Causes Of Shaking & Trembling in Dogs

Updated November 28, 2020

One night my own dog started shaking and shivering uncontrollably. Several frantic minutes went by. Was it a poison, was he unwell? The reasons why dogs tremble and shake go from simple to serious.

A minute later he squatted, passed a huge puddle of urine on the floor and the shaking stopped. He was busting to go to the toilet, and no-one realised. We all felt a bit silly, but that’s how hard it is.

Causes Of Shivers & Tremors In Dogs

Before the list, here are some things that might get confused with tremors:

  • Hiccups in young puppies, especially after eating. While alarming, they are very common and should disappear with age.
  • Myoclonus muscle jerks or spasms when dogs are asleep. As long as these do not occur while awake there’s no reason for concern.
  • Seizures & epilepsy. Generalised seizures always involve a loss of consciousness, unlike tremors. However, partial seizures are often confused due to the considerable overlap in symptoms. Read more about seizures here.

Toxins & Poisons

The first thing to ask yourself if your dog starts shaking, trembling or twitching is: “is there any chance of poisoning?” Think especially about all of the following:

Malicious dog baiting is rare but also needs consideration. The appearance of signs due to any of these requires treatment at your nearest emergency vet.

Behavioural Causes

Psychological causes of shivering and shaking include:

  • Pain: especially abdominal or spinal pain but also from needing the toilet
  • Noise phobia; such as smoke alarms, appliance beeps, drums, fireworks or thunder
  • Anxiety & fear: even of normal things like baths or house moves
  • Anticipation & excitement: many dogs shake before something exciting like a walk or dinner
  • Nausea: dogs often shake before they vomit especially with motion sickness

Cold

Many people aren’t aware that dogs can feel the cold even more than people do. This is especially true for puppies, old dogs, small breeds and those with single coats. Click here to help decide whether your dog should wear a coat.

Old Age

Elderly dogs, especially terrier breeds, often get a coarse tremor or shake in their back legs. I have seen this called benign essential tremor. It appears to be of no concern other than it can be confused with the next condition…

Musculoskeletal Disorders

Shaking of the legs can also be due to pain in the joints. It usually gets worse the longer a dog is standing. The only way to tell it apart from benign tremors is to undergo a short trial of arthritis medication. If the condition is caused by pain, it should improve while on treatment, and relapse when stopped.

Any condition causing weakness, such as overexercise or degenerative myelopathy (especially in German Shepherds) can also cause shaking in the back legs. Read more causes of hind leg weakness here.

Shaker Dog Syndrome

Better described as steroid responsive tremor syndrome (SRTS), this is a well known condition of all dogs. Its former name of ‘white shaker disease’ is due to the fact that around 50% of affected dogs are small breeds with white coats. It causes a whole body tremor that worsens with exercise but does not interfere with eating, and disappears during sleep.

SRTS is believed to be an inflammatory disease of the central nervous system. It usually responds well to treatment with steroids such as prednisolone.

Metabolic Causes

The two common disorders of body function that cause tremors are hypocalcaemia and hypoglycaemia.

Hypocalcaemia is a low level of serum calcium. The only common cause is when bitches start producing milk. The high calcium demand can cause blood levels to get too low, especially in small breeds with large litters. Treatment is intravenous calcium, and weaning the puppies onto milk replacer.

Hypoglycaemia is low blood glucose. The most common cause we see is when diabetics are given too much insulin. However, there is also a pancreatic tumour called insulinoma.

Kidney Disease and Addison’s Disease have also been reported to cause trembling or shaking. Usually there are much more obvious symptoms that will lead us to the right diagnosis.

Tetanus

Tetanus does not commonly cause tremors, but is worth mentioning as another muscle problem, this time of spasm and rigidity. It is caused by a toxin of the bacteria Clostridium tetani which infect any wound, but especially broken milk teeth or nail bed injuries.

The first sign is usually a strange anxious-looking facial expression with the ears pulled back and the skin wrinkled behind the head. Without treatment, dogs lose the ability to stand, swallow and eventually breathe.

Breed Specific Muscle Disorders

Lastly, there are a few very specific muscle disorders that aren’t exactly tremors, but look very similar.

Scottie cramp is an increase in muscle tone that occurs with excitement or exercise in some Scottish Terriers. Affected dogs have stiff legs and an arched back, and look very uncomfortable.

Young Springer Spaniels & Wheaten Terriers get a similar condition, with muscle contraction, cramping, rigidity, tremors or twitching.

In Border Terriers, the condition previously called canine epileptoid cramping syndrome or Spike’s Disease is now known as Paroxysmal gluten-sensitive dyskinesia (PGSD).

Signs are difficulty walking or an inability to stand, tremors, and muscle contractions of the limbs, head and neck. Episodes can last minutes or hours with dogs being normal in between and seem more common with exercise or excitement. Affected dogs usually respond to muscle relaxants, and of course a gluten-free diet.

With such a long and diverse list, don’t feel bad if you’re confused. Shivering, trembling and shaking are hard even for a vet to work out. So when you go, make sure to bring a video on your phone.

Sometimes it’s nearly impossible to diagnose the fault, but your vet can always help. At the very least they should be able to tell you if it’s serious or not.

Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.

Andrew

6 Replies to “Causes Of Shaking & Trembling in Dogs”

  1. Hi Dr. Andrew,
    I have a 5 year old cocker spaniel who is experiencing what appear to be muscle tremors. He will sit and his legs and behind will begin to shake and stiffen, it then travels up his body. He is completely lucid during these episodes and they last anywhere between 30 seconds to 2 minutes. This began in October 2020 and have happened four times (a month to two months apart). He is completely healthy otherwise and I am reluctant to start him on epilepsy medication if it is not completely necessary. Do you have any advise? Sorry for the long message I’m very concerned about him.

    1. Hi Jacqueline. I don’t have any extra advice, but I doubt many vets would use seizure medication for a relatively mild episode like this. You should definitely get a check up though.

  2. I have a 12 yr old Cardigan Welsh Corgi. He has been healthy up til a day ago. He started showing favoritism to his left hind leg and now he doesnt want to climb stairs and he walks stiff, slow and hurtful. His hind legs shake after a short walk and he wants to lay down alot more than he use to. He’s eating fine, I give him pumpkin and olive oil along with some Tumeric in his food for natural treatment . He’s having bowel movements and drinking water as well as urinating ok. He seems painful and doesn’t want to be touched around his belly or lower back. When he’s laying on the loor I notice a little drewl by his mouth. Im very worried and cant get him to my vet for 2 more dsys. Any advise would be greatly appreciated. He’s such a gd Boy. Joan

    1. Hi Joan. I’m sure there is another vet you can see sooner and I think it’s quite important that you do. Top of the list would be IVDD.

  3. My dog is a 16+ year old dashound with foggy eyes he shoves and shakes at times … but he had teeth pulled a year ago a lot 24 and recovered with a jaw spasm that never left and now the light or movement next to him makes his head and eyes spasm like he is being beat I’m worried he’s on a high fiber food due to an intestinal problem with bloody stool please advise and help this poor little guy is the biggest part of my heart

    1. Hi Erinn. Flinching and being easily startled as well as tremor are very common in dogs at around 16 years of age. I’m not aware of anything that can be done except to keep them in a familiar environment where they can be more relaxed.

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