Help! My Dog Yelps & Shakes For No Reason

‘At a glance’ (details below)

Why Dogs Yelp, Cry or Shake Suddenly

  • Acute pain is the cause of most yelping ‘for no reason’
  • The majority of unexplained cases have neck or back pain
  • It can happen when moving, when touched or even while sleeping
  • Some of these dogs are at risk of IVDD

Now dive deeper…

I’m sorry about the comic picture above. Yelping is no laughing matter. Dogs can go on for years before their suffering is recognised.

dog neck pain

This is Chi Chi. I don’t expect you to see it yet, but this dog is clearly in terrible pain. At home he would suddenly yelp without obvious reason, and shake all over. An internet search didn’t give the right answer, so let’s set the record straight…

Why Dogs Yelp When Touched Or Moved

A dog that yelps without an obvious reason usually has neck or back pain. Almost all other causes of yelping show other symptoms such as limping or a poor appetite.

It’s hardest to tell spinal pain from abdominal pain. Back pain often causes obvious referred pain to the abdomen, with a very tight, hard and painful belly. The clue is that dogs with spinal pain usually eat normally, as miserable and lethargic as they are. Dogs with abdominal pain are usually off their food.

Two other conditions that cause yelping might be sometimes also occur. The first is a severe ear infection. These dogs have ‘got used’ to the pain but if you brush the side of the head they yelp.

The second is anxiety.

Signs Of Neck or Back Pain

Have a look at Chi Chi again. The first thing to see is that unusual head posture. No matter what, he keeps his head bent down and tries to only move his eyes to look around. This is a classic sign of neck pain.

Back pain is harder to see, but there is usually some degree of back arching. together with a rock-hard abdomen. For both necks and backs, dogs will be reluctant to move and probably not be jumping up at all. Remember, they should be otherwise fine.

Warning: dogs don’t usually yelp while you examine them, so you can easily do a lot of harm without realising. All a vet looks for is the subtle difference in muscle tension between these dogs and normal patients. Here’s why it matters…

The Dangers

Visit our page on back problems and IVDD to see a dog who could easily have died if his owners didn’t react properly. Many cases of spinal pain have unstable intervertebral discs that can rupture into the spinal cord. You need a vet to recognise which ones these are and take immediate action.

Vet care usually starts with a physical, a neurological exam and x-rays. This helps us decide whether your dog:

  1. can be treated just with medicines
  2. also needs cage rest (bed rest)
  3. needs immediate referral to a specialist surgeon

Thankfully, the third choice is the least common. It is necessary when there is a risk of:

  • permanent nerve damage
  • ongoing pain not easily managed by treatment
  • repeated episodes.

Treatment of Neck & Back Pain

Just like spinal pain in people, not all cases are serious. The minimum treatment is good pain control, usually via anti-inflammatories and opiates. Owners are also asked to keep their dogs rested until better, and to use harnesses instead of collars for restraint.

Despite Chi Chi’s severe pain, he was suitable for home care and made a full recovery. Only time will tell if his problem will come back, and we’ll be there if it does.

The Elephant In The Room

One last thing needs saying: most dogs with unexplained yelping are overweight. Regardless of the cause, quality of life almost always improves if owners can just be strong. Follow this link for positive, non-judgmental advice on weight loss in dogs. You won’t regret it!

Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours of lodging.

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

47 Replies to “Help! My Dog Yelps & Shakes For No Reason”

  1. My boy Barkley is a chocolate lab, he wasn’t eating yesterday and he yelps whenever we touch him anywhere. He was fine when we got home but after we let him out to use the bathroom he came back with his head down, tail tucked and was whining alot. He’s also breathing pretty heavily, he’s being take to the vet later today but I’m still worried about him 🙁

  2. Hi your responses are interesting but I’m not sure if our almost 3yo spoodle has pain or if it is a defensive measure. She does not like to be touched or picked up around the middle and gives a yelp if you try to move her. She does not appear to have any other symptoms and moves quite freely including walking and playing. I do believe she may have anxiety could this be the reason for her yelp? Your advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

    1. Hi Therese. It’s never accurate without a physical exam but to me the best clue that it’s ‘behavioural’ (e.g. anxiety) would be if it only happens in certain places, such as when on the sofa. Certainly a 3 year old is unlikely to have back problems. Regardless of the cause, the problem is worth investigating, whether for health or quality of life reasons.

  3. My 9 yr old Shepherd Yelps if touched on abdomen by rib cage and also his sides. He paces back and forth and doesn’t want to sit or lay down. Eventually, after doing the pacing for hours, he will lay down but yelps when he does. He is eating and drinking fine. He did not hurt himself that I’m aware of. At last vet visit, the vet thought he may have the beginnings of degenerative myelopathy d/t ursine leakage and hind paw not righting itself when placed on floor. Does this sound like his back is the culprit?

    1. Hi Janet. I agree with the idea of a spinal origin, but I’m wondering if degenerative myelopathy could cause referred pain, if that’s what it is. It sounds like a tough one to sort out and your vets seem to be on the right track.

  4. Hi Andrew,
    Just came across your site after googling !
    Wow what a wonderful informative web site 🙂
    Our Pugalier aged 5 started 2 nights ago started doing a weird sudden yelp/cry out of nowhere noise, he was sleeping on the lounge and jolted himself awake making this weird noise at first i thought he was having a dream but he continued doing it through out the night. At first we thought he may have injured himself as he is ball mad and does all sorts of flying leaps to get the ball, but he seems to be walking & jumping ok. Yesterday he went all day and didn’t do it at all but then last night as he is relaxed and sleeping he started to do it again, he also did it during the night once or twice. any ideas ?

  5. Hello
    My 14 yo bishon is yelping when touching him under ear (only left side area) noting that he is eating normally and his ear looks so healthy (odor and skin).
    Giving him ibuprofen (2ml twice daily) and he is becoming better on ibuprofen!

    Kindly advise

    1. STOP THE IBUPROFEN AND SEE A VET IMMEDIATELY. It is extremely toxic and your dog may die without treatment.I cannot stress this enough. Only after this can your vet sort out the cause of pain, which is probably middle ear disease.

  6. Hi Andrew, Monday my poodle lifted up his front left paw and yelped once, then put it back down and was normal the rest of the day. Tuesday he again lifted up the same paw and yelped several times, didn’t want to put pressure on it for about 5 minutes, then went back to normal again. While we were sleeping, I accidentally touched his back and he again yelped. Today (Wednesday), he again is lifting the same front paw and yelping, but only did it once for about 5 minutes again. I would think if it were back pain the back legs would be affected rather than the front. Also with only the one front paw being lifted for only a few minutes per day, then intermittent soreness on the mid to lower back, I have no idea what it could be. He is still running and jumping normally all other times. Any ideas?

    1. Hi Abbey. If it’s really a leg problem, there should be a limp most of the time, and dogs almost never yelp with leg problems except when they first hurt them. However, you could have an unusual case. A long shot is that it is what’s called a ‘root signature’ where a prolapsed spinal disc puts pressure on the root of a nerve that goes to the leg. This gives referred pain that the dog interprets as leg pain. Either way, you need a vet to be sure.

  7. Hi Andrew
    I have a wee saved Gritton.He had been abuse by his last owner.I got him at 3 and a half years old.It has been a hard road with him,but I have always just been very kind to him.this poor wee soles is scared of everything.I have had him for near on four years.
    To this day there is no spark in his eyes.
    Anyway.Two days ago, I came in from out side,sat to him and put my hand on his tummy to pat him.He screamed so I thought I must have sat on his leg.So again I tried to pat him and he screamed again. So the next few hours I just watch over him.He didn’t want to eat drink or even go out for his toilet walk.I did manage to get him out at 5 pm.But still in this time he was screaming if touch.I knew he couldn’t jump up on the lounger so that night I slept on the floor beside him. The next morning I took him to the vet.They checked Ragnar out and Ragnar was not screaming at all while in the vets.Once I got him outside yep he started screaming.I took him back a second time to the vets they did xrays but said they really couldn’t see any thing.The vet said.Ragnar must have eaten something or this spin at the base of his tail could have a smaller gap than the other disks in his back.The vet did say Ragnar had a lot of poop inside of him.Ok they put him on painkillers and told me to watch him over the next few days.Day one. He is very slow to walk,not really wanting any food.Seems to just want to be in his bed.He has screamed once only today.Im to scare to touch him any more I fear I will only make him scream.Could this pain be his spin .please help.Thanks Rob

    1. Hi Robynne. It looks like you’ve done everything right and it sounds like he has back pain- it’s frustrating how they don’t react when the vet handles them. My only concern is the not eating, which isn’t typical for pain, so if he isn’t getting better, I’d ask my vets to take a blood sample including a pancreatitis test.

  8. Hi I have a 11 year old jack russel and if you touch his back slightly he starts to Yelp I was wondering if you have any recommendations I also have a 1 year old shih tzu could he have maybe caused the pain for him and will I need medical attention for him.

    1. Hi Sammy. It’s certainly possible that your young dog has caused your older dog to overexert himself and hurt his back. Most of these do need medical attention. Good luck.

  9. Hi Andrew, I’m very worried about my 1.5 year old pitbull Lucy.
    She is normally very energetic, spunky and all around happy. She is so energetic we take her on 3 walks per day, while we also have a large fenced in backyard for her to run around in. She has a basket of her favourite bones and another of toys that she drags around and dumps about a dozen times a day. Whenever we come home she runs to the door doing the pitbull wiggle because she’s wagging her tail so hard. Her favourite thing is wrestling with my husband and normally follows him around the house all day.
    For the last 2 days she has not done any of these things. She does not want to go for walks, she has not touched her bones or toys, my husband tried to wrestle with her and she walked away with her head down. When we come home she won’t even get off the couch to say hello.
    Today she began yelping when we touched her head, and cowering when we are about to pet her. She is barely eating and tonight I saw she had diarrhea. She’s a completely different dog and I can tell she’s in pain, obviously somewhere in her head or face but I can’t understand what’s wrong. There is no visible sign of injury. We checked in her ears and mouth to see if there was any redness or swelling and everything seemed fine. If you have any ideas about what may be going on with her I’d appreciate hearing them. I’m guessing a trip to the vet will be in order tomorrow but I’m just worried sick.

    1. Hi Jill. You have found the best information I can give, but beyond this only a vet in person can give you the final piece of the puzzle. Good Luck.

  10. Hi there!

    My Chihuahua cross Yorkshire terrier is yelping every so often. Shes 7 years old, does not have any problem moving her head/neck but not eating like she normally does. When shes out in the garden shed fine but her right back leg flicks up which makes her look like she is skipping. Shes done that for awhile but now has only recently yelping when nothing in particular is happening. I walked past her and she jumped to the side and yelped. She sat by the door, jumped up and yelped. Do you have any idea what could be going on? She behaves normally when being picked up or cuddle and has no problem rolling around on her back on the grass. She has had her tail inbetween her back legs more than usual though.

    1. Hi Melissa. Nearly every time a dog behaves like your chihuahua the cause is spinal pain, not just the neck. It is always intermittent, unpredictable and hard to detect. Of course, only a visit to the vet can give you the right answer.

  11. Hi, I just saw an article referring to someone’s pet that is very skittish, I have a Chihuahua named ‘Livee’ (pronounced live ee), and we also have the rest of her family too, brother, mother and father, none were inbred, and ever since her birth she has been the odd one out, and growing up, she has all the symptoms of an abusive owner, such as when being called, she’ll walk very slowly towards the caller, with her tail between her legs and head down, then when she gets close enough she’ll just drop and roll on her side, with a little squirt of pee to follow, she doesn’t bite, but when she’s on the couch, and we give her that happy tone in our voices, she wags her tail like crazy, then immediately drops into that submissive posture, and when we rub her belly, she starts an intense tail wagging more of a circular motion, then starts a heavy bout of snarling and growling, and when snarling, it looks like she’s attempting to talk, because she’ll start wagging her tongue about at the same time as snarling, making it sound like she’s talking, but she doesn’t bite, then she’ll intensively stare at one of the other chihuahua’s and continue growling and snarling, we have to actually say “quit” to stop her.

    Sooo, what can make her have all the symptoms of being abused when she isn’t? Me and my wife think it’s a possibility that when she was born there was a lack of oxygen to her brain for a short period and we had to blow into her nose to get her breathing, and as a result she could be partially brain damaged, oh, and also she’ll bark and the slightest noise, regardless if day or night, which makes me think she could also have a vision problem too.

    1. Hi Michael. It actually sounds like Livee is suffering from anxiety. Sometimes this can be due to early experiences, but often it’s just a case of some animals being more prone to it than others. Anxiety then often leads to aggressive behaviours. I would certainly see a vet who is interested in animal behaviour as a first step and see if this is true.

  12. My dog had never had any signs of pain and always acted normal playing with my other dog until today he started winning everytime my other dog comes near him and yelping really loud. He still eats normally but he doesn’t move around as much he just lays down all the time now. We don’t know what’s wrong

    1. Hi Callie. The information in this article is the best guess as to what is wrong, but only a vet will be able to tell for sure.

    1. Hi Samsudin- yes, yelping is unique to dogs. It’s strange but true: yelping without an obvious cause is almost always caused by neck pain

      1. Hi Shay. I’ll answer this one – fixing a blocked anal gland is usually done under anaesthetic by passing a small cannula into it and flushing it but sometimes a vet can express it when the dog is awake if it’s not too painful.

  13. My toy poodle yelps and begins to shake a lot if you touch the left side of her body or even if you don’t touch her at all. She will jump up onto the lounge without any visible pain but if we were to pick her up, she yelps and starts shaking again. She is now sitting with her body slightly curled towards the right side and seems to be leaning forward a bit.

    1. Sometimes this behaviour can be anxiety if they feel threatened when you go to get them. However, you should always start by looking for pain. I’d certainly get a vet to take a look, but as she may not do it at the clinic, also take a video on your phone to show them.

  14. Hi, so what was chi chi’s problem as it sounds similar to my dog and what care did you provide at home. My dog has yelped in pain with no one near him and he holds his head like chi chi. We are currently on pain killers and antibiotics for a possible uti. Next step xrays if he doesn’t improve? He also had an episode where his back legs gave way so is this a sign of neck/back pain. Thanks

    1. Hi Lou – Chi Chi had neck pain. To be honest, once the painkillers started working we didn’t need to do anything else except keep him quiet and stop him jumping on and off furniture. In your case, I would wonder if there might be a better painkiller (I find meloxicam plus tramadol or gabapentin works best) It sounds like the x-rays are going to be necessary.

  15. Hi Andrew,
    Im facing with one issue with my puppy Shihi tzu 1/5 years old, everything was normal , I did brushing her, walking,playing,eating food, all ok until 2days back when I was playing with her sunddnly she screamed and she stoped playing after that I felt she is a bit nervous but we went out to walk normally, when we came back When I tried to touch her neck again she screamed and hide herself under the table, from that time I’m monitoring her every 10mins I felt she is crying and she is not moving her head just looking around with her eyes, she is not happy at all ignoring her foods and treats, she is doing urine with no problem, I really don’t know what should I do because the vets in my city they are not that pro, do you have any opinion to help me, I’m really looking for reply
    Thanks so much.
    Amigo.

    1. Hi Amigo. I think you have read the right article based on what you have described. It certainly sounds like severe neck pain, but you really need a vet to have a look. I’m sure the vets in your area see these all the time and can help her. Shi Tzus in particular often have spinal disc problems so if I were them I would certainly be also recommending an x-ray to check. Good luck. Andrew

  16. My dog yelps when strokes and examined, he is quite nervous in nature as it is. Recently he has started digging holes in the garden which he NEVER used to do but after digging the hole he will then lay in it. What does that mean?

    1. Hi Kirsty. It’s actually quite normal behaviour for a dog to dig a hole and then lie in it. This is especially common in hot weather when it does seem to help them cool down a bit. However, it’s the change in behaviour that concerns me. I would get a check up as it’s also possible he’s in pain and it’s his way of trying to get away from it. The yelping could just be a dog that’s nervous, but it’s quite rare for a dog to do this with their own owner.

  17. Hi Andre, so about a week and a half ago I sat on my 12 pound poodle and I weight a reasonable 200lbs and now she yells when barely touched, she doesn’t jump on beds or the sofa anymore(she used to jump on them a lot) and she shivers all the time. When taken outside she feels fine but while inside the house she’s miserable. She doesn’t eat but drinks water. She used the restroom fine but this morning right now she went to the bathroom in one room and in another and just threw up like 4 time. She threw up some huge weird objects that looked like a jalapeño with strings. Please help!.

    1. Hi Isabel. I’m sorry to say but it sounds like your poodle is in serious trouble. You certainly have described all of the symptoms of severe pain but it is hard to say why. I suspect the vomiting is related to the injury and that the object that was brought up was just something sitting in the stomach at the time but again it’s hard to say. All I can suggest is that you find a vet to see her as soon as possible. I suspect she has some internal injuries. All the best – Andrew

  18. Our dog yelps when gently stroked on head, why? She is a skidish dog overall. Will flinch if you step over her. Cannot handle a walking stick will freak out into a panic attack if my husband uses it normally to walk. I think she was abused by previous owner. Do you have an opinion? I would like a reply

  19. Hi Andrew, thanks for this post. I’ve suspected the foster dog I’m looking after has some issues with one of his back legs but after reading your post I also realise that throughout the night he gets up a few times and has a good shake, so now I’m wondering if that’s another sign of things not being quite right. Another thing to discuss at our upcoming vet appointment!

  20. My dog’s back right leg shivers sometimes and occasionally she holds it up. She doesn’t yelp or cry. However, she does not jump on the bed as often as she has previously. She is about 8-9 years old. I suspect arthritis.

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