Definition of Anal Sac Disease
In cats, anal sacs, also known as “scent glands,” are little pockets on either side of the anus, which are about the size of a pea. They contain glandular tissue that secretes a smelly discharge for territorial marking and is expressed during times of fear or anxiety. An anal sac disease occurs when one or both anal glands become inflamed, infected, abscessed, impacted, or filled with fluids that are normally expressed by a cat when it defecates (or “poops”). There is a high frequency of this condition in both cats and dogs. Cats tend to develop anal sac impactions, while dogs tend to develop anal sac infections or abscesses. Impaction occurs when anal sac secretions build up in and become dried, hard, and pasty.
How Cats Get Anal Sac Disease
Normally, a cat’s anal sacs are emptied when it defecates (“poops”), as a simple result of pressure from fecal matter passing through the rectum and out the anus. Anal sac secretions are typically fairly thick, creamy-colored and very smelly, and they normally coat the cat’s stool.
Anal sac problems can develop for a number of reasons. One of the most common causes of feline anal sac disorders is being fed a diet that is too low in fiber. A fiber-rich diet results in well-formed, voluminous stools, which tend to naturally express the anal glands when the cat has a bowel movement. Basically, firm feces squeeze the anal sacs and cause them to express their contents. A cat’s stool won’t be solid and well-formed if its diet doesn’t contain enough fiber. Obesity and lack of exercise can also contribute to impacted anal glands, as can chronic diarrhea and poor muscle tone.
Symptoms of Anal Sac Disease in Cats – What the Owner Sees
Owners of cats with anal sac problems will see a fairly consistent series of signs. Their cats will scoot, lick and bite at their rear end and take other steps to try and relieve the discomfort, pain and itchiness that is associated with this condition. Certainly, there are a number of things other than anal sac disorders that can cause cats to rub and lick at their rectal area, such as inhalant or food allergies, internal parasites like tapeworms, and tumors. Nonetheless, most cats empty their anal glands naturally whenever they have a bowel movement. They also normally express their anal glands during exercise. When the anal sacs are impacted, this normal emptying doesn’t occur.
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When the anal glands fail to empty, most cats will scoot their rear ends along the ground, which helps to squeeze and empty the anal sac secretions. If this is unsuccessful, affected cats tend to become increasingly uncomfortable. They start straining and excessively licking and biting at their anal area. If left untreated, cats with anal sac disorders may develop a rash around their anus due to self-trauma. Some cats chase their tails and/or undergo changes in temperament when their anal sacs are impacted. Cats that require constant manual anal gland emptying should be thoroughly assessed by a veterinarian to make sure that there is no underlying medical cause for this problem.
A definitive diagnosis of anal sac disorders is made when a veterinarian digitally palpates the cat’s anal sacs. The veterinarian will examine the area by gently placing a finger inside the cat’s rectum. If impaction is present, the veterinarian will feel small hard masses in the anal sacs. At this point, the veterinarian must apply a good amount of pressure to the anal sacs to express the plugged-up material, which usually is a thick, pasty, brown ribbon-like material.
Anesthesia or heavy sedation is often necessary due to the pain associated with this procedure. If it appears that the anal sacs are infected, most veterinarians will send the expressed anal sac material to a laboratory for further examination, and also will put the cat on a course of broad spectrum oral antibiotics.
Goals of Treating Anal Sac Disease in Cats
The main goals of treating anal sac problems in companion cats are to empty any impactions in the anal sacs, control and resolve any infections, relieve the cat’s discomfort and assess whether the cat has any cancerous tumors or other masses that may be contributing to its symptoms. Anal sacs become impacted when the liquid secreted by their glandular lining stays inside the anal pockets for an inordinately long period of time and becomes dried, hard and pasty. This build-up of anal sac secretions blocks the outflow that usually accompanies each bowel movement.
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