Shaking or Trembling Dog: How to Distinguish Medical Emergencies
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Melissa holds a Bachelor's Degree in Biology and is a plant and animal enthusiast with multiple pets.
It can be a confusing and scary experience when you find your dog spontaneously shaking for an unknown reason. For some individual dogs and certain breeds, shaking or trembling can be normal, but in other circumstances, it can be indicative of a medical emergency.
Shaking can also tell you something about your pet’s mental state. This is a very common symptom that can indicate many different problems or even normal behavior. Here’s how you can determine if your dog’s shaking or trembling is normal, if it indicates a problem, or if you should see a veterinarian immediately.
Course of Action
First, it is important to determine if your pet has a medical problem and if this requires immediate medical attention. To start, take note of anything "off" about your pet aside from the shivering. If there are other associated symptoms, this is a cause for concern.
You should try to remain calm and rational so you can observe and give an accurate account of your pet's behavior to the vet if needed. It may be beneficial to film the dog shaking. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, you may be able to wait up to a day before going to the vet. It's always best to get a professional's opinion on whether or not you should do this, so try and talk to a vet over the phone (the receptionist is simply required to encourage you to come in and cannot dispense any medical advice).
Common Symptoms Associated With Trembling
Serious Illnesses Associated With Tremors
Here's a list of some diseases and conditions where shaking or trembling is often a symptom. This is certainly not a comprehensive list. If you suspect that your dog has any of these diseases, a vet visit is warranted.
- Distemper Virus (typically occurs in young, unvaccinated dogs)
- Kidney failure
- Bloat (life-threatening, extremely serious, large dogs and deep-chested breeds are the most affected)
- Generalized Tremor Syndrome (GTS), occurs in small white dogs
- Cancer/neoplasia or tumor rupturing
Steps to Take
- Observe the environment: Could something be stressing your pet out? Are there strangers in the house, fireworks, or storms outside? Could your pet have picked up on a stimulus? Suitcases being brought out when an owner is going on vacation can be a trigger. Shaking can be a psychological response to such situations.
- Check for other symptoms: It's very important to be vigilant and observe for any other changes in your pet's behavior. Is your pet showing less enthusiasm for things he normally reacted toward, like going on a walk or getting fed?
- Consider your pet's history: Have you seen your dog shake before as a result of a stressful or exciting situation, or is this the first time you observed the behavior? Is your pet currently being treated for an illness (cancer, arthritis, etc.) that might be causing discomfort? If the behavior is unusual, you will probably need professional assistance. This can be more difficult to determine if the pet is new.
- Check for foods or material your pet could have eaten: If your home is cluttered with potentially harmful substances, or if your pet is prone to eating things it shouldn't, you should immediately check for open containers or chewed up objects your pet could have ingested.
- Film your pet: Describing vague symptoms like "shaking" or "trembling" can be difficult, so creating a video to show your vet can be of tremendous value.
Causes of Shaking
- Normal behavior (normal in some small dogs)
- Temperature regulation
Shaking From Nausea
There are many ways that dogs can become nauseated, and shivering is often a sign of such. Gastrointestinal discomfort can result from indigestion, car sickness, or toxicity (poisoning). Has your dog undergone a non-routine activity such as a car ride, and does he normally have no problems with it? Be sure to pay attention to any potential stress factors that might be making your pet anxious. Anesthesia also commonly results in nausea.
Shaking Following Anesthesia or Sedation
It is a common occurrence for pets to shake or tremble after being induced under anesthesia or administered certain drugs. Dogs can experience dysphoria from certain drugs while not being in physical pain beyond typical nausea. This is normal and shouldn't be a cause for concern unless the symptoms continue for longer than a few hours to a day. Older pets take longer to recover from anesthesia and may be lethargic for up to 24 hours. Depending on the procedure your pet received, he may also be experiencing pain which can contribute to the shaking.
If you suspect your dog has eaten a toxic substance, call your vet or Animal Poison Control Center at (888) 426-4435 as soon as possible. When it comes to poisoning, every minute counts. Common sources of toxicity for dogs include chocolate (larger amounts with dark chocolate being worse), snail bait, cigarettes, antifreeze, xylitol, and certain plants like the sago palm (Cycas revoluta), which are common outdoor plants in the southeast.
Shaking and Lethargy
These are two common symptoms that occur simultaneously and often indicate a medical problem if they are not due to a known condition that is being treated or monitored. Sometimes the problem can be behavioral, but any sudden and unusual presentation of both lethargy or listlessness with trembling means a vet should be contacted.
Localized Shaking and Shivering
Another form of shaking or trembling in dogs occurs on specific body parts. Arthritis and muscle weakness are two examples of conditions that can cause your dog to shake in a specific area, such as the rear legs. However, general pain and anxiety may also cause this. If your pet appears to gain pain relief from resting, this likely indicates pain in the affected joints.
Shaking and Panting
The simultaneous occurrence of shaking and panting often indicates pain, but it could also be due to heart problems, stress, poisoning, stroke, or low blood sugar. To investigate the cause, consider if your pet could potentially be in pain from a recent accident, an unusual growth, or another potential medical condition due to old age. After ruling out a spontaneous cause of injury, your pet should receive diagnostics at the vet to explore this vague symptom.
Neurological Causes and Seizures
Sometimes shaking or trembling can be due to a neurological problem such as epilepsy. Dogs can also get seizures from other causes such as toxicity, cancer, and head injuries. Other symptoms of seizures include but are not limited to a "confused" look, drooling, loss of consciousness with continued movement, temporary blindness, stiffening of the muscles, and jerking movements.
As our pets age, they are more prone to various illnesses and cancers, so it is not uncommon to observe shaking, trembling, or presentation of pain in the limbs. Old age should not be a reason not to seek medical attention, as there are often medications to slow the progression of the illness or reduce pain for seniors.
Sometimes your vet won't be able to find the cause of your pet's shaking. An idiopathic illness is one with an unknown cause. This can be a frustrating experience, but a vet visit is still worth it to ensure your pet is not suffering from a condition that is easily resolvable.
Questions & Answers
Question: What can cause a dog to drink too much?
Answer: There are many medical conditions that can cause a dog to drink excessively. It is important to talk to a veterinarian.
© 2017 Melissa A Smith
dawn on July 29, 2019:
2 times yesterday my miniature poodle got stiff back legs, stared off, and was shaking while laying down, it was hot out yesterday, only lasted a couple of minutes, could that be a seizure, or from heat?
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on October 07, 2017:
Thanks Heidi, best of luck to your pup.
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on October 07, 2017:
Thank you Louise.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on October 01, 2017:
Our dog has seizures which, due to his older age, our vet does not believe to be epilepsy. It's quite an unnerving experience. But now that I understand what it is, I'm able to calmly observe his behavior and know when it's time to bring him to the vet ER! Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience!
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on October 01, 2017:
This article was really interesting and helpful to read. It's always worrying when a dog starts shaking and trembling. Like you say, could be any number of reasons.
Why Do Dogs Shake?
By: Chewy Editorial Published: June 12, 2017
Why Do Dogs Shake?
Like any dog owner, you’ve probably found yourself trying to explain your dog’s wacky behaviors, like rolling around in the grass or chasing his tail, or maybe you’ve found yourself wondering, “Why does my dog shake?” Whether he is trying to shake water off after a bath or trembling in fear, dog shaking may be caused by a variety of reasons. Irith Bloom, Certified Dog Behavior Consultant, CPDT-KSA, VSPDT, KPA CTP, CBATI, VSDTA, faculty and Director of Training at The Sophisticated Dog in West Los Angeles, CA shares some reasons behind this dog behavior while most aren’t a cause for worry, there are times that dog shivering or dog shaking may indicate a larger problem.
Dog Shivering: Why Do Dogs Shake and Tremble?
He is cold. “If the temperature outside is cold, or even just colder than usual, and your dog is shaking, consider putting a coat on the dog,” says Bloom. Though small dogs are more likely to be affected by temperature change than larger dogs, a jacket such as the Zack & Zoey Nor’easter Dog Blanket Coat can keep any pooch, big or small, warm on chilly evenings or windy fall walks. The Ultra Paws Fleece Lined Reflective Comfort Coat for Dogs is a great option for snowy conditions and winter weather, and pairs great with Ethical Pet Fashion Lookin’ Good Fleece Boots to help keep your dog warm.
He is nervous or scared. “If your dog gets nervous during thunderstorms, he may begin to shiver as soon as he senses that a storm is coming—and dogs can detect storms at a greater distance than most humans,” explains Bloom. Though dog shivering may be a strong indication of some upcoming rainfall, it isn’t so great for your dog, and it isn’t easy for you either! The ThunderShirt Anxiety & Calming Solution for Dogs wraps around your dog to apply gentle, comforting pressure by hugging his body. VetriScience Composure Behavioral Health Bite-Sized Dog Chews are also a great supplement if your dog experiences occasional, or event-caused fear or anxiety, such as stormy weather.
He is reacting to someone new in your home. Whether you are bringing a new animal over or having a dinner party at your home, dog shivering or trembling may be caused by fear and hesitation or over-excitement when guests visit. Richard’s Organics Pet Calm can help calm short-term dog shaking and is best used prior to interaction to help soothe your pup. “If your dog trembles whenever a certain person comes into your home, or around other dogs, your dog may be fearful, or your dog may be overly excited about that person,” says Bloom. “Watch your dog carefully to see if he avoids the person or dog, or instead rushes up to them happily.” If you notice that your dog, instead, chooses to avoid the guest, it is best to keep them separated, if possible.
Should your resident dog still be showing signs of fear and you are working to introduce a new pet to your home, consider working with a certified dog trainer or certified dog behavior consultant that can help ease your dog and new addition through the transition.
He is excited. If you notice dog shaking whenever you come home, your dog sees their four-legged best friend, or you are getting ready to set down the food dish, chances are that your dog is just plain ol’ excited! When this happens, try Vet’s Best Comfort Calm Soft Chews Dog Supplement, which can be a great tool for calming dog shivering.
He’s getting ready to hunt. Bloom notes that if your dog is shaking in the presence of animals or other household pets that may be considered prey your dog may be wanting to chase or hunt the animal, so supervise closely to ensure everyone’s safety.
He may need to see a vet, and quick! If none of the above seem to quite describe your pup, and you are still noticing dog shivering where his entire body is trembling for more than a few seconds, it may be a symptom of a medical emergency. “If your dog suddenly begins to tremble for an extended period, even though he does not normally tremble very much, is not cold, and nothing exciting or scary is going on, this could be a sign of a serious medical issue,” warns Bloom. “Call your veterinarian immediately, just in case.”
Still wondering, “Why do dogs shake?” Or better yet, maybe you want to know, “Why does my dog shake?” While dog shivering usually is subtle and occurs longer than a few seconds, you’ll almost always notice your dog shaking after a bath, or if he gets his ears wet. The following are the main reasons for actual rotational shaking of your entire dog’s body.
Dog Shaking: Why Does My Dog Shake His Head or Entire Body?
He is trying to dry himself. If your dog just got a bath, or he’s hopping out of the pool after a cooldown, chances are that he’s just trying to shake off the water from his fur. Have no fear—he shouldn’t need to do this more than once or twice each time he gets wet—but be careful not to get in his splash zone!
He is wanting to release tension or excitement. Similar to how people will sometimes jump around or jiggle their hands to shake off stress, dogs will sometimes shake after a stressful or exciting encounter, like when two dogs meet on leash, says Bloom, “After the sniffing ends and the dogs walk away from each other, it’s pretty common to see one or both of the dogs shake off.”
Similarly, dogs may shake during or after dog play to release the excitement that remains (even once their energy’s gone). During play, it can be a polite way for one dog to ask the other to pause the game for a moment, explains Bloom, but as soon as he’s ready, it’s back to playtime!
He just got hugged, rubbed and loved on. Sometimes we like to cuddle our dogs. Okay, so it’s all the time, but most dogs don’t love the squeeze-you-till-you-pop hugs, especially not by strangers, so if a dog shakes after receiving one, he may be letting you know that he’d prefer affection in the form of a belly rub.
His ears may need a little extra attention. So, we’ve covered dog shivering, and dog shaking, you may still be wondering, “Why does my dog shake his head?” If your dog is shaking his head, or even his upper body, there is a chance that his ears are bothering him. All dogs shake their head occasionally, but if you are consistently noticing it and you notice other symptoms such as a slight deposit under the flaps of his ears or a strong smell, he may have an ear infection. If you suspect that your dog has an ear infection, consult your veterinarian. Regular dog ear care and cleaning helps prevent infections, and Zymox Otic Pet Ear Treatment with Hydrocortisone will help make sure that your dog’s ears stay clean and healthy.
Because dogs can’t communicate with us using words, it’s important for us to understand their body language to listen to what they want to tell us. If you are still noticing irregular dog shaking or dog shivering, consult a professional dog behavior consultant or trainer.
How to prevent shaking in dogs
Sometimes your pet's trembles can be resolved without the help of a vet. Shaking in dogs may be because of excitement, anxiety, or just because little Fido is freezing!
Take care of your dog's health with regular vet checkups, keep them warm, and make sure they don't eat anything that could harm them. You'll no longer waste time wondering - why do dogs shake? - and instead spend that time enjoying your best friend.
Use an online dog symptom checker like PetMD to put your mind at ease or take them to the vet if you're unsure. Veterinarians never grow tired of hearing - my dog is shaking and acting weird. It's their calling to help!
Dogs do all sorts of weird things, which are often completely natural, and sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the normal from clues of a serious condition. Persistent back leg shaking on dogs can be an indicator of a severe problem.
Shaking of the back legs in your dog is relatively straightforward. You will observe your dog, and seemingly out of nowhere, the shakes start. However, these shakes are localized to his or her back legs. The movements may be small or massive.
About Muscle Tremors
Healthline differentiates between spasms, twitches, and tremors. While initially, they may sound like the same thing, the difference is essential when diagnosing your best friend. If possible, try to keep track of the duration to share with your vet.
A muscle spasm is the contraction of a muscle and is wholly involuntary. In humans, charley horses are a typical example. Meanwhile, a muscle twitch is a fine movement of part of a muscle. These twitches are not generally painful.
A tremor specifically is an uncontrollable rhythmic movement. These involuntary actions are further subdivided into types. The first are resting tremor, which goes away once your dog begins moving. The second is an action tremor, which occurs when your dog moves his or her back legs. Action tremors can be further divided.
The first type of action tremor is a movement, where a specific movement of a particular limb causes your dog’s tremors to start. Then there are postural tremors, where holding a limb against gravity causes the shaking. A task-specific tremor would begin if your dog’s back legs started shaking every time they ate. The fourth is kinetic, where any movement through the body part can kick one off. The last is isometric, which occurs when the muscle is moved alone.
Tremors can also be classified by appearance and cause. However, since you’re reliant on your dog’s behavior for the initial diagnosis, these are not as helpful. Additionally, there is a significant overlap with the above discussion.
Dog Shivering and Panting
Dogs sometimes shiver and pant due to fear, anxiety or stress however, these can also be signs of a medical conditions. Medical conditions that can cause your dog to shiver and pant include:
- Heart problems
- Infections (with fever)
- Heat stroke
- Internal Injuries
Each of these conditions can quickly become serious, so if you suspect your fur baby is shaking and panting due to any of these conditions, be sure to call the vet as soon as possible. These can be signs of life threatening medical conditions.