Fishy business

24th Oct, 2017

My four Cocker Spaniels (a four-year-old and three seniors over 12 years of age) are all in good to reasonable health and a good, lean weight. They’re on vet-quality food, which they get wet or dry mixed with rice and chicken/mince, and they also get vegetables, fruit, yoghurt and supplements. They get limited treats and I never give them bones. I monitor their stools daily – they’re regular and of a good solid texture, colour, etc.

And, yet, we’ve been dealing with blocked anal gland issues for a few years now. At least once a month, three of the four need to visit the vet to have their glands expressed; the youngest is the worst: at times I’ve had to take her weekly.

I do not understand why these glands are constantly blocking and causing irritation when their diet and fibre intake is good and balanced, and the defecation process should express these glands naturally.

I’ve even considered surgery to have their anal glands removed, but one vet strongly advised against it because there are some serious risks. If the anal sphincter is loosened too much, it can cause bowel incontinence. If it’s overtightened it can make defecation difficult and painful until they resist relieving themselves, which, in turn, can cause a host of other problems. He also advised not to express the glands too regularly because, once you start, it makes the problem worse.

The problem is, if we don’t get them expressed regularly the dogs constantly “scoot” on their behinds, are clearly uncomfortable with themselves in that area, and are constantly licking themselves there; we’re worried that infection can set in if they aren’t cleared.

What advice can you offer with this situation, and what would be the most efficient treatment plan?

Beverly Kinsella – Pretoria


Dr Wim Slabber of Harrismith Animal Hospital answers…

What are anal glands?

Anal sacs or glands – one on either side of the anus – make and store an oily, strong-smelling fluid which has an unpleasant metallic-fishy odour. This is used to mark territory and identify themselves (which is why dogs sniff each other’s backsides); it’s thought that it may also help to lubricate stool. Sometimes, when a dog is scared, they may also excrete some anal fluid.

Ordinarily, these would be cleared when the dog does its “business”, but in some dogs the glands can become blocked or impacted. Anal gland impaction seems to be a common problem these days and, without early diagnosis, it can lead to a painful anal gland abscess that can burst, causing severe discomfort. Treatment involves sedation, expressing and flushing of the glands, and antibiotics and anti-inflammatories. 

The big itch

Scooting, licking and biting at the hindquarters are invariably signs of itching (pruritis). However, there are many causes of this itching, anal gland problems being only one of them.  

I’ll go through a list of reasons why dogs suffer from hindquarter pruritis; your vet will be able to distinguish between this and whether there is a true anal gland impaction or not. These causes include fleabite allergies, worms, food allergies, and even genital area infection. Some dogs scoot if they have something stuck to their backsides after defecating (common in longer-haired dogs).

Fleabite allergies account for the highest percentage of pruritis cases vets see. A common area for fleas to sit and then bite patients is around the lower back and tail base. Often clients tell me: “My dog doesn’t have fleas!” because they can’t see them, but the reality is that all dogs and cats will have fleas at some stage in their lifetime – and for a dog with a flea-bite allergy, ONE flea bite is all it takes to elicit an immune reaction and intense “itching”.

Fleas are all around us; their population density is affected by favourable weather conditions (warm weather). Cold temperatures are necessary to kill off external parasites and, because this past winter wasn’t particularly cold, these parasites will be a major problem in this coming season. Make sure to treat preventatively – there are various long-acting treatments available from your vet – and keep bedding, etc. clean.

Tapeworm infestations go hand in hand with fleas because they are an intermediate host for tapeworm. When animals nibble at themselves from a flea bite, they may ingest the fleas – and the tapeworm eggs along with them. Tapeworms crawl out from the anal opening and cause anal pruritis, so remember to deworm all your pets (not just the ones that itch) every three months.  

Allergies, including food and environmental allergies or sensitivities, can also cause itching – and they can be tough to resolve. The first port of call to resolving this is to change the food to one with minimal allergens and added skin-health nutrients such as omega oils. Even if food allergy isn’t the cause, by feeding a skin-supportive diet you’re adding extra omega oils which already aid in the repair of the skin barrier and thus lessen the irritation/itch.

In order to establish if dietary change alone can make a difference, you will need to stick to one type and stop all other additives: no added rice, veggies or chicken. 

Environmental allergens are a whole discussion in itself, but keeping chemicals to a minimum, e.g. dog shampoo, washing powder and cleaning products, should help. 

I recommend starting off with “novel protein” – a new protein to which the animal hasn’t been exposed before. The majority of our commercial diets contain chicken as a source of protein, so the novel protein foods may include duck, fish, pork, etc. There are quite a few veterinary diet foods available on our local market designed to combat food allergies, and if novel protein doesn’t solve the issue then we move over to the hydrolysed protein diets. Your vet will be able to advise you accordingly.

I sought the opinions of a few of my veterinary colleagues and the majority of them suggested a trial on a higher fibre diet – so you’re on the right track with your Spaniels. This improves the regularity of the digestive system and thus the act of defecation, which allows for the natural expression of the anal glands. One can select a veterinary diet with higher fibre content or, if they can eat it, add something like bran flakes or a tablespoon of psyllium husks to their current diet. Ensure they get enough water as dehydration can contribute towards constipation.

Weight loss is an aspect which is overlooked. Make 100% sure your animal is in a perfect body condition. If they carry “a bit extra", this can certainly contribute to more frequent visits to have these glands expressed. If your dog is very overweight or obese, or unfit, enlist your vet’s help in slimming them down – they will need a check-up first and a specific diet.

Infection or inflammation of the genital area, especially in female dogs, can look like anal gland impaction.

This is a brief breakdown of the important factors to look at and rule out before surgical intervention, which should be an absolute last resort – I do agree that the risks and complications involved outweigh the benefits.

Your Spaniels are very lucky to have such a devoted human mom.