Dogs have some behaviors that seem strange at first, but there's usually an underlying reason behind them. Shaking, shivering, and trembling are one of those signs. The reasons range from the obvious to the obscure, but dogs don't shake just for the fun of it. Some of the reasons are even the same the reasons humans do it, such as shivering from cold. It's important to figure out why your dog is shaking since sometimes it can be an early symptom of a serious health problem.
Everyone has seen a dog give a big, full-body shake to spray off water after a swim or bath. Most dogs have coats that are pretty efficient at shedding water, but a full soak will still get under their slick top hairs. Dogs instinctively dislike this feeling, and shaking is one of the most efficient ways to dry off. Dogs also shiver from the cold, so you may notice some tremor-like shaking after a particularly cold swim or if the weather is too cold for your dog's comfort.
Even when they're dry, dogs sometimes want to get things out of their coat and will give the same kind of big, full-body shake to get rid of excess dust or debris. You may have seen this happen after your dog rolls in dirt or grass while playing. Dogs will also shake to try to rid themselves of uncomfortable clothing, bandages or burrs stuck in their fur, although this tends to be less successful than just shaking dirt away.
No one is quite sure why, but dogs will also give a big shake when they're stressed out, even if their coats are clean and dry. Experts think it may be a self-soothing behavior that triggers endorphins and other positive chemicals in the dog's brain, or maybe a way to signify their stress to other dogs in the area. The most common times, dogs shake their whole bodies due to stress is after a short but unpleasant encounter, such as a veterinary exam or when playing with another dog gets too intense. Many dogs also shake after people hug them, which is a sign the dog may not be fully comfortable with that.
When stress skyrockets and turns to fear, you may notice your dog shaking in a slightly different way. Very scared or anxious dogs often tremble or shiver. This can range from tremors that are so subtle you can barely feel them to big, jerky movements you can see with ease. Usually, the stimulus is fairly obvious, such as when dogs shake during thunderstorms, but some dogs have more general anxiety. For these dogs, medications and gentle training and exposure can help.
When the shaking is mostly limited to the dog's head, it may mean that your dog has something wrong with one or both ears. The causes can range from minor issues, such as water in the ear or a burr in the sensitive external skin, to more serious ones, such as a bad infection or an injury to the delicate structures of the inner ear. This kind of shaking may also be accompanied by scratching and rubbing the ear.
Dogs can be very stoic when it comes to pain, and they often hide their symptoms very well. One of the more subtle and common symptoms is shivering or trembling. Dogs shiver in pain from many causes, including arthritis, soft tissue injuries, and even fractured bones. This may be accompanied by a reluctance to move or be touched, as well as excessive panting and restlessness since the dog can't get comfortable.
Sometimes shaking, shivering, and trembling is a symptom of a disease. Dogs suffering from distemper often have muscle tremors and spasms. Brain tumors can also cause it, as can epilepsy and kidney failure. In addition, some poisons cause trembling or shaking as a symptom. This even includes common household toxins, such as chocolate and a common artificial sweetener called xylitol.
Sometimes, dogs just don't have the strength to hold themselves up like usual, and their muscles may shake and tremble due to the effort. This is most common with older dogs, who often experience muscle atrophy, particularly in their hind legs. They may shake and tremble when trying to stand on tile or other slippery surfaces or when they've been standing too long. Younger dogs may also experience it if they work too hard during exercise or if they have a medical condition that causes muscle weakness.
Nausea is an uncomfortable sensation for everyone, and dogs are no exception. Sometimes dogs with bad nausea may shiver or tremble, especially if they're trying to hold it in. While this can be a symptom of a serious problem such as disease or poisoning, most nausea is pretty benign. Motion sickness is a particularly common cause, so if your dog starts shaking while you're riding in the car, you may want to find a place to pull over as soon as possible to avoid a big mess.
Not all causes of shivering and shaking are bad. Every dog owner knows the pure joy and excitement that dogs can show, and sometimes it just gets to be so much that they can't contain themselves. This may manifest as a subtle shaking or trembling. It seems to be particularly common among dogs who are anticipating physical activity, such as a dog sitting as you put on the leash to go for a walk.
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