Dogs use their whole body to communicate, and most dedicated pet owners can identify how their dog is feeling by their body language. But sometimes they may surprise us with movements that don’t seem to make any sense, such as a seemingly random kick of their back legs.
Why do dogs kick out their back legs?
Dogs kick their legs out to mark their territory, during sleep, out of excitement or from a possible medical issue in the joints. Hip dysplasia, degenerative joint disease, seizures, nerve damage, or muscle spasms can all result in seemingly sudden leg kicks. In most cases, it’s just a dog’s way of claiming their turf.
As you can see, there are many reasons a dog may kick their legs, so let’s examine each one closer to discover why.
Reason 1: To Mark Their Territory
Possibly the most common reason dogs kick their back legs is to mark their territory. This is usually seen after they use the restroom but can be done at any time. Dogs have glands in their back feet that they use to spread their scent, either to warn others away or to let other dogs know of their presence in an unthreatening way.
There is also evidence that they may use kicking as a visual show of dominance to other nearby dogs. In a study on free-ranging dogs it was found that scent marking is more likely to occur in the presence of other dogs.
Dogs communicate with each other and interpret their surroundings largely through their sense of smell. It makes sense that they would try to mark their territory as much as possible by kicking their feet.
Reason 2: They Are Excited
Like people, dogs use their whole body to convey their excitement. Some dogs jump around, some dogs get the zoomies, and some dogs may kick their back legs out! This is usually paired with other signs of excitement like a wagging tail and bouncy body language. Your dog may also lay on the ground and kick their legs to ask for play time or belly rubs.
This may not be the case for every dog, of course.
But if it’s time for dinner or you just mentioned the “w” word, your dog’s leg kicks may just be their way of showing how excited they are!
Reason 3: They Are Dreaming
Just like humans, dogs experience sleep cycles throughout the night. These stages are non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM). Most of the time is spent in NREM sleep, during which our brain activity slows down to allow our bodies to rest and rebuild themselves. However, during REM sleep, our brain activity lights up again even though we are still sleeping. This brain activity is the most likely cause of dreams.
Dr. Stanley Coren, a leading psychologist in the study of canine minds, believes that dogs do dream like humans during REM sleep, although their sleep cycles are much shorter than ours. It is also believed that dogs dream about what they have experienced throughout the day, so a dog that was very active that day may have dreams about running and playing.
So why do they sometimes kick during their dreams?
It’s all due to a part in our brainstems called the pons. This structure is responsible for our unconscious processes, including the sleep cycle. During REM sleep, the pons paralyzes our bodies so we can’t act out our dreams. Sometimes signals from the brain still make it through the pons’s barrier, especially in young puppies that may still be developing, or senior dogs where the pons may not be as effective. This results in the legs kicking like they are running!
Reason 4: They are Scratching
A particular itch may be a reason for a kick as well. If a dog’s back legs are itchy, their front paws can’t reach the spot, so they resort to kicking out their legs to try to relieve the discomfort. This is commonly seen in dogs that have a skin infection or chronically dry or itchy skin. It’s also common to see in dogs with infected ears which may also get the attention of some other pups.
You may have also noticed your dog kicking rapidly when you scratch a certain spot on their body, usually the belly. This is called a scratch reflex and is an involuntary motion that is believed to protect your dog from dangerous insects or other irritants.
Under the skin is a cluster of nerves. These nerves react to touch, which sends a message straight to the back legs to kick out and scratch at the feeling.
A dog’s scratch reflex is present from a very young age, as you can see in the video below of a puppy demonstrating the involuntary action. Whether it’s involuntary or they are actively trying to relieve their itch, your dog’s kicking legs could be a way for them to scratch themselves.
When Kicking is a Cause for Concern
For the most part, a dog kicking out its back legs is not something to be worried about. However, there are some medical issues that could cause involuntary kicking that you should be aware of as a responsible pet owner.
Muscle spasms are involuntary movement of one group of muscle in one area. The area appears to be twitching, which you can feel as a vibrating motion when you touch it. Muscle spasms in the legs can be a result of another condition or injury, such as arthritis, pinched nerves, nerve inflammation, seizures, infections, or a neurological problem.
They may also be from a less severe or chronic cause, like overexertion, a physical injury or even an imbalance of minerals or electrolytes from a lack of fluids. Muscle spasms can be painful if they are happening over a long period of time. You can avoid some causes by ensuring your dog is well hydrated and by keeping their physical activity appropriate for their breed, age, and personal limitations.
Degenerative Joint Disease
Also called DJD, this disease is characterized by the loss of the smooth cartilage that protects the bones in the joints. Cartilage has no nerves, but bones do. As the cartilage wears down, the bones begin to touch each other causing pain during movement. It is a progressive disease that affect any dog due to wear and tear, aging, malnutrition, or obesity. It is more likely to occur in dogs that have had previous injuries or a lifetime of joint issues.
Usually, a dog will show several symptoms of DJD, such as stiffness, lameness, an altered walk, weight gain, reduction of muscle in the legs, extra sleeping or difficulty getting up off the ground. As the pain worsens, your dog may try to kick out their back legs. Because this movement is not as common as something like walking, the cartilage needed to kick their legs out may not be as worn down, giving them some relief from the bones touching.
Medial Patellar Luxation
Another condition of the joints that affects a dog’s back legs, medial patellar luxation means that the kneecap moves in and out of place. This can happen to any dog, but it is especially prominent in small breed dogs. Injury, malformations of the bones, tightness of muscles or shallow femoral grooves can all be causes.
Similar to DJD, the cartilage around the knee slowly breaks down over time. As the dog ages, the condition can get more serious and more painful and can affect either one back knee or both. Dogs with medial patellar luxation will often skip, hold up their leg, extend their leg or shake it out trying to put their kneecap back in place. You can see an example of this in this video:
Hip dysplasia is a painful condition in which the ball joint of the leg does not fully connect, cause the leg to become partially or completely dislocated. It also slowly wears down the cartilage in the joint. It is a painful and generative condition that often affected large and giant breed dogs more than smaller breeds. Although it is usually inherited, factors such as excessive growth, too much or too little exercise and nutrition can exacerbate the issue.
Hip dysplasia can be prevented by health testing dogs that are used for breeding to ensure they are not passing it on. For dogs affected, treatment includes physical therapy, exercise limitations, a joint supplement, medications or, in severe cases, surgery.
Dogs with hip dysplasia can be affected as puppies, or they may not feel the effects of the issue until later in life. Often, affected dogs will “skip” or kick their legs out when they walk trying to relieve the pain of their bones colliding with each other.
There are numerous conditions that may cause seizures in dogs, and they all can be dangerous if left unchecked. A dog in a seizure may randomly kick or give other involuntary movements and are completely unresponsive, even if they seem to be awake and looking at you.
Seizures can vary in intensity, but they are always exhausting for a dog’s body. Dogs coming out of a seizure are likely to be perplexed, concerned, terrified or even delusional afterwards. It can take several minutes or up to an hour to recover from a seizure.
Next Steps for Dog’s with Possible Medical Problems
If you feel your dog’s kicking could be a medical issue, call your vet right away to have them assessed. Tell them the symptoms the dog is having so that they can better understand if it is an emergency.
If your dog has suffered a seizure, they need to be seen by a vet immediately to ensure that there is no brain damage, and to locate the cause to prevent more from occurring.
If the issue is not an emergency, keep a close eye on your dog and document their behavior before, during and after they kick their legs. If possible, a video of the dog kicking its legs can be extremely helpful in getting a diagnosis.
Are Dogs Kicking to Cover Their Poop?
When dog owners see their dog kicking right after they poop, the logical assumption, in human thinking, is that they are trying to cover it up.
However, this is very rarely the case. While it is true that some dogs in the wild hide their poop to cover their scent from potential predators, their domestic cousins are not as concerned with hiding their scent. In fact, kicking after pooping disrupts the dirt and surrounding area, actually spreading their scent further!
Dogs are complex creatures, and their communication style is so vastly different than ours that sometimes we struggle to understand their actions. A dog kicking its back legs can be caused by a variety of sources, some more harmful than others.
When we look at the dog’s body language as a whole, we can better understand the reasoning behind the kicking and can take the appropriate action to protect our pets!