Dogs can shake, shiver or tremble when they’re cold, old, in pain, scared, ill or just because they need to dry off after a splash in a puddle. Dogs can shake for many reasons, but why is your dog shaking, should you be worried and what should you do?
Why does my dog shake?
Dogs can shake for a number of different reasons and these can be divided into three main categories:
- Behavioural (they’re scared, anxious or excited)
- As a response to their environment (they’re wet or cold)
- Medical: they’re in pain, they feel sick, or it may be a sign of a health condition, such as epilepsy, generalised tremor syndrome, muscle weakness, ear problems or poisoning
Keeping your dog warm, dry, relaxed, up-to-date on their vaccinations and out of paw's reach from poisons can help to prevent the most common reasons for your dog to shake. If you’re unsure why your dog is shaking you should always speak to your vet, especially if you're concerned about them, or if the shaking is new, severe or accompanied by other signs.
Behavioural reasons why your dog shakes
Dogs sometimes shake because they experience an extreme emotion. This may be because of a positive feeling, like excitement, or a negative one, such as fear. In both of these situations, a sudden release of hormones can have a major impact on their body causing them to shake.
Many dogs will shake when they become very excited or when they know something exciting is going to happen. You may have noticed your dog shaking when you’re playing with them, when they spot something exciting on a walk or when they greet you at the door after you’ve been out. Shaking with excitement is usually seen in younger dogs and is a normal physical reaction to an overwhelming feeling of happiness. If your dog sometimes shakes with excitement then there’s nothing to worry about and the shaking should stop once they are calm again. Keeping things a little more relaxed when they are this excited will help them to quiet down and should help to ease their shaking.
Fear, stress or anxiety
When your dog doesn’t feel safe, surges of adrenaline help to prepare their body to either defend itself or run away from danger. As adrenaline floods through their system it gets their muscles ready for action and often causes them to shake or tremble. Thunderstorms, fireworks and trips to the vet are common reasons for this type of reaction. Other signs that your dog is stressed or anxious include panting, whimpering, flattening their ears or hiding. Although this type of shaking is nothing to worry about, you can help your dog feel happier by removing the cause of stress, or by helping them to manage their stress levels. If your dog is anxious about frequently occurring events you could consider contacting a behaviourist or speaking to your vet about anti-anxiety medications.
Shaking as a response to their environment
Millions of years of evolution have given all living things physical and behavioural responses that help them survive, and dogs are no different. Sometimes a dog may be shaking for an evolutionary reason, such as shaking to dry themselves off, or shivering to keep their body warm.
Shaking off water
After a bath, a splash in a puddle or a swim in a river, your soggy doggy will often shake itself dry, but why don’t they let their coat dry naturally? A dog’s fur is very good at trapping heat to keep them warm, but a downside to this is that it’s also very good at keeping hold of water. Shaking the water off is a more energy efficient way of drying and takes an incredible 5,000 times less energy than by drying it off with their body heat. Dogs are so effective at shaking that they can shake off 70% of the water on their fur in four seconds, usually soaking close by friends and family in the process.
Just like us, dogs shiver when they are cold. This type of shivering is an involuntary response to help them warm up. When your dog shivers their muscles cycle between tightening and relaxing, which helps to generate heat and raise their body temperature. Smaller dogs, dogs with thinner coats and slim dogs may be more likely to shake in the cold because they lose heat more quickly. If your dog shivers when out for a walk, make sure you go home and find a cosy place for them to warm up. If your dog is prone to shivering then consider getting them a dog coat or booties to help them keep hold of their body warmth.
Medical issues that cause shaking
Although the cause of your dog’s shakes are more often than not natural and harmless, shivering and muscle tremors can sometimes be a sign of medical problems, including:
If you’re concerned about your dog’s health or behaviour you should always speak to your vet.
Just like us, dogs can shake or shiver when they feel unwell, particularly if they feel like they’re going to be sick. Signs that they may be feeling nauseous include licking their lips, dribbling or repeatedly swallowing. This usually happens if they’ve eaten too much, have motion sickness, have eaten something poisonous or have other medical problems.
Distemper is caused by a virus that attacks several different organs in the body. Puppies and young dogs, particularly those that have not been fully vaccinated, are at a higher risk. Distemper often causes affected dogs to shake or have tremors. Other signs can include:
- A runny nose
- High temperature
- No interest in food
Distemper can be fatal and you should contact your vet immediately if you think your dog may be affected. Luckily, thanks to the use of the distemper vaccination, distemper is now a rarely seen condition. It’s important that dogs continue to be vaccinated to keep this awful disease rare.
Different poisons can cause different effects, but some can cause your dog to shake, tremor or twitch. Some of the more common poisons that can cause these effects include:
- Slug baits that contain metaldehyde
- Some mouldy foods
- Cigarette butts or nicotine patches
- Macadamia nuts
Many of the poisons listed above can be very dangerous. If you suspect that your dog has been poisoned with any of these substances you should take your dog to the vets immediately.
Find out more about common poisons.
Dogs are usually very good at hiding their pain and may not let you know if they are hurting. One of the common signs that your dog may be in pain is shivering or shaking. Other signs can include:
- Flattened ears
- Seeming down or grumpy
- Scratching or licking at the area that hurts
- Being off their food
If you think that your dog is in pain then you should contact your vet and together you can work out why your dog is hurting and whether this could be an acute injury or a chronic condition.
Epilepsy is the most common neurological disorder in dogs and affects around one in 130 dogs in the UK. Epilepsy is a chronic condition that causes repeated seizures and often requires long-term medication. Effects may vary depending on the type and severity of the epilepsy, ranging from head shaking, restlessness or rhythmic blinking to stiffness, jerking, collapse and loss of consciousness.
Find out more about epilepsy.
Muscle weakness, fatigue and old age
If your dog is shaking in a particular area, especially in their legs, it could be a sign of muscle weakness or fatigue. If your dog has been out for a long walk or run, it could be that they’re not used to that amount of exercise and giving them time to rest should help. If your dog’s legs regularly shake, your vet may be able to suggest how to build up the strength in their legs. Leg shaking is particularly common in older dogs and may be a sign of muscle weakness, but can also be a sign that your dog is in pain, or suffers from arthritis or joint ache.
If your dog is repeatedly shaking their head, it may be a sign of an ear problem. It could be that they have an injury, that there is something inside their ear (such as a grass seed), ear mites or they may have an ear infection. Ear infections are common in dogs, particularly those with long ears.
Find out more about ear infections.
Generalised tremor syndrome (GTS)
This condition was first noticed in small, white dogs, but can occur in any dog, regardless of the size, breed or colour. The cause of GTS, also known as steroid responsive tremor or shaker syndrome, is not known, but is believed to be autoimmune in origin. Signs usually appear between 9 months and 2 years and may be local to one part of the body or can be seen all over.
If your puppy is shaking you should always speak to your vet for advice. A number of conditions can cause puppies to shake, including:
- Cerebellar Hypoplasia – a condition caused by the part of the brain that controls coordination to not develop correctly. Common signs include tremors in their legs, falling over a lot and head bobbing
- Hypomyelination - also known as shaking puppy syndrome, this condition is caused by issues with the puppy's nerves. Signs can appear at two weeks of age and include shaking, problems balancing and walking
Other Causes of Shivering and Trembling in Dogs
Other less common medical causes of shaking can include:
- Kidney failure
- Inflammatory brain conditions
- Addison’s disease
- Hypoglycaemia, or low blood sugar
- Hypocalcaemia, low calcium levels
My dog is shaking when should I see the vet?
There are lots of reasons why dogs shake. It may be a natural response to how they feel, an adaptation to keeping them warm or dry, or could be that they feel sick. Other more concerning issues could cause your dog to shake. You should always contact your vet if your dog is behaving in a strange way or if you are concerned about their health. If your dog is showing other signs, is shaking a lot or has been shaking for a while you should contact your vet immediately.
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Think your dog may be affected?
If you're worried about your dog's health, always contact your vet immediately!
We are not a veterinary organisation and so we can't give veterinary advice, but if you're worried about any of the issues raised in this article, please contact your local vet practice for further information
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If you're looking for a vet practice near you, why not visit the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons' Find a vet page.