Cats do experience anal gland problems – although a lot less frequently than dogs. Dog owners will be familiar with trips to the vet to get their dogs glands expressed, sometimes quite regularly! Whereas cats experience problems with their glands infrequently.
What are anal glands?
Anal glands are two sacs (commonly called “glands”), that secrete fluid via a duct (tube) into the anus upon producing a bowel movement. The glands are situated either side of the anus, usually at 4 and 8’oclock positions. It is believed the secretions contain chemicals giving each individuals’ bowel movements a distinctive smell which could be useful to mark territory.
How can I tell if my cat has a problem with their anal glands?
Typical symptoms of anal gland disease are of discomfort; usually demonstrated by nibbling or licking at their bottoms and the area around their anus or base of their tails. Or perhaps dragging their bottoms on the floor in an attempt to relieve the pressure of full or impacted glands. Cats may be reluctant to sit or cry when defecating. If your cat’s glands are impacted or infected there may be a swelling on either side of the anus in the position of one or both glands, visible externally from the back of your cat. If the anal gland has become infected, abscessed, or subsequently burst, there may be a hole surrounded by bloody discharge at the position of one gland adjacent to the anus.
What problems can my cat experience with their anal glands?
There are a range of possible issues.
The most frequent type of anal gland disease in cats. Impaction simply means the gland is blocked and so not readily and naturally expressed as it normally is during a bowel movement. The secretion in the gland can become hard and therefore cause your cat discomfort. The underlying cause for impaction is unknown but thought to be diet, exercise and weight related. Obesity is a predisposing factor for impaction in both dogs and cats. Treatment is usually expression of the impacted material from the gland manually by a veterinarian.
Your vet may suggest changing your cats’ diet or increasing the fibre in your cats’ diet to help bulk up your cats’ faeces and naturally express the anal glands, preventing recurrence of impaction. In some cases, hypoallergenic diets may be suggested as skin or food allergy and gastrointestinal disorders (frequent diarrhoea) have been linked to anal gland disease. Although it has been found that this association is less frequent in cats than dogs.
Sacculitis – inflammation of the anal sac, usually with infection
Inflammation of the anal gland(s) can occur for a few reasons but is most often associated with an infection. Infections can happen as bacteria, normally present in the gut, can travel up the duct connecting the anal sac to the anal opening. Normally during a bowel movement, the bacteria is flushed out of the anal sac with the secretions/ normal anal gland fluid. However if the anal gland is impacted, the bacteria can get stuck in the gland and multiply. This will cause irritation and subsequently lead to an abscess.
Treatment is usually expression of the gland(s). In more stubborn cases, your vet may flush your cats’ glands and possibly instil antibiotic ointment into the glands themselves. In either case, the vet may sometimes prescribe oral antibiotics and anti-inflammatories to treat the infection and inflammation. Your cat may require an anaesthetic to flush and treat the glands depending on how easy the glands are to treat and how amenable to treatment your cat is when sore (!).
An abscess forms when bacteria are stuck within the gland and multiply. A ball of pus (abscess) grows inside the anal gland, which is very painful, often leading to an unwell, lethargic and inappetant cat. It is possible for the abscess to grow larger than the capacity of the anal sac. In which case the sac then ruptures. You will find a sticky, bloody discharge adjacent to the anus in the position of one of the anal glands to demonstrate this ruptured gland and your cat will likely be quite unwell. Treatment is usually with antibiotics and painkillers (anti-inflammatories) which are prescribed orally. And as above, the area will usually need to be cleaned or flushed. In most cases, your cat will require an anaesthetic to facilitate care.
Cancer (adenocarcinoma) formation
Although uncommon in cats, sometimes the anal glands become abnormal and thickened leading your vet to be suspicious of cancer in the gland. A sample or biopsy may be taken to investigate further. More commonly, surgical removal is recommended if there is recurrence of anal gland disease; or the vet detects thickenings or other changes in the gland that could be of concern. Your vet would then guide you further with respect to any further testing such as blood tests, imaging and follow up care.
If you are concerned your cat is unwell or may be experiencing problems with their anal glands, seek advise from your vet. It’s always better to treat early and make sure your feline friend is comfortable and in good health!