claim to territory and lets other dogs know who they are. When dogs spend a lot of time looking around the yard for the perfect spot to “do the doo,” they’re marking territory, or as I like to call it, performing “dung shui.” As the dog defecates, the muscles of the rectum push the anal glands toward the stool, squeezing out their foul-smelling contents.
That’s probably way more than you wanted to know about your dog’s poop, but it's important to know how anal glands work, just in case something goes wrong with them.
You’ve probably heard that if a dog is scooting his rear on the ground, he has plugged anal glands. Maybe. Maybe not. Parasites such as tapeworms can be irritating, causing a dog to try to scratch the itch. Feces clumped on the hair around the anus can cause the same scooching behavior.
But sometimes the anal glands become inflamed, infected or impacted, and all three conditions can be related. If the anal sac becomes inflamed, the opening to the duct leading out of it can swell, plugging the duct so that the anal gland secretions don’t empty normally. That leads to a buildup of thick, pasty, dark-brown or grayish goo. As a veterinarian, I often see this problem in small or overweight dogs.
Sometimes the stools don’t exert enough pressure on the glands during defecation. Dogs with chronically soft stools may develop impacted anal glands because the rectal muscles don’t have anything to push the gland against, so the fluid doesn’t come out.
Interestingly, some dermatologists now believe that many anal gland problems are related to environmental and food allergies. If your dog seems to have anal gland problems for no good reason, that may be why. Possible treatments include frequent bathing (once a week is a good start) or a hypoallergenic diet.
If the anal glands are inflamed or infected, they become swollen and tender. This is when you are likely to see your dog scooting, biting or licking at his rear, in a vain attempt to relieve the irritation.
In severe cases, inflamed or infected anal glands may develop an abscess or even rupture, letting the fluid drain out through the break in the skin.
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