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shake it up: why do dogs shiver and shake? dr. kim smyth explains

  • Dr. Kim
  • Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on
    Staff Veterinarian and Pet Health Writer of Petplan

If you are anything like me, the “polar vortex” experience this winter left you cuddled up with your four legged family members—maybe even under an extra blanket (or two!). These extreme temperatures had me shivering, which got me thinking about shivering in our pets. 


I was mainly thinking about shivering in dogs, as cats don’t seem to experience shivering or trembling as often as dogs, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to share my thoughts with our blog readers!


There are so many reasons for dogs to shiver or tremble. The most obvious reason for shivering is cold.  Dogs have fur to keep them insulated, so it’s not that common for them to shiver from cold when they’re indoors, but certainly small and toy breeds with thin coats are more susceptible to cold, even when curled up on the couch.  Even large breed dogs with thick coats can get super cold when outdoors in cold weather, especially if their coats get wet. 


Fear and anxiety as a cause for trembling was second on my list. A great example is a dog who has a storm phobia—when a storm approaches, they can often be found huddled in a safe spot, trembling with fear.  Other highly anxious dogs can tremble for just about any reason. Dogs who have “trained” their owners well know that their fearful trembling results in a lot of hugs and kisses, so even if there is nothing for them to fear, they’ll shiver just to garner some attention from you. The best way to avoid this habit is to do your very best to ignore this type of “learned response” behavior.


Have you ever met a dog who was so excitable that they seemed to simply vibrate with energy? In my line of work, I see a lot of those. Some dogs shiver out of pure excitement, trembling with anticipation of the fun that lies ahead. I think we should all take a cue from these dogs, who enjoy life to its fullest every day!


On the other end of the spectrum lies our geriatric friends, who, though they may still get excited, don’t really show it as enthusiastically.  Senior dogs can have a tremor, especially in their hind limbs, for no particular reason.  We often see these kinds of tremors, which are so aptly named “old dog tremors” in dog at rest, and we don’t particularly worry about them.  If tremors don’t interfere with the quality of life these old dogs, we just accept them as part of getting older.


Pain and muscle weakness are two other potential causes for trembling muscles in our pets.  If you’ve ever tried to do one last lift of your hand weights after a grueling workout, you know how weakness can cause tremors.  Pets who suffer from arthritic pain may tremble because of pain or weakness, or a combination of both.


Finally, there are a slew of medical conditions that can cause trembling.  While the trembling we talked about above is for relatively benign reasons (with the exception of extreme cold, which could potentially lead to hypothermia or frostbite), some medical conditions that cause trembling are more sinister. 


Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar): very young puppies and toy breeds are susceptible to low blood sugar

Addison’s disease: electrolyte disturbances seen in this condition are responsible for trembling in some dogs

Cerebellar disease: lesions in the cerebellum can cause intention tremors (similar to those seen in human patients with Parkinson’s disease)

Seizures: some trembling is due to small focal seizures

Most of the time, there’s no reason to worry about a healthy dog who has a tremor now and again. But if you pet’s shaking is rattling your nerves, don’t hesitate to bring it up with your veterinarian!

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Posted by Aaron's Momma
on March 04 2017 02:16

My Aaron is an 11 yr old bichon. Ahh the joys of a car ride! When we hit the freeway and the window closes, he relaxes on my lap. *And shivers nonstop.* Every time! He shows no notable emotion. Just my typical, calm dog. He has moderate arthritis in his hind legs and spine. His activity tolerance is very low. But this is the only time he ever shakes. Is he ok??

Posted by Diana Smith
on December 09 2016 11:58

My older, but ball-crazy golden retriever had a short but intense period of shivering one day. I thought she had just been cold since she started playing shortly after. Unfortunately, that's not what caused it, but I didn't know until the next day when she was too unsteady to stand. A tumor on her spleen had ruptured and the massive hemorrhage took her life at 14. Topaz lived life to the very end!

Posted by Tashi's mom
on December 05 2016 18:06

Our 12 year old Lhasa Apso has had hind leg tremmors when out walking for the last couple of years. As it seemed to be getting worse, we brought her in to our alternative medicine trained vet, who did a thorough spinal exam and found nothing to be concerned about. She gave her an acupuncture treatment and since that time (several days) her tremor has gone from pronounced (people stop and ask about it on the street) to barely noticeable. We plan to repeat this minimally invasive treatment (which the pup did not mind a bit) as needed while monitoring her for other changes that might indicate a more severe issue.

Posted by joy Fire
on January 31 2016 13:14

My Wired Haired Fox Terrier is 10 years old and his back left leg is beginning to shake! It only comes and goes. There is a weakness either in the hip or somewhere near the hip. What can I give him alternately remedy to build his nerves and muscle in that area? thank you joy

Posted by trinty-dog lover
on April 09 2015 15:59

I have a wire hair terrier, nameed Chi Chi... winter is over, but she is shaking ALL the time. i hope its not a sickness for dogs but.. i would like to know i dont want anything to happen to my little Chi Chi

Posted by Chris Reimer
on May 26 2014 15:13

The shivering started several days ago and what is most noticeable is she has become very lethargic and hides under the bed and does not respond when she is called. She is normally a very active miniature schnauzer that always comes when called. Comments are appreciated.

Posted by DirtyPaw
on February 27 2014 14:58

Greetings Doctor. I have Aussie's and they always seem to tremble from time to time. All Australian Shepherds I have seen, seem to do the same thing. Is there an explanation medically as to why this seems to be an inherited trait? I have always assumed that it is do their intensely active nature. Man do I love them... Thanks, Rick

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