We’ve all seen it: Fido, scooting his rear end along the carpet, dragging his nether regions across the floor. It’s not a pretty sight (and not a pretty smell.) Why on earth would Fido scoot, scratch and drag his tush? Scooting is unsavory to say the least, but it is also a frequent topic of conversation between clients and veterinarians. The truth is, there’s a short list of irritants that can cause Fido to have anal pruritus (an itchy rear). Impacted anal glands are the most common culprit for this problem, followed by allergic dermatitis.
For the uninitiated, just what are anal glands (also known as anal sacs)? Dogs and cats have two bean-sized, sac-like, glandular structures inside the anus, at approximately 4:00 and 8:00. The anal sacs have ducts that lead into the anus, and cannot be visualized externally. For most pets, the heavily scented secretions of the anal glands are excreted with bowel movements, and pet owners are none the wiser. Normal bowel movements act as mechanical pressure to release the contents of the anal glands. For reasons we do not understand, some dogs do not release their anal glands normally. Anal glands that become impacted can serve as a source of irritation, and infection.
There is some debate amongst veterinarians, groomers, breeders and dog owners about whether or not “normal” dogs should have their anal glands manually emptied on a regular basis. (By “manually emptied”, I mean that some poor soul inserts a finger into your dog’s rectum, and squeezes the glands between gloved fingers until the glands release their contents. Sound like fun? Fido doesn’t think so, either.) When it comes to anal sacs, most veterinarians are firmly in the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” camp; meaning, if Fido doesn’t show any signs of anal pruritus, do not request that the groomer or the veterinarian empty out the anal sacs. There is simply no reason to subject Fido to this procedure unless medically necessary. Regular squeezing of the anal glands can actually create anal gland problems, not prevent them.
How would you know if Fido’s anal glands were causing him a problem? Dogs with anal sac disease lick the anal area, “scoot” or drag the rear end on the carpet, or sit down frequently on walks, while staring at the hind end. Sometimes owners may note a “fishy” or “metallic” smell from the anal region, which can occur when the anal glands manually release themselves.
The truth is, as often as veterinarians see dogs with anal pruritus, we do not have a true understanding of why some dogs have this as a recurrent problem. It has been theorized that impacted anal glands may be a symptom of a food allergy, due to a lack of fiber in the diet, a response to environmental allergens (known as atopic dermatitis) or a result of distorted anatomy. Whenever this many proposed explanations exist for a medical condition, it is a surefire indication that we have no earthly idea what is truly causing the problem.
I have seen a good number of patients with recurrent anal sacculitis respond favorably to increased dietary fiber (see my previous post on the wonder cure-all that is canned pumpkin), but unfortunately this treatment is not effective for all dogs. Some scooting dogs respond well when transitioned to a strict hypoallergenic diet. For some unlucky patients, the most effective treatment is regular (every 4-6 week) manual emptying of the anal glands by a trained veterinary professional. For a very small percent of dogs with recurrent anal gland infections or abscesses, anal sacculectomy surgery is the recommended treatment.
Clients frequently think that an itchy rear means that Fido has worms, or intestinal parasites. This is a possible, but very uncommon cause of anal pruritus. Most dogs who scoot do not have worms, especially if they are on heartworm prevention, which also prevents intestinal parasites. A simple way to rule out worms as a cause for Fido’s anal pruritus is to submit Fido’s fecal sample to your veterinarian; this can easily be screened for tapeworms, roundworms and various other parasites.
And what about cats and their anal glands? Cats can develop anal pruritus, anal sacculitis and anal gland abscesses, but fortunately it is a much less frequent problem than it is in dogs.
Fido’s itchy behind may not be your favorite topic, but trust me: your veterinarian discusses this condition on a daily basis with clients. There is no shame in having a scooting dog! As we’ve discussed, there are some things that can be done to help Fido’s “scooty booty”, aside from throwing out all your carpets.