By: Dr. Juli, DVM @itsDrJuli
Many people have experienced a shaking sensation when spending too much time in frigid weather or when they are hangry because a long work day prevents time for a proper meal. The same type of shaking can also occur in your dog. Like people, shaking in your dog could be a normal, non-life-threatening reaction to something in their environment. However, chilly temps aren't the only reason for shivering or shaking; it can also be a clue of a more severe health issue, like a brain tumor or other underlying illness.
It can be worrisome for pet owners to observe shaking in their pups, especially if the cause is not immediately apparent. Understanding the many reasons for dog shaking will ensure you are prepared to make the best decision on your pet's care and whether you need to rush to the veterinarian or simply bring them to a warmer environment.
Physiological and Environmental Reasons for Dog Shaking
If you've ever bathed your dog or taken them for a swim, you have likely seen them shake immediately after getting out of the water. Shaking is the most efficient way for dogs to remove water from their coats. In fact, more than 60% of the water on your dog's fur can be removed in seconds after they shake.
Shivering to get warm is one of the most common reasons dogs shake. Like people, dogs shiver when exposed to cold temperatures. Shaking due to the cold is an involuntary response by the body to increase blood circulation, which helps raise body temperature and prevent dangerous hypothermia.
Small breed dogs, like Chihuahuas or Pomeranians, are more prone to shaking in cold temps because they do not have the body mass to remain warm in cold environments. If you notice your dog is shaking when exposed to cooler temperatures, bring them inside to a warmer area and monitor them closely for additional signs, like lethargy or pale gum color.
Immediately seek veterinary care if you are concerned your dog is suffering from low body temperature or hypothermia.
Common Illnesses That May Cause Shaking in Your Dog
Dogs are skilled at masking signs of illness or pain, so it can be challenging for pet owners to know when there is a problem. Additionally, many diseases or health conditions can present in similar ways. Subtle signs like shaking may be the only clue that your pup is suffering from an underlying health issue.
It's critical to bring your dog for a veterinary examination when they exhibit abnormal behaviors or signs to rule out any serious medical conditions. Shaking can occur with numerous diseases or illnesses, including the following:
Joint Disease or Arthritis
Some research estimates that one in five dogs will experience joint problems in their lifetime. Arthritis, muscle wasting, and muscle weakness are also common problems in older dogs. Painful joints may cause your shaking or limping, especially when getting up, after a long nap, or during exercise.
Dogs with bacterial or fungal ear infections often shake their heads to relieve itching or discomfort. Other signs include redness, foul odor, and dark or white discharge.
Hypoglycemia (Low Blood Sugar)
Puppies, toy breeds, and small breed dogs are most at risk for low blood sugar, so ensure they are fed a complete and balanced diet for their age and breed. Young puppies should be fed a minimum of three to four times daily to ensure their blood sugar remains stable.
Addison's disease (Hypoadrenocorticism)
This disease occurs when the adrenal glands do not produce enough hormones to maintain normal stress levels. In addition to shaking, dogs may also show signs including lethargy, weight loss, hair loss, increased thirst and urination, and gastrointestinal (GI) problems.
Canine distemper virus and rabies virus can lead to shaking in dogs because they attack the nervous system. Fortunately, vaccines are available to prevent these potentially deadly viruses.
Toxins affecting the nervous system, blood sugar, or electrolyte levels can lead to shaking in dogs. These include chocolate, products with xylitol, coffee, nicotine, snail bait, or marijuana. Other toxicity signs may include vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, hyperactivity, or panting. Bring your dog for immediate veterinary care, or call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center if you suspect they have ingested a toxic food or substance.
Inflammatory diseases, like IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), or other GI problems like diarrhea and vomiting can cause shaking. This may be from pain or electrolyte abnormalities caused by dehydration.
Neurological Causes of Shaking in Dogs
Disorders or diseases of the brain and nervous system can cause full-body or localized shaking in dogs. Epilepsy or other seizure disorders can occur in any dog breed or age. However, some breeds may have an increased risk for neurological disorders, including the following:
White Dog Shaker Syndrome
This condition, also known as generalized tremor syndrome or GTS, can affect any dog. However, some breeds, including Maltese and West Highland white terriers, have an increased risk. The cause is unknown, and tremors (shaking) may occur between nine months and two years of age. This condition is responsive to treatment with corticosteroids.
Shaking Puppy Syndrome
This genetic abnormality affects spinal cord nerves and can occur within a few weeks of birth. At-risk breeds include Chow chows, Bernese mountain dogs, English springer spaniels, rat terriers, Samoyeds, and Weimaraners.
Idiopathic Head Tremor Syndrome
Some breeds have a genetic disorder that causes their head to appear as if it's nodding. This benign condition can affect any dog, but Dobermans and English bulldogs have an increased risk.
Behavioral Reasons for Dog Shaking
Behavior disorders like anxiety, stress, or aggression can also cause your dog to shake. Fear or anxiety can trigger the fight or flight response, which causes the hormones cortisol and adrenaline to be released. This type of shaking may be accompanied by an increased respiratory rate or panting, dilated pupils, flattened ears, and holding the tail between the legs.
Anxious dogs may also develop stress colitis or diarrhea. Common culprits for behavioral shaking include veterinary visits, travel, interactions with strange dogs or people, and loud noises like fireworks or thunderstorms. Similarly, some dogs may shake when they become overly excited; however, in these cases, your dog’s body will be relaxed, they will have calm eyes, and will likely wag their tail.
Shaking can also be a learned behavior in dogs to seek attention. You will likely approach, pet, or pay attention to your dog when they are shaking. If the shaking immediately stops when you give your dog attention, it's likely a learned response for attention. Never scold your dog for exhibiting undesired behavior; instead, redirect them to another activity or talk to a veterinary behaviorist to learn additional tips and tricks.
How to Prevent Dog Shaking and Support Your Pup
Many illnesses and reasons for shaking can appear similar, making it difficult to determine the underlying cause. A veterinary examination will ensure you get to the bottom of your dog's shaking. Inform your veterinarian of any concurrent signs or events that may have occurred during your dog's shaking episodes. Blood tests or advanced imaging, like an X-ray or MRI, may be recommended to determine the underlying cause and rule out any illness.
Although shaking may not always be preventable, there are tools and ways you can support your pup or decrease the chances of them shaking, including:
- Giving your dog a calming supplement before a stressful event, like fireworks or travel
- Keeping your dog at a healthy weight to decrease joint stress and providing joint support supplements as they enter old age
- Avoiding exposure to frigid temperatures and placing a properly fitted jacket or sweater on smaller dogs when going outside during the cooler months
- Bringing your dog for annual or more frequent veterinary visits to ensure they do not have any underlying diseases and that their vaccinations are current
- Feeding your dog an AAFCO-approved complete and balanced diet and supporting their GI health with a probiotic, like Native Pet Probiotic Powder
Concern for your pet's health and wellness is vital to responsible pet ownership. Some causes of shaking are normal responses to your dog's environment and are not harmful. However, it's always best to bring your dog for a veterinary examination if they regularly exhibit shaking to rule out an underlying health issue or behavioral problems.
For more information and tips on your dog's health, check out the Native Pet blog.