Why Are My Dog’s Joints Popping? 8 Medical Causes

A few weeks ago, I saw a beautiful yellow lab for an appointment. His owner was concerned about the dog’s joints popping and cracking. She said when he first got up from a nap, it sounded like someone walking on bubble wrap!

As concerning as clicking and popping sounds are to us humans, dogs often don’t seem to notice them at all. Many causes of joint noises in dogs are innocent, but there are a few diseases that cause these symptoms that you should be aware of. 

Normal Gas in Joint Fluid

You probably know a person who “cracks” their knuckles. Scientists believe that popping sound happens when the joint is stretched to an extreme. The low pressure causes the normal gasses in the joint fluid to coalesce and make a popping sound. The following video from the TED-ed group explains it well.

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This phenomenon can also happen in a dog’s joints from time to time. This sort of joint noise could be more likely if a dog’s joints are hyper-flexible due to disease or developmental abnormalities.

Meniscal Flaps 

A meniscus is one of two cartilage cushions inside a dog’s knee/stifle joint. Normal menisci are attached to the tibia and protect the ends of the bones from friction. 

A dog’s meniscus can break down and develop a loose flap that moves as the dog flexes and extends their knee. Meniscal flaps are often associated with a full or partial tear of the cranial cruciate ligament that limits motion in the knee. 

Meniscal flaps add to inflammation in the joint and may create a popping or clicking sound as the dog moves around. Many dogs have subtle joint swelling and mild to severe lameness with these stifle changes. 

Osteochondritis Dissecans 

Osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) is a pathological condition in which growing cartilage does not transform into bone normally. Dogs with this condition have an extra thick layer of cartilage on the ends of their bones which are prone to injury and breakdown. 

OCD lesions are more common in large breed dogs including the Bernese Mountain Dog, Labrador Retriever and Standard Poodle. The most common location of OCD lesions is the shoulder. The hock, elbow and knee are other common sites for OCD. 

These lesions cause inflammation in the joint that may cause cracking or popping sounds as the limb moves. Sometimes the abnormal cartilage forms a flap that makes a clicking sound. 

Dogs with OCD may have no other symptoms or may be very lame. 

Tendon Movement 

Tendons are the connective tissue bands that connect muscles to bones. Some tendons cross over joints. When arthritic joints have new bone formation (osteophytes) they can get in the way of normal tendon movement, causing noise as the tendon snaps over the bumps. 

Degenerative joint disease (DJD) is common in dogs and osteophytes are often formed as a result. Injuries (like cruciate ligament tears) and surgery that involves the joint (like TPLO) also lead to the formation of osteophytes and dog joint popping noises or sensations. 

Superficial Digital Flexor Tendon Luxation 

The superficial digital flexor muscle in dogs runs down the back of the hind leg. The top of it is attached to the back of the femur above the knee. A tendon runs from the bottom of the muscle to the bony point of the hock then down to the back of the toe. When the muscle contracts, it causes the toes of a dog’s back foot to flex. 

The superficial digital flexor tendon can tear away from its attachments at the hock. This allows it to luxate (move out of normal position) over the hock, which may cause a popping sound. Dogs with this abnormality usually have swelling in the area of the point of the hock. The problem is more common in Shelties and Collies.

Patellar Luxation

Patella is the medical term for kneecap and dogs have one at the front of each knee. The patella is a small bone, or sesamoid, that connects the big muscle on the front of the thigh to the tibia. These structures are important in a dog’s ability to straighten or extend their knee. 

The patella is contained within a big tendon that normally lies in a groove at the front of the femur above the knee. Some dogs develop a condition that allows this tendon to luxate, or move abnormally, out of the groove. We call this condition a luxating patella. It occurs more often in small and toy-breed dogs including the Yorkshire Terrier, Maltese and Shih Tzu. 

In mild cases, there may be no symptoms except occasional “popping” in the knee. Severe cases have swelling, pain and lameness. I’ve even seen a few dogs who were unable to flex their knee due to a patella that slipped out of place. 

Hip Subluxation

A dog’s hip joint is made up of the head of the femur and a socket in the pelvis called the acetabulum. Ligaments, muscles and tendons help keep the head of the femur in its proper position. 

The hip joint may be dislocated due to blunt force trauma like being hit by a car. But it’s also possible for the joint to be “subluxated,” meaning it is not completely out of place but instead it moves partly out of the socket.

Dog Joints Popping
X-ray image of a dog’s pelvis showing hip dysplasia

Hip subluxation is often associated with hip dysplasia due to looseness in the joint. This disease has a genetic basis, occurring more in large breed dogs like the German Shepherd and Labrador Retriever.

The hip joint in affected dogs may pop in and out of the proper position. You may hear a crack, thump or pop when the femur moves back into the acetabulum. 

Popping Sounds Coming from Dog’s Spine

Believe it or not, there are synovial joints between the vertebrae of a dog’s spine. Sometimes an owner will report a crackling noise from their dog’s back. This type of popping is likely caused by the natural gasses in the intervertebral joints coalescing as the joint is stretched. 

Dogs with popping sounds from their back are often asymptomatic. But increased popping sounds may occur in dogs with unstable backs or a history of injury to the area. 

Are Popping Dog Joints an Emergency?

I won’t argue that the sound of dog joints popping and crackling is creepy but don’t panic! In most cases, joint sounds are not an emergency but it is a good idea to have your vet examine the dog within the next few days. 

If your dog’s joint is popping all of a sudden and the dog has other symptoms like limping, crying, not eating, etc. then something more serious may be going on. If you notice these symptoms or any signs of distress, you should consider it an emergency situation. Seek veterinary care immediately. 

Summary

Sounds like popping or cracking from a dog’s joints can have innocent or not-so-innocent causes. Cartilage, tendon and ligament problems are often to blame. 

If your dog with joint sounds seems to be in pain or distress, seek emergency care immediately. If the only symptom is sound coming from the joints, see your vet for a check-up as soon as it is convenient. 

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References

  1. Fries, C. L., & Remedios, A. M. (1995). The pathogenesis and diagnosis of canine hip dysplasia: a review. The Canadian Veterinary Journal, 36(8), 494.
  2. LaFond, E., Breur, G. J., & Austin, C. C. (2002). Breed susceptibility for developmental orthopedic diseases in dogs. Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association, 38(5), 467-477.
  3. Neal, B. A., Ting, D., Bonczynski, J. J., & Yasuda, K. (2015). Evaluation of meniscal click for detecting meniscal tears in stifles with cranial cruciate ligament disease. Veterinary Surgery, 44(2), 191-194.

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