Shaking or Trembling Dog: How to Distinguish Medical Emergencies

Updated on October 4, 2017
Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa holds a bachelor's degree in biology and is a plant and animal enthusiast with multiple pets.

It can be a confusing and scary experience when you find your dog spontaneously shaking for an unknown reason. For some individual dogs and certain breeds, shaking or trembling can be normal, but in other circumstances, it can be indicative of a medical emergency. Shaking can also tell you something about your pet’s mental state. This is a very common symptom that can indicate many different problems or even normal behavior. Here’s how you can determine if your dog’s shaking or trembling is normal, if it indicates a problem, or if you should see a veterinarian immediately.

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Course of Action

First, it is important to determine if your pet has a medical problem and if this requires immediate medical attention. To start, take note of anything "off" about your pet aside from the shivering. If there are other associated symptoms, this is a cause for concern.

Still, try to remain calm and rational so you can observe and give an accurate account of your pet's behavior to the vet if needed. It may be beneficial to film the dog shaking. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, you may be able to wait up to a day before going to the vet. It's always best to get a professional's opinion on whether or not you should do this, so try and talk to a vet over the phone (the receptionist is simply required to encourage you to come in and cannot dispense any medical advice).

Common Symptoms Associated With Trembling

Labored breathing
Lethargy
Ataxia
Nausea
Pain
Vomiting
Stiffness/Limping
Listlessness
Swallowing/Drooling
 
 
 

Serious Illnesses Associated With Tremors

Here's a list of some diseases and conditions where shaking or trembling is often a symptom. This is certainly not a comprehensive list. If you suspect that your dog has any of these diseases, a vet visit is warranted.

  • Distemper Virus (typically occurs in young, unvaccinated dogs)
  • Kidney failure
  • Bloat (life-threatening, extremely serious, large dogs and deep-chested breeds are the most affected)
  • Generalized Tremor Syndrome (GTS), occurs in small white dogs
  • Cancer/neoplasia or tumor rupturing

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Steps to Take

  1. Observe the environment. Could something be stressing your pet out? Are there strangers in the house, fireworks, or storms outside? Could your pet have picked up on a stimulus? Suitcases being brought out when an owner is going on vacation can be a trigger. Shaking can be a psychological response to such situations.
  2. Check for other symptoms. It's very important to be vigilant and observe for any other changes in your pet's behavior. Is your pet showing less enthusiasm for things he normally reacted toward, like going on a walk or getting fed?
  3. Consider your pet's history. Have you seen your dog shake before as a result of a stressful or exciting situation, or is this the first time you observed the behavior? Is your pet currently being treated for an illness (cancer, arthritis, etc.) that might be causing discomfort? If the behavior is unusual you will probably need professional assistance. This can be more difficult to determine if the pet is new.
  4. Check for foods or material your pet could have eaten. If your home is cluttered with potentially harmful substances, or if your pet is prone to eating things it shouldn't, you should immediately check for open containers or chewed up objects your pet could have ingested.
  5. Film your pet. Describing vague symptoms like "shaking" or "trembling" can be difficult, so creating a video to show your vet can be of tremendous value.

Causes of Shaking

  • Pain
  • Anxiety
  • Nausea
  • Excitement
  • Normal behavior (normal in some small dogs)
  • Temperature regulation

Shaking From Nausea

There are many ways that dogs can become nauseated, and shivering is often a sign of such. Gastrointestinal discomfort can result from indigestion, car sickness, or toxicity (poisoning). Has your dog undergone a non-routine activity such as a car ride, and does he normally have no problems with it? Be sure to pay attention to any potential stress factors that might be making your pet anxious. Anesthesia also commonly results in nausea.

Shaking Following Anesthesia or Sedation

It is a common occurrence for pets to shake or tremble after being induced under anesthesia or administered certain drugs. Dogs can experience dysphoria from certain drugs while not being in physical pain beyond typical nausea. This is normal, and shouldn't be a cause for concern unless the symptoms continue for longer than a few hours to a day. Older pets take longer to recover from anesthesia and may be lethargic for up to 24 hours. Depending on the procedure your pet received, he may also be experiencing pain which can contribute to the shaking.

In most cases, veterinary diagnostics are the recommended course of action to investigate why a dog is shaking and exhibiting other symptoms.

Poisoning

If you suspect your dog has eaten a toxic substance, call your vet or Animal Poison Control Center at this number: (888) 426-4435 as soon as possible. When it comes to poisoning, every minute counts. Common sources of toxicity for dogs include chocolate (larger amounts with dark chocolate being worse), snail bait, cigarettes, antifreeze, xylitol, and certain plants like the sago palm (Cycas revoluta), which are common outdoor plants in the southeast.

Shaking and Lethargy

These are two common symptoms that occur simultaneously and often indicate a medical problem if they are not due to a known condition that is being treated or monitored. Sometimes the problem can be behavioral, but any sudden and unusual presentation of both lethargy or listlessness with trembling means a vet should be contacted.

Localized Shaking and Shivering

Another form of shaking or trembling in dogs occurs on specific body parts. Arthritis and muscle weakness are two examples of conditions that can cause your dog to shake in a specific area, such as the rear legs. However, general pain and anxiety may also cause this. If your pet appears to gain pain relief from resting, this likely indicates pain in the affected joints.

Shaking and Panting

The simultaneous occurrence of shaking and panting often indicates pain, but it could also be due to heart problems, stress, poisoning, stroke, or low blood sugar. To investigate the cause, consider if your pet could potentially be in pain from a recent accident, an unusual growth, or another potential medical condition due to old age. After ruling out a spontaneous cause of injury, your pet should receive diagnostics at the vet to explore this vague symptom.

Neurological Causes and Seizures

Sometimes shaking or trembling can be due to a neurological problem such as epilepsy. Dogs can also get seizures from other causes such as toxicity, cancer, and head injuries. Other symptoms of seizures include but are not limited to a "confused" look, drooling, loss of consciousness with continued movement, temporary blindness, stiffening of the muscles, and jerking movements.

Old Age

As our pets age, they are more prone to various illnesses and cancers, so it is not uncommon to observe shaking, trembling, or presentation of pain in the limbs. Old age should not be a reason not to seek medical attention, as there are often medications to slow the progression of the illness or reduce pain for seniors.

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Idiopathic Illness

Sometimes your vet won't be able to find the cause of your pet's shaking. An idiopathic illness is one with an unknown cause. This can be a frustrating experience, but a vet visit is still worth it to ensure your pet is not suffering from a condition that is easily resolvable.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

  • What can cause a dog to drink too much?

    There are many medical conditions that can cause a dog to drink excessively. It is important to talk to a veterinarian.

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    • Melissa A Smith profile imageAUTHOR

      Melissa A Smith 

      13 months ago from New York

      Thanks Heidi, best of luck to your pup.

    • Melissa A Smith profile imageAUTHOR

      Melissa A Smith 

      13 months ago from New York

      Thank you Louise.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 

      13 months ago from Chicago Area

      Our dog has seizures which, due to his older age, our vet does not believe to be epilepsy. It's quite an unnerving experience. But now that I understand what it is, I'm able to calmly observe his behavior and know when it's time to bring him to the vet ER! Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience!

    • Coffeequeeen profile image

      Louise Powles 

      13 months ago from Norfolk, England

      This article was really interesting and helpful to read. It's always worrying when a dog starts shaking and trembling. Like you say, could be any number of reasons.

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