Mar Vista Animal Medical Center

3850 Grand View Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90066




Dogs are often brought in for tremoring or shivering episodes. The patient can be any age or any size. Tremors can involve only certain muscles or body areas or the entire dog. Finding the reason behind tremors is very tricky as tremoring occurs for many reasons.

The first step is consider normal reasons for shivering:

  • The patient is cold
  • The patient is frightened
  • The patient is asleep and dreaming

Usually these can be excluded by providing a blanket or sweater, comforting the anxious patient, or rousing the sleeping patient.

Very elderly dogs with muscle atrophy tend to suffer muscle fatigue and muscles will shake when over-worked. This type of tremoring is often pretty easy to distinguish as the patient is elderly and the tremors begin when the patient has been standing longer than he/she would prefer. When muscle becomes fatigued, tremoring helps release stored glycogen/glucose to permit continued muscle contraction. Tremoring generally stops when the muscle is allowed to relax and the patient rests.

Mild shivers are rarely a significant symptom; it is the more violent involuntary tremors and twitches that indicate neuromuscular disease.



If only certain body parts tremor, there are some neuromuscular diseases to consider:

Intention tremors

Diseases involving the cerebellum of the brain will lead to tremors when the patient directs his or her attention to a task. The patient may sit quietly without tremors but if a bowl of food is presented, tremors of the neck and head erupt when the patient reaches for the food.

This sort of tremoring generally goes way beyond what might be described as shivering or even twitching. A classic example of cerebellar intention tremors is seen in kittens born with cerebellar hypoplasia, a neurologic condition stemming from their mother becoming infected with or vaccinated for feline distemper during pregnancy.


(Video credit: Lisacat via


Cerebellar disease certainly does not have to be congenital. Any damage to the cerebellum (trauma, tumor, infection etc.) can produce an intention tremor. The presence of intention tremor is highly suggestive of disease in the cerebellum, though, and diagnostics should be pursued to uncover the nature of that disease.

Idiopathic Head Tremors

No one really knows why this occurs but some dogs have episodes of head bobbing (usually up and down but can be side to side). Breeds that seem over-represented are: Boxers, English bulldogs, beagles, and Doberman pinschers. This condition is totally unresponsive to seizure medications and the best way to curtail an episode seems to be to focus the dog’s attention on a toy or treat. Episodes tend to get milder with age.


(Video credit: Nicole Samona via


Distemper myoclonus

Dogs that survive a canine distemper infection may suffer from seizures, paralysis or muscle twitching long term. Often a young dog is adopted from the shelter or rescue and its history is unknown. Distemper myoclonus appears as involuntary twitches of muscle groups anywhere on the body. Multiple areas can be involved. These twitches are not seizures and do not respond to seizure medications. Numerous medications have been used with inconsistent results. The most successful treatment has involved injections of cosmetic Botox® into the muscle group involved but this therapy is expensive and many dogs do not seem particularly inconvenienced by their myoclonus.


The black dog in this video is showing myoclonus of his jaw and neck muscles.
(VideoCredit: Queenoflife via


Orthostatic Tremors

This condition is observed only when the dog is standing and involves tremors of the leg muscles. The patient is typically a young very large breed dog (Grate Dane, mastiff, weimaraner). The condition tends progress in severity over time and may come to require treatment. It is generally responsive to phenobarbital and/or to gabapentin.



If the entire dog is shivering and shaking, then we must consider diseases that involve the entire dog. Normal muscles rely on oxygen, nutrients, and electrolytes from the bloodstream as well as normal electrical stimulation from the nervous system. We need to look at problems with these systems:

  • Hypocalcemia (low blood calcium, especially if nursing puppies)
  • Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar)
  • Toxins (especially snail bait and insecticides)
  • "Little White Shaker syndrome" (which does not actually require that the patient be a white dog), also called Non-suppurative meningoencephalomyelitis or Steroid-Responsive Tremors.
  • Seizures/epilepsy

Severe tremoring can elevate the body temperature dangerously high and cause brain damage. Patients for which tremoring is an emergency are generally clearly mentally distressed by the involuntary motions or disoriented from the underlying neurologic disease.

There are many toxins that can cause twitches and involuntary muscle tremors so it is very important to let your veterinarian know what products you have in your home. What flea products do you use? Do you have pesticides in the garden? These products are frequently neurotoxins which produce seizures and twitching. Snail bats containing metaldehyde are particularly common as are permethrin-based flea products (generally safe for dogs but cats are uniquely sensitive). Tremors are a notable feature of chocolate toxicity. Obviously, poisoning is an emergency so you will need to see your veterinarian or local emergency service right away.


Animal Poison Control is a 24 hour service run by the ASPCA. Consultations with veterinary toxicologists run around $65 but are available around the clock in the event of an emergency. It is a good idea to keep their phone number handy:


Note: Free Animal Poison Control consultation is included
if you have a full service registration of a HomeAgain microchip ID.

In this case, the phone number is:  888-HOMEAGAIN
and select the medical emergency option.


Brain diseases can produce seizures which can manifest as persistent but fine tremoring or more violent convulsions. Metabolic diseases, such as low blood sugar or low blood calcium, can lead to tremors and even seizures. Muscle diseases such as tetanus can lead to involuntary muscle contraction. Twitches and tremors may be intermittent and are certainly not always emergencies; however, blood testing and possibly referral to a neurology specialist for advanced diagnostics may be needed. Your first step is going to be an evaluation with your regular veterinarian to help narrow down the search and complete the necessary basic tests. From there the best treatment plan can be selected.

The small white dog has “White Shaker” syndrome, generally controlled with immune-suppressive doses of corticosteroids. Prognosis is generally good.
(Video credit:
TheHuggyPuppy via


Page posted 6/30/2013
Page last updated: 10/24/2021