Shaking or trembling in dogs can happen for several reasons. From benign excitement to serious illness, you may wonder what is causing your dog to shiver. Learn more about the top reasons why you might spot your dog trembling, what to do if there’s a serious issue, and how to keep your dog healthy and happy.
What Is Trembling in Dogs?
- What Is Trembling in Dogs?
- General Signs to Watch Out For
- Trembling in Dogs — Causes
- 1. Body Temperature Regulation
- 2. Stress and Anxiety
- When To Involve a Trainer or Behaviorist
- 3. Seizures
- 4. Dystocia (Difficult Labor)
- When Pregnancy Trembling Is Normal
- 5. Leptospirosis, Distemper, and other Infections
- 6. Muscle Weakness: Aging, Arthritis, and Myalgia
- 7. Damage to the Nerves
- 8. Pain from Illness or Injury
- 9. Toxicity
Trembling is the act of the muscles in the body twitching and contracting. This can be voluntary, with normal movement, or involuntary, such as shivering or shaking. A trembling dog may call to mind images of a fast-food chihuahua from commercials, with its nervous shake. Nerve impulses to the muscles control their movement. If there’s a problem with the nerves, or something causing the nerves to be over-excited, your dog may begin to shake.
Trembling can occur as a whole-body condition, or may affect only a single limb or part of the body. Your dog may not notice they are trembling, or may appear in severe distress, depending on its underlying cause.
General Signs to Watch Out For
While trembling on its own may not be a major cause of concern, if other symptoms are present it may be serious. If you notice your dog is pacing, drooling, or seems lethargic, this can be a sign of an underlying condition. Other symptoms warrant a trip to your vet in conjunction with trembling. These include confusion or loss of consciousness, zoning out, loss of appetite, dizziness, vomiting, or diarrhea. If your pet has an underlying health issue, or is pregnant, trembling should be addressed by your vet as soon as possible.
Trembling in Dogs — Causes
Here are some of the most common causes of trembling, and what to do:
1. Body Temperature Regulation
A common cause of trembling is simply your dog being cold. You may think this only happens to short-haired breeds in winter months. However, any dog in the right conditions can be cold enough to start shivering — including double-coated breeds such as huskies and retrievers. You may also see other signs, such as teeth chattering, curling up into a ball to keep warm, or general shaking. It’s a good idea to have a dog coat on hand if you know you’ll be going into a cold environment, and to keep indoor temperatures at a range of 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit.
In addition to a coat to help protect your dog from the elements, purchasing snow boots is another good idea. Dogs lose a lot of body heat through their paws. Walking around in snowy and icy conditions can lead to shivering and heat loss, as well as the potential for frostbite. Dog boots are also beneficial if you’ll be walking on rough or rocky terrain to prevent cuts on the paw pads.
If you notice your dog is overheated with a full-body coat, take it off. There are also styles made of lightweight materials that wrap around the back or belly. These can be used in transitional months such as spring and fall.
2. Stress and Anxiety
Another common cause of trembling in dogs is stress and anxiety. This can often mimic the same signs you’d see if your dog was cold, such as shivering and teeth chattering. However, dogs that are anxious and stressed can have several other symptoms. An anxious dog may become avoidant, trying to get away from the situation causing them stress. They may cower, or even hackle (hair standing up on the back) to try and make a threat go away.
Nervous dogs may also pace, whine, or excessively pant. In severe cases of anxiety, a dog may lash out with aggression, snapping, snarling, or biting. They can also become destructive, chewing on furniture or items around the house.
Diagnosing and treating anxiety can be tricky, especially if the underlying cause isn’t readily apparent. With any behavior change, a vet visit is the best first step to rule out any medical conditions. Hormonal imbalances like hypothyroidism can mimic your dog’s nervous behavior. If they check out healthy, looking to environmental and behavioral causes is the next step.
Look at common causes of stress and anxiety first, such as a new pet or person living in the home, a change in environment (moving, new furniture), or a change in routine (you’re back to work after working from home). Establishing a new routine or slowly introducing your dog to the new pet or person may help ease their anxiety. Distraction can help in anxious situations. Puzzle toys, as well as setting up a crate or place to sleep in a quiet room, can also help reduce your dog’s anxiety.
When To Involve a Trainer or Behaviorist
If the stress and anxiety are severe, and home care isn’t helping, working with a trainer or veterinary behaviorist that specializes in stress and anxiety is best. They can help formulate a plan of behavioral changes, usually through positive reinforcement and redirecting behavior. In some cases, a combination of training and medications to reduce anxiety may be helpful. Many behaviorists can also come directly to your home. This allows them to observe the environment and stress triggers first-hand, which can help tailor a training plan.
When you think of a seizure, images of full-body shaking, salivating, and even loss of consciousness may come to mind. However, seizures come in various shapes and sizes, often depending on the underlying condition. Trembling can be a symptom of some types of seizures, and may be accompanied by other symptoms. These include a faraway look, loss of attention, drooling, or panting and exhaustion after an episode.
If your dog has never had a seizure before, it is best to seek emergency care from your veterinarian or an emergency clinic in your area. There are some serious causes behind seizures, such as toxicity or damage to the internal organs that require immediate treatment. Luckily, however, most seizures caused by other conditions are less life-threatening once kept under control.
Your vet will perform a thorough workup of your dog to try and determine what is causing the seizures. This includes bloodwork, such as a complete blood count (CBC), metabolic panel, and any specific tests to check for imbalances or infections that could be causing the seizures. Neurologic testing is also done to check motor function and nerve conduction.
Treatment of seizures depends on their underlying cause. Addressing health issues such as diabetes or electrolyte imbalances, or treating toxicities, can help stop the seizures. For seizure disorders, treatment with IV and oral medications such as diazepam, phenobarbital, potassium bromide, and many others can help reduce or stop them completely. However, treatment is often a lengthy process. This is due to medication dosages needing to be adjusted to avoid causing excessive drowsiness while still effectively treating the seizures. In some cases, changes to a dog’s diet to include medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) helped to reduce seizures along with medication.
4. Dystocia (Difficult Labor)
Most dogs will go into labor around 60-65 days of pregnancy, however, this can run long for first-time mothers. Dystocia, or difficult birth, however, can happen with any pregnancy. Lack of energy to allow the mother to properly push, or a puppy stuck in the birth canal are possibilities. As labor continues, the continued tax on energy reserves can lead to weakness and trembling. Pain from labor can also cause trembling and shaking.
If no puppies are born within 24 hours of the start of labor, something is wrong. If no additional puppies are born within a few hours of the previous puppy, this can also be an indicator of an issue. Dystocia is a medical emergency, and a dog experiencing problems in labor should be seen by your vet or an emergency clinic right away.
In less severe cases of dystocia, supportive care is the first line of action. This includes IV fluids and nutrients, as well as injections to help strengthen the ability of the body to push the puppy out of the birth canal. If the puppy is stuck or too large to pass naturally, a cesarean, or C-section, is needed. Recovery depends on the severity of the dystocia and if surgery is needed, however, most recover and are nursing within a few hours.
When Pregnancy Trembling Is Normal
Sometimes, regular labor may be confused with trembling caused by pain. This is most commonly seen in shorter-haired breeds where it is easier to see the contractions of labor along the body. These contractions are often in a wave from the front of the belly and sides moving toward the back end. Your dog may also squat as these contractions occur, so they can push the puppy out.
5. Leptospirosis, Distemper, and other Infections
Some infections caused by viruses and bacteria can lead to trembling as a symptom. Leptospirosis (caused by bacteria) and Distemper (caused by a virus) are the two most common ones, both preventable with annual vaccination. Distemper is given as part of your dog’s DHAPP combo vaccine starting as a puppy. Leptospirosis is an optional vaccine. However, it is recommended if your dog may be exposed to cattle, wildlife, or water sources where it is prevalent.
With leptospirosis, symptoms include muscle pain, weakness, stiffness, and a reluctance to move. As symptoms progress, abdominal pain, vomiting, changes in appetite, and changes in urine output can occur. Without treatment, the illness can progress to kidney failure and death. Leptospirosis is usually diagnosed via blood work and urinalysis. However, performing an ultrasound of the kidneys in more advanced cases can be done. It is then treated with doxycycline, an oral antibiotic. Supportive care such as antiemetics to stop vomiting and IV fluids to support the kidneys can also help.
Distemper is a common illness of unvaccinated puppies and animal shelters. It will typically start as a respiratory illness with a runny nose, coughing, and fever. It then progresses to a gastrointestinal illness, causing vomiting and diarrhea. In its late stages, distemper attacks the nervous system, leading to full-body tremors and twitching, often causing paralysis. Bloodwork and urinalysis are used to diagnose distemper.
There is no cure for distemper, and even with supportive care, the illness can be fatal. However, vaccinating within a few days of exposure can reduce symptom severity and death even in unvaccinated dogs. Recovery can take several months. Treatments such as IV fluids, antibiotics to treat secondary infections, and supplements to reduce vomiting and trembling can help.
6. Muscle Weakness: Aging, Arthritis, and Myalgia
Muscle weakness is a broad category that can lead to trembling in dogs. Most commonly, this is seen in older dogs experiencing joint swelling and arthritis. The muscles weaken over time and may shake or tremble as your dog stands up or lays down. Myalgia, or general muscle weakness, however, can be a symptom of many issues ranging from general aging to more serious bacterial or viral infections or underlying illnesses.
If you notice your dog experiencing sudden muscle weakness or muscle loss, a veterinary visit is best. Your vet will perform a complete exam. This includes general neurologic testing, checking your dog’s gait, and more to see if there are any obvious symptoms. From there, blood work can be done to rule out nutritional deficiencies, organ dysfunction, or infections. X-rays or ultrasounding of tissues can also check for arthritis, muscle tears, or tumors that could be affecting the muscles.
Treatment depends on the underlying cause of the muscle weakness. Older dogs experiencing arthritis can benefit from anti-inflammatories such as Rimadyl, or supplements such as glucosamine or chondroitin. Your vet may also recommend physical therapy, such as an underwater treadmill, to help safely strengthen the muscles without injury. In more serious causes of muscle weakness, treatment of the underlying illness or supportive care with IV fluids, pain medications, antibiotics, and more may be recommended.
Prevention of muscle weakness can be difficult due to its underlying cause. However, regular exercise, keeping your dog at a healthy weight, and annual veterinary check ups can catch issues before they progress.
7. Damage to the Nerves
Nerve damage can also cause a dog to tremble. The nerves innervate the muscles and send the signal for the muscle to contract or relax. When there is damage to a nerve, the signal may not be received. The muscle can also be turned to always “on,” causing excessive shaking and contraction. You may notice other symptoms such as pain, not using the affected limb, or even paralysis.
It is best to bring your dog to a vet right away if there is a potential nerve injury. Physical examination, neurologic testing, ultrasound, and X-ray can all be used to check for injuries. Treatment can be basic, like general kennel rest and anti-inflammatory medications such as Rimadyl. In more severe cases, your vet may refer your dog to a specialist such as a neurologist. Physical therapy may also be recommended depending on the initial cause of nerve damage.
In minor cases of nerve damage, the nerve may be able to regrow and completely heal. However, in the cases of severe injury, the nerve may never completely regenerate, leading to permanent paralysis or damage. Dog wheelchairs and other mobility aids are becoming more popular and can help in the case of permanent injury.
8. Pain from Illness or Injury
General pain can cause trembling in dogs. You may also notice that your dog is reluctant to move or hides in a quiet room. Some dogs may hunch over to protect the affected body part. In more severe cases of pain, your dog may also refuse to eat, or experience nausea and vomiting.
If you suspect your dog is in pain or injured, it is best to seek veterinary care right away. Your vet will start with a general history to check for potential issues that could have caused injury such as a fall. From there, a physical exam can check for painful limbs, damage to internal organs, or cuts and scrapes. If the cause isn’t apparent, your vet may suggest testing. Blood work can check for internal issues such as organ dysfunction or illness, and X-rays look for breaks and sprains.
Once the underlying cause of pain is found, treatment can begin. This can start with basic care such as a period of kennel rest and leashed walks. It can also include supportive care such as IV fluids and medications. Underlying conditions such as infections or organ issues may require additional medications or even referral to a specialist for further testing.
Some injuries and causes of pain can be prevented. In smaller dogs, providing pet steps up to beds and couches can avoid injury to the back and limbs from hopping up and down. Generally working up to more intense exercise routines can strengthen muscles and avoid sprains and strains. If you notice your dog trip or fall, taking a few hours to rest can reduce inflammation and further injury.
Some toxic substances, such as an overdose of medications, ingestion of chocolate or xylitol, rodenticides, or some drugs, can lead to trembling and shaking in dogs. You may also see additional symptoms. These include vomiting and diarrhea, drooling, disorientation or stumbling, dilation of the pupils, or even coma and seizures.
Toxicity is a medical emergency. If you suspect your dog has gotten into a toxic substance, or is suddenly acting strangely, seek care from your veterinarian or emergency clinic immediately. Treatment often involves supportive care such as IV fluids, activated charcoal to reduce absorption, and medications as needed. The best way to prevent ingestion of toxic items is to keep these items out of reach. Place them on higher shelves, safely encased in their packaging, and away from areas your dog frequents.
Trembling in dogs can be a scary symptom, or it may just mean your dog is excited or a tad nervous. It’s best to take into account all of your dog’s symptoms, as well as the circumstances around their trembling. If your dog seems cold or nervous, moving to a quiet, warmer room can help. However, if symptoms worsen, or your dog seems in distress, visiting your vet is always best.