When your dog shakes or trembles, you may become concerned about their health or mental wellbeing (especially if they are shivering in 80-degree weather!) Shaking can be normal for pets, but may indicate discomfort, pain, mental distress, or disease. Your dog often provides clues for you to determine whether their shaking is a normal response, or a veterinary visit is in order.
Here are some of the top reasons dogs shake, to help you narrow down your list.
#1: Your dog is anxious or fearful
Shaking or trembling are common signs of fear, anxiety, and stress in dogs. Causes are unique to your pet—some dogs tremble only at the veterinarian, while others start shaking the second a stranger looks their way. You can determine if your pet is stressed by looking for other clues, which may include:
- Excessively wide or squinty eyes
- Turning, running away, or hiding from a perceived threat
- Panting or tension at the mouth corners
- Holding the ears back or tucking the tail
Stressed dogs who are pushed beyond their limits may bite or snap out of fear. Remove them from the stressful situation and discuss behavior modification with your veterinarian, trainer, or veterinary behaviorist.
#2: Your dog is excited
An overjoyed dog may tremble with excitement when they meet new people, greet you after a long day, or in anticipation of their favorite meal or treat. A happy, excited dog will hold their tail level and wag or happily wiggle their whole hind end, have a soft, relaxed facial expression, and approach people readily with a loose body.
#3: Your dog is cold
Shivering is a reflex mechanism designed to reduce body heat losses when pets—or people—become too cold. If you’re outside in cold weather and your dog begins to shake but stops when you go back inside, you can safely blame the cold. Small breeds, old or young dogs, dogs with short or thin fur, and thin dogs are more susceptible to cold and more likely to shiver after only a short time outside. Take your dog back inside as soon as you notice them shaking to prevent hypothermia.
#4: Your dog is experiencing pain
Dogs hide their pain well, which can make identifying the source a challenge for pet owners and veterinarians. If pain is the source of your dog’s shaking, you will likely also notice other signs, including:
- Tensing the painful area when approached
- Vocalizing with movement or touch
- Reluctance to move or eat
- Tense facial expression
Pain and anxiety can look similar, but your veterinarian can zero in on the source and determine the best treatment plan for your dog. If you think your pet is in severe pain, seek emergency veterinary treatment.
#5: Your dog ingested a toxin
Toxins that affect your dog’s nervous system, electrolyte levels, or blood sugar can cause them to tremble, shake, or develop seizures. Chocolate, xylitol, coffee, nicotine, and snail baits commonly cause these signs, which may be accompanied by vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, or hyperactivity. These and other toxins can result in significant illness, organ damage, or death, and you must seek immediate veterinary care to save your dog’s life.
#6: Your dog has a medical condition
Shaking or tremors in dogs can indicate neurological or other diseases, including:
- Epilepsy — Seizures can present in different ways. Some dogs may have partial seizures that appear as a temporary tremor rather than a generalized, whole-body convulsion. Read more about epilepsy and seizures here.
- Brain or nerve disease — Nerve dysfunction or brain tumors can change the way your pet moves and may cause them to tremor.
- Electrolyte disorders — Conditions such as kidney disease, parathyroid tumors, and Addison’s disease, which alter calcium or potassium levels or cause significant dehydration, may result in shaking.
- Infections — Some infections, including rabies and distemper, attack the nervous system. These illnesses are often fatal, but both can be prevented with regular vaccinations.
- Generalized tremor syndrome (GTS) — Affected dogs develop tremors between 9 months and 2 years of age. The cause is unknown, but may be inflammatory or auto-immune in nature, because these dogs respond well to corticosteroids (i.e., medications with strong anti-inflammatory and immune modulating properties).
What to do if your dog starts shaking
If your dog begins to shake uncharacteristically, develops other illness signs, or you suspect they ingested a toxin, you should seek urgent veterinary care through your primary veterinarian or a local emergency veterinary facility. Some shaking can have a serious cause, so practice the “better safe than sorry” rule if you are worried about your dog.