Trembling or shaking in dogs can be due to a variety of physical and mental reasons, from cold and illness to fear or even excitement. So when should you be worried about it?
Our dogs tend to wear their feelings openly through their body language: that wagging tail of friendly alertness or the pricked-up ears and watchful stance that show they are on guard. One habit that can be more difficult to understand, though, is shaking in dogs, as the causes can be either physical or emotional.
We’re not talking about the kind of energetic shaking you see in wet dogs drying themselves off after a dip in a pond or bath, but a shivering or trembling action where the cause is not always immediately clear. And while some instances of shaking in dogs are nothing to worry about, others can be a sign of a serious health issue. So, should you be worried if your dog is shaking or trembling? Paying attention to when they’re doing it can help you narrow down the possible reasons, and decide what to do next.
Dog shivering in the cold
Perhaps the most obvious reason for shaking in dogs is that they’re shivering in the cold. In this case, the tremors are simply a way of your dog trying to keep themselves warm. Other than the Mexican Hairless breed, most dogs have a fur coat. But those breeds with a dense second layer of short hairs, such as Labrador Retrievers or Huskies, are better protected from the elements than dogs with a thinner, flatter coat or fine, fluffy fur.
What to do if your dog is shivering
If your dog is shivering while you’re out on a walk, take them home to warm up. If you often notice them trembling in the cold, a dog coat can add a valuable extra layer.
Dog shaking in fear, anxiety or excitement
Both positive and negative emotional states can cause trembling in dogs. Young dogs, especially, may tremble with happy excitement if you’re playing a fun game with them, if they sniff out something interesting on a walk or if they’re simply pleased to see you come home! If your dog is shaking with fear, however, they may also cower, whimper, growl or pin back their ears. This is their ‘fight or flight’ response kicking in, as adrenaline is released into the nervous system.
Some fear triggers may be obvious, such as fireworks, thunder or feeling intimidated by other dogs. A dog that missed out on early socialisation may be particularly easily spooked. Phobias (think: the postman, umbrellas, wheelie bins) can also be responsible for giving them the shakes.
What to do if your dog is shaking in fear
Always try to remove your dog from fear-inducing situations and encourage calmer reactions by keeping your own responses low-key. A soothing voice, positive reinforcement and socialisation exercises, especially with other dogs, should help instil confidence and acclimatise your pet to everyday fear triggers. If their extreme reactions persist, speak to your vet. They can give you some tips and ideas to try, or they may suggest getting in touch with a behaviourist.
Shaking as a symptom of poisoning in dogs
Poisoning in dogs can sometimes cause involuntary muscle tremors such as shaking or twitching. Around the house and garden, substances that are toxic to our four-legged friends, and may cause shaking, include chocolate, macadamia nuts, foods containing the sugar substitute xylitol, certain types of mould, drugs such as aspirin and Temazepam, wallpaper paste, cigarette butts, slug pellets, ant killer and barbecue lighter fluid.
What to do if you think your dog is poisoned
Some toxins can be very dangerous, and indeed life-threatening, to dogs. If your dog is shaking uncontrollably or showing other symptoms of poisoning such as nausea, vomiting, foaming at the mouth, convulsions or collapse, take them to a vet immediately. If you know what your dog has ingested, bring the packet with you and make a note of any other symptoms you’ve spotted.
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Inherited shaking in dogs
Some dogs are genetically more prone to shaking, especially when young. Generalised tremor syndrome (GTS), often called ‘shaker syndrome’ or ‘puppy shake’, can begin at an early age and continue through a dog’s adolescence, up to two years old. Breeds known for this hereditary condition include Maltese Terriers, West Highland White Terriers (it’s even sometimes called ‘white dog shaker syndrome’) and Chihuahuas, and it has also been noted in male Welsh Springer Spaniels and Samoyeds, Dalmatians and Golden Retrievers.
Another inherited condition, cerebellar hypoplasia, affects puppies when part of their brain – the cerebellum – hasn’t fully developed, making them ‘wobbly’ on their feet. Airedales, Boston Terriers and Bull Terriers are more prone to this type of shaking in dogs.
What to do if your dog has shaker syndrome or cerebellar hypoplasia
Generalised tremor syndrome in dogs usually resolves as your dog enters adulthood. Similarly, dogs with cerebellar hypoplasia often learn to live with, and compensate for, their poor coordination and motor skills as they age. As ever, though, if you’re concerned about excessive shaking in your dog, a veterinary check-up can enable your vet to check for other causes.
Other medical causes of shaking in dogs
What if your dog is shaking for no reason you can identify? Sudden or habitual shaking in dogs can be a sign of various health problems. The canine distemper virus may cause severe shakes and seizures, as can epilepsy and other conditions affecting the brain. Dogs may tremble with an adrenaline release when they’re excited, but they might also shake if they don’t produce enough adrenaline, as with Addison’s disease. Kidney failure may also be signalled by tremors, as can low blood sugar. Meanwhile, old arthritic bones and weakened muscles can make it harder for older dogs to stay stable.
What to do if your dog is shaking for no clear reason
Because there are many possible health conditions that can cause trembling or shaking in dogs, the swiftest route to reassurance and/or treatment is always to speak to your vet. They will be able to help you narrow down or rule out the possible medical causes – and decide whether a behaviourist may be helpful.