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Your Dog’s Got the Shakes

A vet explains why the weather isn’t always to blame.

by Colleen Stinchcombe
May 22, 2021
Dog laying down on a bed with a worried expression

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When you start shaking or shivering, there’s usually a source that you can point to — you’re cold, you’re hungover, or you’re about to give a huge presentation and you’re super nervous. Low temperatures and high anxiety can account for why your dog is shaking as well, but there are also more serious causes for concern. We asked a veterinarian and a behaviorist to list the most common reasons for dog tremors, from seasonal stress to deadly diseases.

1. Your dog is freezing

Some dogs like “chihuahuas are known for shivering and shaking,” says Dr. Sara Ochoa, DVM, a veterinarian at Whitehouse Veterinary Hospital. They tend to always be cold and want a blanket to snuggle up with.” If you suspect your dog runs cooler than other breeds, feel free to use it as an excuse to kit them out in cozy sweaters.

2. Your dog has an ear infection

“If you notice your pet is suddenly shaking their head a lot, an ear infection could be to blame,” Dr. Ochoa says. This behavior could be coupled with a funky smell emanating from their ears, yellow discharge, redness in the ear canal, and swelling of the outer ear. Since the inner ear is what keeps you (and animals) balanced, your dog may also do an odd head tilt, back-and-forth eye movements, and appear otherwise off balance and uncomfortable. Dogs with floppy or hairy ears, such as Cocker Spaniels, Basset Hounds, and Old English Sheepdogs, are more prone to ear infections. So are dogs with crudely cropped ears, as is sadly the case with some Pit Bulls and Dobermans. If your dog is doing any of the above, make a vet appointment because they will need topical antibiotics to clear up the infection.

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3. Your dog is scared or stressed

Dogs get freaked out just like us humans, and tremble when they’re scared. Some causes are unsurprising, from fireworks to a car suddenly backfiring. Some dogs are also just scared of new things, people, and places. A new rescue dog especially needs time to adjust to their new surroundings — the most familiar thing to you, say, the AC on a hot day, could be utterly terrifying for a dog that’s never enjoyed such modern comforts. Be patient with them; understanding where they’re coming from can also make sense of their shaking.

Dogs with a true anxiety disorder will also shake often (and often uncontrollably). Signs that there isn’t just a situational or environmental trigger causing your dog to tremble include pacing, excessively panting, whining, and obsessively licking their lips and paws. They can also either shut down, frozen in fear, or frantically try to escape. A certified behaviorist can coach you through training techniques to assuage your dog’s anxiety. You should always exhaust all training options first, but if your dog isn’t making progress after months of work, talk to your vet about anti-anxiety medication.

“If you’re already actively training your dog to deal with stressors, you should know that by the time they reach the fearful shaking/shivering phase, you’re way past their point of comfort,” says Lauren Novack, a dog behavior consultant at Behavior Vets in NYC. If you’re trying to get your dog used to unfamiliar terrain or circumstances, you need to take it in bite-sized steps that are comfortable to them. “You should never take a dog for a walk that is stopping in their tracks, tucking their tail, trying to get away, and shaking — that’s a very, very scared dog. The goal is not, I’m going to place you outside and you’re going to deal with it. You need to be really proactive with their training — you want your dog to be participating in their socialization.”

4. Your dog is excited

Shaking from excitement can appear deceptively similar, but is less worrisome. Your dog may shake (and whine and pee) when you come home from work because they just are just so happy to see you. Getting equally excited — as you obviously are — will only reinforce this behavior, so if you feel like your dog is getting too worked up or needs to stay calm for medical reasons (they have heart problems, are recovering from surgery, or are a fragile little senior), try to make comings and goings chill affairs. As hard as this may be, don’t acknowledge your dog when they are in this frenzied state. Wait until they calm down to give them the affection they seek.

5. Your dog has distemper

The first sign of distemper — a deadly virus — is eye and nose discharge, so it’s not always easy to diagnose early. What follows is coughing, fever, diarrhea, and vomiting. Then come the shakes. When the disease progresses, it attacks the central nervous system and dogs begin showing neurological symptoms like uncontrollable muscle twitches, convulsions, and seizures. Distemper is part of a puppy’s core set of vaccines, so it’s mostly seen in very young puppies that have not gotten all their shots yet.

“Distemper is so serious because there is nothing that can treat this disease. We can usually only provide supportive care,” says Dr. Ochoa. “With these dogs being so young, their immune system cannot fully help them fight this disease and it is usually fatal. If not, it causes neurological issues, many of which are not reversible.” It’s also highly contagious so if you adopted a puppy from a shelter that doesn’t routinely vaccinate litters, get your pup checked out by your vet ASAP.

6. Your dog ate something toxic (or feels sick for another reason)

If your pet is vaccinated and is shaking without rhyme or reason, they may have swallowed a toxic food, plant, or home/lawn chemical — from chocolate, grapes, and xylitol (common in gum and baked goods) to antifreeze and fertilizer. Nausea and motion sickness can also cause a dog to shake. As can pain — animals often don’t show pain until it’s too much to bear (it’s a survival mechanism) so shaking can clue you into something else that could be going on with your dog’s health. Don’t wait for the shaking to subside; book an appointment with your vet or head to the ER if your dog can’t settle.

7. Your dog has Generalized Tremor Syndrome (GTS)

Breeds particularly prone to GTS include Maltese, Poodles, West Highland White Terriers, and other dogs with white fur — it has even been dubbed the ‘little white shaker disease’ — but any dog can be affected. The condition is caused by inflammation in the cerebellum, the part of the brain which controls coordination and regulates voluntary muscle movement. The cause of GTS is still unknown but it’s thought to be an autoimmune disease since it responds to steroid treatment. Again, see your vet if there isn’t an obvious reason why your dog is shaking.

Colleen Stinchcombe

Colleen Stinchcombe lives near Seattle, WA, where she works as a writer, editor, and content strategist. Her two rescue pups wish she were a professional ball-thrower.