Why Is My Dog Shaking?

It could be excitement, a touch of anxiety, or it could be something more serious. Here’s how to suss out what’s going on with your pup.

Our dogs are our constant, and arguably our best, companions. But as much as they share our lives and capture our hearts, they still mystify us in many ways. If only they could talk and tell us what they want and what their weird behavior means! This is especially true for things that could be a cause for concern, like your dog shaking or trembling for no apparent reason. Is it serious? Is it just a thing that dogs do sometimes? Does it require a trip to the vet?

Of course, each situation and each dog is different, but there will generally be some clues. “Reading your dog’s body language and taking the situation into consideration usually helps determine what is causing the shaking,” says Nicole Fulcher, DVM, assistant director of the Animal Medical Center of Mid-America in St. Louis, Missouri. Often, it’s no reason for concern, but sometimes it can be, particularly when the shaking is prolonged. Here are the top reasons that your dog may be shaking—and what you should do. While you’re at it, you will also want to know the reasons behind your dog’s facial expressions.

Excitement

“Many things that cause dogs to shake are no cause for worry—they can shake for all kinds of reasons,” says Rachel Barrack, DVM, founder of the concierge practice Animal Acupuncture in New York City. “Joy and excitement is a big one. Seeing you walk through the door after a long day out is often reason enough to shake with excitement.” That may come as a surprise to many pet owners. After all, you may be used to an excited dog jumping up and down, barking, or even gleefully running in circles when you finally come home. But shaking is an equally common reaction to just being really happy to see you, insists Dr. Barrack, especially if you’ve been gone longer than usual. If, however, your dog shakes for more than a few minutes after you arrive, keep on eye on him. Prolonged shaking warrants a call to your veterinarian. A good pet parent also knows the ways their pet is trying to say, “I love you.”

The weather

Dogs get cold, just like people. Toy breeds, in particular, tend to shake and tremble more than other types of dogs—Chihuahuas, especially. “This can be due to their small size, so they tend to feel colder than larger dogs do, and this can cause them to shiver,” explains Dr. Barrack. Because of their small size, their whole bodies tend to shake. Breeds that have short or sparse coats also have a higher sensitivity to cold. Making sure to dress your fur baby in a sweater or jacket on cold days can go a long way, suggests Christie Long, DVM, and head of veterinary medicine at Modern Animal in Los Angeles, California. That sort of concern for your pet is one of the telltale signs of a great dog owner.

Stress or sadness

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Dogs may seem to live happy-go-lucky, carefree lives, but they experience upsetting emotions, too. “Shaking can also be a sign of stress or sadness, but it’s not really a reason to worry then, either,” says Dr. Barrack. “It is totally normal for your dog to feel those emotions and to shiver or tremble due to one of them.” For instance, loud noises—thunder, fireworks, or car alarms—are a common dog stressor. Some dog parents swear by ThunderShirts to calm their pups in those circumstances or rely on soothing music. A change in household dynamics—whether it’s a favorite human away on a long business trip, the death of another pet, or a kid who’s gone off to college—can make a dog sad or even depressed.

Picking up a scent

Dogs can also shake when they are alarmed or excited by other animals and their scents. “A perfect example would be a Beagle that shakes when he is on the hunt, sniffing wildlife, like a raccoon,” says Dr. Fulcher. “Often, the animal will raise their head and vocalize when they are shaking during the pursuit.” Here are some other noises your dog makes—and what they mean.

Anxiety or fright

Unsurprisingly, many animals, dogs included, will shake or tremble when they are nervous and scared. “There is often a pattern to this type of behavior,” notes Dr. Fulcher. For example, maybe your dog begins to tremble every time a stranger passes by on your walk. The classic scenario is the dreaded trip to the vet’s office. Somehow, dogs just know when you’re headed there, as opposed to, say, the dog park. According to University Veterinary Hospital in Shreveport, Louisiana, a good way to mitigate that fear is to bring your dog in for a vet visit that doesn’t involve a shot. Arrange to take him in just to get weighed, petted, and sent home with a treat. In some cases, obedience training can help, as well.

Underlying medical conditions

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“It is important to watch for other symptoms that coincide with the shaking, such as problems eating, vomiting, or limping,” says Dr. Barrack. “That is a reason to call the vet, as this could indicate a more serious problem, such as a seizure disorder.” Anxiety coupled with confusion can actually be the first symptom of a seizure in dogs before the telltale twitching or shaking starts. FYI, certain breeds, including Miniature Schnauzers, Boxers, Cocker Spaniels, and Labrador Retrievers, have a higher incidence of seizure disorders or epilepsy than others.

An ear infection

“Dog owners should also watch for excessive head shaking, as this could signal an ear infection,” adds Dr. Barrack. Cocker Spaniels, Basset Hounds, and Golden Retrievers are more prone to ear infections than other breeds, and as a result, they’re more apt to exhibit that type of shaking. While ear infections in dogs are commonplace and rarely serious, you should call your vet if you suspect one. Treatment is usually straightforward (often ear drops or an oral antibiotic). Don’t miss these other signs your dog could have an ear infection.

Pain

“Shaking can also be indicative of pain, muscle weakness, or, occasionally, systemic medical problems,” says Gary Richter, DVM, medical director of Holistic Medical Care and founder of Ultimate Pet Nutrition in Los Angeles. This is more frequently the case with older dogs, he adds. Other warning signs that your dog is in pain include an uncharacteristic lack of appetite, whimpering, and heavy breathing. Of course, if the pain-related shaking is fleeting, it’s likely not a big deal. “For example, if the shaking occurs during a winter walk, then the reason may be the temperature or ice on the ground hurting his paws,” says Dr. Fulcher.

It’s important to note that trembling or shaking that does not go away or affects a dog’s daily routine needs to be addressed quickly and assessed by a veterinary professional. Remember: You know your dog best, so if something seems off, there’s a good chance that it is. Even if you’re wrong, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Christina Vercelletto
Christina Vercelletto covers pets for Reader’s Digest and Chewy’s Pet Central channel. She has 15 years’ experience on staff at national publications, including Parenting, FamilyFun, Scholastic Parent & Child, and Woman's Day and has appeared as a guest on Today, Good Morning America, and The View. Aside from Reader's Digest, Christina regularly crafts content for EatingWell, CNN Underscored, Livestrong, The Knot, Trip Advisor, and other prominent brands. She holds a summa cum laude degree in journalism from Long Island University. Her areas of expertise are lifestyle, beauty, travel, product reviews, and pets.