My beautiful, well-mannered cat expresses her anal glands when she is happy, and I thought I was the only one with a cat who did this until last week.
Why don’t we cat owners talk about these things? Are our cat’s rear ends just too delicate a subject and we don’t like to discuss them? Well, that ends today!
Feline Anal Glands
What we usually call anal glands are actually the anal sacs, small, pea-sized spaces on either side of your cat’s anus at about the 5 and 8 o’clock location. The anal glands are contained in the anal sacs, and they create a oily, unpleasant-smelling substance that collects within the sacs.
The contents of these sacs are then used for marking purposes. That’s why your cats sniff each other’s rear ends: they are checking out the calling cards from their anal sacs. When your cat defecates, the anal sacs are squeezed, and their contents are deposited onto the waste. You may have heard of wild cats leaving feces unburied around the perimeter of their territory to mark it; this is done because the feces has the identifying scent from the cat’s anal sacs.
Most people don’t realize their cats have anal glands or anal sacs until something goes wrong. When the sacs aren’t emptied during defecation, like when a cat has soft stools for an extended time, so nothing presses against the sacs during visits to the litterbox to empty them, the cat’s body can start to reabsorb the fluid from the contents of the anal sac, making it thicker and even harder to empty, until it becomes impacted or even infected. This requires veterinary attention.
Spontaneously Expressing Feline Anal Sacs
Cats don’t just express their anal sacs when visiting the litterbox. A big scare can be enough for a cat to leave behind an unpleasant-smelling surprise when he expresses his anal sacs spontaneously. This can be mistaken by humans who don’t know about anal glands and anal sacs as the cat “pooping a little” when scared, so this may happen more often than people realize.
If you think expressing anal sacs in fear sounds like another animal you’ve heard of, you’re right. It’s similar to the defense mechanism used by skunks. We should be glad that cats don’t have the kind of aim with their anal sacs that skunks do!
Cats Expressing Anal Sacs when Happy
A happy cat often rubs his head against his favorite humans and objects. This activity deposits pheromones from the scents glands on the cat’s cheek and forehead, letting the kitty mark his territory with his scent.
So why is it surprising that some cats also spontaneously express their anal sacs when they’re in the middle of doing other things to happily mark territory? It is an extension of that same, happy behavior.
There’s no study of how widespread cats happily expressing their anal sacs actually is. An informal poll of cat lovers turned up a surprising number of people who had seen it, and all of them thought their cat was the only one.
Stop Making Feline Anal Glands a Polite Secret
Cats happily expressing their anal sacs can be mistaken as incontinence or even misbehavior by someone who doesn’t understand what is happening. That could lead to cats being surrendered to shelters.
The only way to solve this is to make it something that people have heard of and aren’t afraid to discuss. Can we agree not to be embarrassed to talk about this any more? It might save lives.
Research and further reading
Alleice Summers, Companion Animals
Gary Norsworthy, The Feline Patient, 4th Edition
Albone ES, Shirley SG, Mammalian semiochemistry: the investigation of chemical signals
Photo credits: depositphotos/cynoclub, Cherry-Merry, darzyhanna