What Is Involuntary Muscle Trembling in Dogs?
It can be scary when your dog is shaking or trembling, and you don’t know why. Dogs may display muscle trembling for several reasons. Some of these are relatively simple and easy to fix, such as being cold. Others may be more involved and require diagnostics and treatment.
Involuntary muscle trembling involves shaking or trembling movements of the whole body or a single part of the body, like the head. Sometimes the trembling is constant, and other times it can come and go. Because there are so many different things that can cause involuntary muscle trembling, it is a relatively common condition.
While most cases of muscle trembling are not emergencies, there are some notable exceptions, like when exposure to a toxin is a possibility.
If your dog has been exposed to any toxins, it is important that you get them to an emergency center as soon as possible or call the Pet Poison Helpline at 855-764-7661 to discuss next steps.
Symptoms of Involuntary Muscle Trembling in Dogs
Symptoms of involuntary muscle trembling in dogs include:
Trembling movements across a dog’s body
Rhythmic, repetitive muscle movements
Causes of Involuntary Muscle Trembling in Dogs
There are various causes of involuntary muscle trembling in dogs, and their severity can be very different. Causes of muscle trembling can be broken into several categories:
Anxiety, fear, and excitement are all common causes of involuntary muscle trembling in dogs. If your dog is worried about something—perhaps there’s construction in the neighborhood or your smoke detector keeps making high-pitched chirps—it can lead to anxiety-related trembling.
Excitement can also lead to trembling. Perhaps you’re getting ready to take your dog on a walk or have company over. Extreme excitement can also lead to involuntary whole body muscle trembling.
Fear can also cause trembling. You may notice your dog trembling when at the vet or in a new situation where they are scared and uncomfortable.
Pain, nausea, cold, and fever are some of the more common causes of trembling related to discomfort. Senior dogs that have mobility issues and arthritis may tremble in their back end when trying to stand on slick floors with poor traction or after standing for a while when their muscles fatigue.
Sometimes dogs with stomach aches or nausea may tremble. Trembling is often seen before a dog begins to have diarrhea or vomiting, because of a combination of abdominal pain, nausea, and worry about what’s to come.
Sometimes dogs are simply cold. Small-breed dogs with a short hair coat may chill quickly and tremble as a result. Fevers can also lead to trembling.
Like people, dogs may feel very cold when they have a high fever.
Many toxins can cause trembling in dogs. Because of this, if you believe your dog has had exposure to a toxin, it’s important that you get them to a veterinarian as soon as possible.
Insecticides and pesticides, like snail bait, can cause muscle trembling when eaten or licked. Let your veterinarian know if you have recently sprayed your garden and your dog had access to these chemicals.
Marijuana, chocolate, and xylitol (a sweetener that is often found in chewing gum and causes low blood sugar) can also lead to trembling. Compost can contain tremorgenic mycotoxins and lead to involuntary tremors when eaten.
Little white shaker syndrome, episodic head tremors, cerebellar hypoplasia, and seizure disorders can all lead to trembling. Many of these conditions more commonly affect certain breeds.
Little white shaker syndrome is more common in small-breed dogs weighing less than 30 pounds. While it’s more often seen in Maltese, Miniature Poodle, and West Highland White Terrier breeds, it can occur in dogs of any color. Affected pups develop a tremor that can be subtle or severe, often in early adulthood.
Episodic head tremors, known as idiopathic head tremor syndrome (IHTS), is a condition seen more commonly seen in English Bulldogs, Doberman Pinschers, Boxers, and Pit Bull-type breeds that results in head bobbing episodes, usually with up and down movements.
Cerebellar hypoplasia and cerebellar abiotrophy are diseases that affect the cerebellum, the part of the brain that helps with regulating movement and balance.
Dogs affected with cerebellar disease tend to have jerky, uncoordinated movements and have trouble walking.
Cerebellar hypoplasia is usually inherited and noticed when dogs first start to walk and play as young puppies. This disease is more commonly seen in the Boston Terrier, Chow Chow, and Bull Terrier breeds.
While cerebellar hypoplasia is inherited and shows up in very young puppies, cerebellar abiotrophy is a breakdown of the cerebellum and can occur in dogs of any age.
Cerebellar abiotrophy is usually progressive and worsens over time.
Seizure diseases, like epilepsy, can also lead to involuntary muscle trembling. Most dogs that experience seizures lose consciousness and will have grand mal episodes, where they fall on their side, paddle their legs, and lose control of their bladder or bowels.
Occasionally dogs may experience more subtle, or petit mal, seizures, where they have less severe signs, and involuntary muscle trembling may be a sign of a seizure disorder.
Some dogs, like Dachshund and Basset Hound breeds, may be prone to a myoclonic seizure disorder called Lafora disease, where they have sudden muscle twitches and jerky head movements that may or may not progress to full-fledged, whole-body seizures.
Hypoglycemia means low blood sugar.
This can occur in small-breed dogs who have not eaten in a while, dogs with diabetes who got too much insulin, or even secondary to a toxin ingestion, as seen with xylitol. When dogs experience hypoglycemia they may have weakness, tremors, or even seizures.
Hypocalcemia is the term for when there is too little calcium in the bloodstream. Calcium is needed for most of the important functions in a pup’s body. When calcium becomes dangerously low, it can lead to shaking, trembling, or even death.
Hepatic encephalopathy is a neurologic condition that can develop because of a poorly functioning liver. This is most seen in animals with shunts that divert normal blood flow away from the liver. When it’s not getting the blood flow it needs to function, the liver is not able to detoxify things like ammonia and clear these compounds from the bloodstream.
This can lead to a dog seeming out of it, being unsteady on their feet, and experiencing muscle trembling and even seizures. These episodes are most seen shortly after they eat a meal, and the condition is more commonly seen in Yorkshire Terriers.
Canine distemper is a very contagious viral disease that is spread from infected dogs or wildlife. This disease attacks the respiratory system, gastrointestinal system, and nervous system of infected dogs.
Affected dogs usually have green-yellow drainage from their eyes, a fever, cough, and vomiting. They can develop muscle tremors and seizures once the virus gets into their nervous system, and they usually have rough, thickened pads on their feet.
Fortunately, there are very good vaccines for canine distemper. Most puppies are vaccinated for a full series of three to four DAPP (distemper, adenovirus, parvovirus, and parainfluenza) vaccines when they are young, with the last vaccine given after they are 16 weeks of age.
Your veterinarian will give a vaccine booster every one to three years depending on your dog’s age and how many vaccines they’ve had in the past.
Tetanus is a bacteria disease caused by Clostridium tetani bacteria getting into a wound, often a deep puncture wound.
Affected dogs can develop rigid muscles and muscle tremors, usually about a week after the original injury happened. It’s important that any wounds your pup gets be thoroughly cleaned and checked by a veterinarian for therapy if needed.
How Veterinarians Diagnose Involuntary Muscle Trembling in Dogs
Involuntary muscle trembling is usually noted in a veterinary clinic during a physical exam. Your vet will likely want to run several tests to figure out the underlying cause.
They will likely run bloodwork and may do X-rays. They may even recommend referral to a veterinary neurologist if an underlying primary neurologic disease is suspected as the cause.
Your veterinarian will likely want to know the following information to best help your dog:
Has your pup had exposure to any toxins (pesticides, insecticides, chocolate, xylitol, and any other nonfood items)?
How long ago did the trembling episodes start?
How often do they occur?
How long do they last?
Is there any pattern that you’ve noticed at home for when your pup has these episodes?
Does your dog have access to compost?
Has your dog had any recent wounds/injuries?
Is your dog pregnant or have they had puppies recently?
Sometimes trembling episodes are inconsistent and occur occasionally.
In these cases, it is very helpful if you can bring a video of your dog shaking to show your veterinarian what they look like when the episodes happen.
Treatment of Involuntary Muscle Trembling in Dogs
Treatment depends entirely on the underlying cause of your dog’s muscle trembling.
If your pup is trembling because of an emotional issue like excitement or anxiety, it’s possible that no treatment will be needed. If the anxiety is severe or your dog’s quality of life is affected by chronic stress or fear, your vet may prescribe some antianxiety or mood-regulating medications like trazodone, Clomicalm®, or fluoxetine.
If the trembling is related to pain, your dog may be prescribed pain medications to manage their discomfort if the source of the pain does not have a cure, like in the case of arthritis.
Anti-inflammatories, like carprofen, may be paired with other pain medications like gabapentin. In severe cases, other pain control options may be recommended or explored, including new monthly injectable medications like Librela™ or physical therapy with underwater treadmills, cold laser therapy, and acupuncture. Your vet may also recommend joint supplements like Dasuquin® or regular injections of polysulfated glycosaminoglycans, like Adequan®, to lubricate painful joints.
If the pain is related to gastrointestinal upset, nausea, or other internal issues, treatment will be geared more toward visceral pain control and resolving the underlying problem.
If your dog was exposed to a toxin, decontamination will be the first order of business.
If ingestion occurred within the past four hours, your veterinarian may induce vomiting. Never induce vomiting at home without being directly told to do so by a veterinarian. Some toxins are caustic and can cause double the harm if they travel through the esophagus again.
Intravenous (IV) fluids may be given to flush the toxins from your dog’s body.
They may give your dog activated charcoal to bind up any remaining toxins so that they can pass through your pup's body without causing further harm.
Neurological disorders are treated differently, depending on the diagnosis. Dogs with little white shaker syndrome are often managed with steroids, while other conditions like cerebral hypoplasia and episodic head tremors can’t be treated.
In dogs affected by tremor diseases that cannot be treated, pet parents must instead focus on management and keeping their dog comfortable. Sometimes that involves staying calm and distracting them during an episode, like in the case of episodic head tremors. Other times, that may mean avoiding slick footing with poor traction or access to stairs or other dangers to a dog with poor muscle control and balance.
If your dog is having true seizures in addition to involuntary muscle trembling, your veterinarian may recommend antiepileptic medications based on the severity and frequency of the episodes.
Other medical conditions leading to involuntary muscle trembling will be managed depending on which system is affected. Sometimes these treatments are simple, while other times they are complicated and may require time in the veterinary hospital.
A dog with hypoglycemia may simply be treated with oral glucose (by eating a meal or rubbing sugary Karo syrup on their gums). Or they may need hospitalization and IV fluids with dextrose sugar added until their blood sugars are regulated.
Bacterial infections, like tetanus, are treated with antibiotics while doing supportive care until the antibiotics can clear the infection.
Some conditions, like hepatic encephalopathy, may have a surgical treatment if liver shunts are the underlying cause.
Recovery and Management of Involuntary Muscle Trembling in Dogs
If your dog’s involuntary muscle trembling is emotion-related, consider counterconditioning, where you provide your dog with a task to do when they are stimulated by the trembling-inducing event.
You can teach them to focus on you or give them a simple command like “sit” and reward them with a treat. Keeping their mind occupied with another safe, routine task may help distract them from the emotionally charged situation.
If it’s safe and practical to do so, desensitization therapy may also be helpful. This involves exposing your dog to the source of their anxiety in very small doses, with lots of rewards and positive experiences surrounding the training episode.
If your dog’s involuntary muscle trembling is related to orthopedic pain, make sure they are in a good, healthy body condition. Each pound your dog is overweight will likely increase the amount of joint pain they experience. Working on getting them to a healthy weight will help their joints and overall quality of life.
Sometimes this can be done with diet, either by limiting the amount of food fed or by changing to a lower-calorie diet. Prescription diets like Hill's® Metabolic and Mobility may be helpful. Speak to your vet before changing your pup’s diet.
Other times, exercise can be used to improve your dog’s health. Remember, if they are experiencing pain-related muscle trembling, rest may be needed. Low-impact exercise, like swimming or long slow walks, may be recommended.
Talk to your veterinarian before starting any exercise programs.
If your dog is diagnosed with a condition that will require lifelong management and some trembling episodes can be expected, consider making your home safer for your dog.
Add nonslip runners to long hallways or carpets to rooms that have hardwood or tile flooring. Put up child gates at the top or bottom of stairwells to avoid your pet falling on the stairs.
Prevention of Involuntary Muscle Trembling in Dogs
Many of the medical conditions that cause involuntary muscle trembling are not preventable, but some are.
Making sure your pet does not have access to any toxins is something all pet parents should do. Keep rodenticides, insecticides, and other chemicals in latched or unreachable cabinets.
Keep food items in pantries and on high shelves that your dog cannot get to. Make sure compost piles are fenced and/or outside your dog’s accessible outdoor space.
Avoid letting your dog roam unsupervised.
Keep your dog at a healthy weight and consider joint supplementation when they are middle-aged. Avoid letting them get into the trash or feeding fatty table scraps that can upset the stomach and pancreas.
If your dog is diagnosed with an underlying inherited medical condition, like a neurologic disorder or liver shunts, don’t breed them.
Keep your dog up to date on all vaccinations (like canine distemper virus) and give any wounds veterinary care right away to prevent tetanus.
Involuntary Muscle Trembling in Dogs FAQs
When should you worry about muscle twitching in dogs?
Worry about muscle twitching in dogs when it develops suddenly and is persistent. It is especially concerning if the muscle twitching comes with any other signs, like lethargy (lack of energy), vomiting, or weakness.
What does a myoclonic seizure look like in a dog?
A myoclonic seizure looks like a sudden onset of muscle twitching or jerking movements in a dog’s body. It can be in just a single part of the body, like the head, or affect the whole body.
Featured Image: Sviatlana Barchan/iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images
Brooks, W. Tremoring or Shivering in Dogs. Veterinary Information Network. Revised August 2023.
Lowrie, M, Garosi, L. Classification of Involuntary Movements in Dogs: Myoclonus and Myotonia. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine. 2017.
Waratuke, K. Tremorgenic Mycotoxin Intoxication in Dogs. Today’s Veterinary Practice. 2017.
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