By Jennifer Coates, DVM
Some breeds of dogs are known to have issues with shaking and trembling. Sometimes the shaking is limited to one region of the body; in other cases, a dog’s whole body can tremble. Shaking can be associated with normal canine behaviors and physiological responses, or it can be a sign of a potentially serious health condition. With all this variability, how can owners know when shaking is a problem? Learning about what can make healthy dogs shake and the conditions that afflict certain breeds of dogs is a good first step.
Common Causes of Shaking in Dogs
Dogs can be expected to shake in specific situations. Some can’t be still when they get excited. If they’re not able to run and leap, they’ll simply tremble with joy. Anxiety can also cause shaking in dogs. As long as the circumstances that cause the anxious response are reasonable and short-lived (say someone suddenly opens up an umbrella), the shaking is nothing to worry about. But, if anxiety becomes a recurrent problem that significantly affects a dog’s quality of life, it should be addressed.
Low temperatures can make anyone shiver, but some types of dogs get cold faster than others. Small dogs have a larger surface-area-to-volume ratio. In other words, smaller dogs have relatively more skin through which to loose heat than do big dogs. Dogs who are thin, elderly or very young, sick, or have short, sparse coats are also typically highly sensitive to cold.
Small, white breeds of dogs, like Maltese and West Highland White Terriers, are at higher than average risk for a condition known as acquired tremors syndrome. In fact, the disease is sometimes even called little white dog shaker syndrome, even though it has been diagnosed in dogs who have any coat color. Symptoms commonly develop in young dogs who weigh under 35 pounds.
Dogs with the condition may have tremors that are mild and only affect one part of the body, or the tremors may be so generalized and severe as to make it hard for a dog to walk. Oftentimes, the tremors get worse with activity and excitement and improve after a dog has rested. Other neurologic problems may be seen, as well.
In most cases, treatment with relatively high doses of the drug prednisone leads to rapid improvement in a dog’s tremors. Patients can then be weaned of off the drug over the course of four to six months. Other medications and supportive care may be necessary if a dog’s tremors are especially severe.
Shaking Puppy Syndrome
Several breeds of dogs have a genetic predisposition for developing abnormalities affecting nerves within the spinal cord, including:
- Bernese Mountain Dogs
- Chow Chows
- English Springer Spaniels
- Rat Terriers
The resulting condition often goes by the generic name “shaking puppy syndrome.” Usually symptoms become evident within a few weeks of the puppies being born. Clinical signs include tremors of the head and body that often get worse with activity and excitement and improve with rest. Affected puppies may also have an unusual way of standing and difficulty walking and eating. Symptoms range from mild to severe.
In some species (Weimaraners, Chow Chows, and Rat Terriers), shaking typically improves over the course of a few months, and many individuals move normally once they are fully mature. Tremors in affected Bernese Mountain Dogs often persist but do not have a significant effect on quality of life. English Springer Spaniels and Samoyeds initially tend to have milder tremors that worsen over time. A genetic test is available for Weimaraners that can be used to help guide breeding decisions.
Head Tremors in Dogs
Doberman Pinschers and English Bulldogs are at risk for developing head tremors. Affected dogs may look like they are nodding “yes” or shaking their head “no.” The tremors may start and stop for no apparent reason, but are typically not severe enough to have much of an adverse effect on a pet’s quality of life. Shaking may be worse when the dog is resting and then improve if the dog’s attention becomes focused. The cause of head tremors in English Bulldogs has not been identified, but a genetic aberration is suspected in Doberman Pinschers. In about half of affected Bulldogs, the tremors will resolve with time.
Other Causes of Shaking in Dogs
Of course, dogs may shake or tremble for reasons other than those listed here. For example, infections, exposure to toxins, age-related changes, metabolic imbalances (e.g., low sugar or calcium levels), hormonal disorders, seizures, and conditions affecting the cerebellum (part of the brain) can all cause dogs to shake. Dogs with unexplained shaking or trembling should be evaluated by a veterinarian.