Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
Why does it feel as if my dog has air bubbles under his skin? Why does my dog's skin pop like bubble wrap or Rice Krispies when I pet him? Why does my dog's skin feel like a piece of crinkly tissue paper? These are many questions dog owners may ask when they are quite shocked by the sudden feeling of something not being quite right when they pet their dog and feel the skin. What is going on?
It turns out that those who describe the sensation of their dog feeling like they have air bubbles or bubble wrap under their skin are guessing correctly when it comes to what is really going on. Indeed, there is a specific condition of the skin that is known for causing these symptoms and it goes by the name of subcutaneous emphysema.
What exactly is subcutaneous emphysema? Let's start by taking a small lesson in etymology, the study of the origin of words. The term subcutaneous means "beneath the surface layer of the skin" and the word emphysema means "a condition where air is abnormally present within the body tissues." Put these two terms together and you'll have a condition characterized by air beneath the surface layer of the skin. The next question though that comes to mind is how in the world did my dog get air under his skin? There are three possible explanations.
1. Air Coming From Outside the Dog's Body
What happens in this case is that a dog sustains some sort of injury that allows air to get stuck under the layers of the dog's skin. The injury is often a puncture wound as coming from a dog or other animal's bite, but it also can be a cut or any other type of traumatic injury that causes an opening in the dog's skin, such as a dog getting hurt when jumping over a fence. Veterinarian Dr. Krista Magnifico explains that when the skin happens to be pulled away from its subcutaneous tissue, air may get trapped between those layers of skin through a hole, causing that typical tissue paper or bubble wrap feeling dog owners report. "When you press on the skin you can hear and feel a layer of popping crunching tissue just beneath the skin. It is almost addicting to poke at," she remarks on her blog "Diary of a real-life veterinarian."
Fortunately, in most cases, if there is no infection and the area appears to be healing well, the air gradually absorbs on its own after a few days. "As long as the area is not painful and your pooch is otherwise fine in every other way then nothing needs to be done and it will go away on it's own," claims veterinarian Dr Dan.
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2. Air Coming From Inside the Body
Much more worrisome is the feeling of air bubbles under the skin when there are risks that the air may be coming from inside the body rather than outside. In such a case, there are risks that the sensation of air bubbles under the skin is caused by air escaping the dog's lungs, as seen in certain traumatic injuries. A classic example is a dog being hit by car and suffering a penetrating trauma to the chest from a broken rib causing air to escape the lungs or a small dog sustaining a bite which causes a tear of lung tissue. Affected dogs will usually show trouble breathing and become lethargic and they may develop swelling of the face and neck area. Any dog sustaining any injuries to the trachea, chest, bronchi, and lungs, or if they are having trouble breathing, swelling of the neck, pale or bluish gums, and lethargy, should see a vet immediately. "This can be dangerous depending on the extent of the injury-as internal injuries are possible," explains veterinarian Dr. Jenn.
Another possibility for air escaping from inside the body and becoming trapped under the dog's skin is a dog sustaining injuries to the trachea after undergoing a surgical procedure. This can happen when a dog's trachea gets injured from an the endotracheal tube. Perhaps the tube had a sharp edge or the cuff was over-inflated. In such a case, the affected dog may develop swelling by the neck that may even expand to the trunk of the body. Such symptoms generally arise around a couple of days following intubation, according to Blue Pearl Vet.
3. Air Coming From Bacterial Infection
This may not be very common, but it's worth mentioning. In some cases, dogs may develop bacterial infections under the skin and the crackling paper-like noises are actually caused by gasses trapped under the skin. What happens exactly is that severe bacterial infections cause bacteria to release gas gangrene which remains trapped under the tissues. Upon being touched, the dog's skin feels as if it's crackling.
Affected dogs will require strong antibiotics as an infection, to the point where infectious organisms produce gas by fermentation, is very serious and can be systemic (spreading beyond the initial location into tissues and blood).
The Bottom Line
As seen, the causes of a crackling feeling upon touching a dog's skin may be various, and it's best to be safe than sorry and see the vet. "The crackling could just be air trapped under the skin from a puncture wound but we also have to worry about some type of damage to the lungs which could be life threatening," claims Dr. Jenn.
Generally, in the case of a puncture wound the air bubbles can be removed by the vet using a syringe if they are painful to the dog, but according to Vet Info, in many cases when the quantity of air is minimal, it dissipates naturally within a few days. Of course, other more serious causes of air trapped under the dog's skin require appropriate, speedy intervention.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.