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Many factors can explain why dogs shake, shiver, or tremble. Learn what causes a dog to shake—including the phenomenon behind shaking in small dogs—and when to seek veterinary treatment.

By Ashley Flaws
January 28, 2021
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Illustration of blond dog happily shaking with leash in mouth
Credit: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

It's no secret—dogs are excitable creatures, often overcome with tail wags and full body shakes, especially before a walk or treat. Maybe she also gives you a good splash shaking off after bath time. And, admit it, you've been ready with your camera more than once trying to capture that adorable full body quiver when she stretches after a nap.

These are all normal, healthy causes for a dog to shake, says Kim Khouri Haddad, DVM, medical director at the VCA San Carlos and VCA San Mateo Animal Hospitals, vice chairperson of the board for the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, and board member of Jameson Humane in Calif.

What Causes a Dog to Shake, Shiver, or Tremble?

Many factors can cause your dog to shake, and this behavior can present itself in a variety of ways, spreading throughout the whole body, or limited to a particular region, such as the head. Let's start there: why do dogs shake their heads? 

"Excessive shaking of the head can be a sign of an ear infection," Haddad says. "Bacteria and yeast can result in itchy and painful ears. Sometimes a foreign object like plant material can get into the ear canal and cause discomfort."

A dog with an ear infection will shake her head and scratch her ears frequently. You may also notice redness, discharge, and/or an unpleasant odor around the infected ear. Visit your veterinarian for an official diagnosis and treatment.

Dogs shake their whole bodies for a number of reasons, Haddad says, including:

Dreaming

If you've ever wondered why dogs sometimes shake in their sleep, the answer is simple: it's possible that they're dreaming! Like humans, dogs experience rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the sleep stage associated with dreaming. According to Sleep Foundation, mammals all have the same fundamental sleep cycle and REM sleep may cause dogs to bark or twitch their legs similar to the way humans may move about or talk in their sleep.

Cold Weather

"There are many variables that affect a dog's ability to tolerate or thrive in cold climates, including breed, type of coat, age, diet, body condition, and acclimatization," Haddad says. But extreme temperatures that cause you to shiver may also cause your dog to shiver or tremble when cold. This behavior is normal, but Haddad recommends erring on the side of caution. If your dog seems reluctant to move, has sustained shivering, has ice on her coat, or is otherwise acting abnormal, get her indoors.

Fear and Anxiety

If your dog is triggered by a loud noise, such as thunder or fireworks, or has an impending sense of doom during the all-too-familiar trip to the vet office, shaking is a normal manifestation of that fear. However, if your dog's anxiety is not limited to occasional triggers or events, she may have separation anxiety disorder, Haddad says. Hiding, pacing, excessive barking, and destructive behaviors commonly accompany this disorder and are best addressed with a visit to your vet.

Toxic Substances

If your dog eats something she shouldn't have—a toxic plant, human food or medication, or chemicals—she may exhibit shaking or tremors. Call the 24-hour ASPCA Poison Control line at 888-426-4435 if you suspect your dog has ingested a toxic substance.

Old Age

Senior pups, especially larger breeds, may experience shaking in their hind legs due to arthritis. If your dog has lost vision or hearing, she may tremble out of increased anxiety.

Do Small Dogs Shake More Than Others?

Old dogs are not the only ones more susceptible to shaking. Maybe you figured your small dog is just more excitable than her larger canine companions, but there is actually a neurological condition associated with this phenomenon. Shaker syndrome, otherwise known as "Little White Shaker Syndrome," is most commonly found in small white dog breeds, such as the Maltese, West Highland white terrier, and poodle, according to VCA Hospitals.

However, Haddad says this condition can affect dogs of all shapes, sizes, and colors. It typically presents itself early in a dog's lifespan through head and body tremors. If you figured your dog was just excitable, you weren't all wrong: excitement is one of the triggers for tremors for dogs with this condition.

Don't fret—your veterinarian can diagnose and treat your pup, with most dogs seeing immediate improvement upon seeking treatment, according to VCA Hospitals.

When to Seek Veterinary Treatment for Your Dog's Shaking

If you can't pinpoint a cause for your dog's shaking, she may have an underlying health condition, Haddad says. Potential underlying causes include:

It is always best to visit your vet to rule out these conditions and other illnesses. Maintaining your dog's annual vet check-up may help you identify a potential concern early.

You know your pup better than anyone. If you fear something is wrong, don't shake it off—ask your vet how they can help.