Your four-footed friend loves to walk, run, and jump all the while using his fore and hind legs. Often he uses his back legs to kick, but for various reasons. Whether he is marking his territory or responding to a belly rub, his legs can pack a serious punch. Sometimes kicking a leg can be a sign of a possible medical problem and needs the attention of your veterinarian. It is always important to observe your dog’s kicks to determine if they are behavioral, instinctual, and medical or a combination of the three. All dogs kick their legs, and some have a predisposition to underlying medical issues with their legs. If you are unsure, a conversation with a trainer and veterinarian can be a good start.
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The Root of the Behavior
You are on a nice long walk with your BFF (best furry friend) and he relieves himself. As you are in the process of cleaning up his business, you get some grass and dirt in your face. You look up to find your pup kicking and scratching up the ground vigorously. He is actually marking his territory. While his scent is one way he says ‘I was here’, leaving the markings from his paws and hind legs is an even clearer message to the next animal that this is his spot. While giving your dog affection and scratching him on his belly or hindquarters, you may find ‘the spot’. As you scratch you see one or both of his legs begins to move as if he is running or twitch as if he is having a leg spasm. The faster you scratch, the faster his leg moves. He is not doing the kicking on purpose he simply cannot help himself. This is known as the scratch reflex. The best analogy for what is actually occurring is your annual physical at the doctor. Your physician will tap just below your knee with a rubber mallet. Instinctively, your leg kicks in the air and shows your doctor that your reflexes are intact. Your scratch is an irritant to him, just like a bug. This activates nerves under his skin that relay a message up his spinal cord to his muscles in his leg telling him to kick away the irritant. Your dog is kicking as a reflex to your scratching him. Dogs will also kick while sleeping as a reflex while deep in REM sleep. This is most common in puppies and elderly, but can happen at any age. While most leg kicking is instinctive and reflexive, there are times when it could be a sign of a more serious matter. If he is neither marking his territory nor being scratched by you it is a good idea to observe and note what is going on. If he is asleep and the kick seems more like a seizure, try to wake him. If you cannot wake him or he comes out disoriented or drooling he may have been having a seizure and will need to be seen by your veterinarian. If your dog’s back leg is kicked out and seems stiff and he has occasional lameness, he may have Degenerative Joint Disease (DJD). Typically an elderly problem, he will also limit his physical activity to protect the leg. DJD is chronic joint inflammation from deteriorating joint cartilage. If he is not elderly, and seems to just hold up his leg for a few moments, he may have a dislocation in his kneecap. Common among Boston Terriers, Chihuahuas, Pomeranians, Yorkshire Terriers, and the Pekingese and mostly females it is either a genetic deformity or caused from trauma. In holding up or kicking back his leg, he is relaxing and lengthening his quadriceps muscle that allows the kneecap to slide back into place.
Encouraging the Behavior
Dogs are territorial beings. It is in his nature to mark his territory as clearly as possible. If his markings, however, are destroying your yard or seem excessive, consult with a trainer to find ways to curb his leg kicking. Many people assume that when a dog kicks during a scratch session he is kicking his leg out of happiness. Some dog researchers are not convinced. There is evidence that the feeling a dog has is more of annoyance, like the wind blowing too hard in his face. Or it is likened to tickling in that at first it feels good but then it crosses into uncomfortable or painful. The only way to know is to observe him. If he stays, he is most likely enjoying himself. If he moves so your hand finds another spot or he moves away from you completely, it is most likely too intense a sensation and he would like for you to stop. Nearly 85% of aged dogs will experience some type of Degenerative Joint Disease. Other than kicking his leg, symptoms include decreased jumping or climbing stairs, isolation and panting. If your vet diagnoses your dog as having DJD, there are many solutions to make him more comfortable and alleviate the symptoms of DJD. NSAIDS can reduce inflammation, supplements such as Glucosamine chondroitin sulfate promote joint health, and cold laser therapy promotes joint healing. One of the best ways to avoid DJD is to keep your pet at a healthy weight for the duration of his life as it causes less stress on the joints. Giving him preventative doses of glucosamine chondroitin can also help keep his joints healthy throughout his lifetime. A veterinarian will need to x-ray your dog if a dislocated knee joint is the suspected problem. She will also need to take a fluid sample from the joint area to analyze the lubricating fluid in the joint. Typically the test will show an increase in mononuclear cells. Surgery is recommended for the most severe cases and can be up to 90% effective in freeing your pet of lameness and dysfunction. He will need to only have leash exercise for a month and follow up visits. The dislocation does re-occur in up to 48% of dogs even after treatment.
Other Solutions and Considerations
While you may find it fun to get your dog’s leg kicking, keep in mind he may not. Often your pet cannot tell you if something is hurting him. DJD is a degenerative disease that happens slowly over time as he ages. Your pet will tend to get used to and adapt to the pain and discomfort, and this is no way to enjoy life. It is important to monitor him for any signs so that you can begin strategies to manage his pain and alleviate some of his limitations due to the disorder. Due to the genetic component of knee dislocation, it is important to not breed your pet if he has had a problem.
A kick of the leg could mean many things when it comes to your dog. If he has just relieved himself, he is most likely marking his territory. If you are scratching him, he is most likely having an automatic reflex to the irritant. If other signs accompany his leg kick, or he is elderly, it could be a more serious disorder. In all of these cases, it is important to monitor your pet.