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Tremors in Dogs: Causes and What They Mean

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Like seizures, tremors are involuntary rhythmic muscle movements that look like shaking, shivering, or trembling. They can be rapid or slow, involve the whole body or just one part, and vary in intensity from mild to incapacitating. Tremors in dogs have many possible causes and can mean very different things.

tremors in dogs

What Is the Difference Between Tremors in Dogs and Seizures?

Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate tremors in dogs from seizures, as both involve abnormal muscle contractions. However, unlike seizures, tremors are not due to abnormal firing of neurons in the brain.

Furthermore, tremors do not put dogs into an unconscious state. During tremors, dogs are generally fully conscious, alert, mobile, responsive, and aware of their surroundings. No autonomic (involuntary/unconscious) signs such as salivation, urination, defecation, or emesis (vomiting) are present during episodes. And when an episode is over, the dog remains unaffected.

What Causes Tremors in Dogs?

Tremors in dogs can be caused by something as simple as an emotion or as complex as an illness. Therefore, it’s important to take note of any additional symptoms your dog may be experiencing, and contact a veterinarian right away.

Emotion-Related Tremors in Dogs

Strong emotions can trigger tremors in some dogs:

  • Joy
  • Excitement
  • Stress
  • Fear

Discomfort-Related Tremors in Dogs

Physical discomfort can also cause tremors in dogs:

  • Cold
  • Pain
  • Nausea
  • Fever

Illness-Related Tremors in Dogs

Certain illnesses and diseases that affect the central nervous system cause tremors in dogs:

What Do Tremors in Dogs Mean?

In some cases, history and context can help determine what tremors mean in your dog, but it becomes more complicated when an illness is the cause.

A veterinary neurologist can provide you with an accurate diagnosis following:

  • Full physical
  • Full neurological exam
  • Lab work including CBC and chemistry panel and urinalysis
  • Chest X-rays looking at the heart and lungs
  • Abdominal ultrasound
  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging)
  • CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) analysis
  • Infectious disease testing

If all of the tests are negative, the tremors in your dog are idiopathic, meaning the cause is unknown. Idiopathic tremor syndrome and idiopathic head tremors are two such diagnoses of exclusion.

Idiopathic Tremor Syndrome

Also known as little white shaker syndrome, generalized tremor syndrome, or steroid responsive tremor syndrome, idiopathic tremor syndrome is an autoimmune (meaning the body is attacking itself) condition causing full body tremors in dogs.

“Immune-mediated diseases, or diseases that don’t have an infectious cause, are the most common forms of inflammation in the central nervous system we see in cats and dogs,” says Dr. Daniel Blake Webb of Southeast Veterinary Neurology.

Dr. Webb

The condition is often noted in small white dogs such as the Maltese, West Highland Terrier, and Poodle, but can occur in any dog and usually begins before two years of age.

These tremors tend to improve or resolve when the dog is resting and worsen when the dog is active or stressed. Most dogs are otherwise normal, but the tremors worsen over time until the dog receives treatment. Fortunately, the condition is not painful and doesn’t affect the dog’s consciousness.

Although the cause of idiopathic tremor syndrome is unknown, it can be treated by suppressing the immune system with steroids. Improvements are often seen within a week, and once the tremors have resolved, the steroids will gradually be tapered to the lowest effective dose to minimize side effects. The prognosis is excellent. Most dogs’ tremors fully resolve and can be controlled with long term usage of low doses of prednisone.

“Overall, patients have a great quality of life, but relapses are possible,” explains Dr. Webb.

Idiopathic Head Tremors

Idiopathic head tremors are a series of horizontal “no” gestures, vertical “yes” gestures, or (more rarely) rotational “bobble head” motions. They are mostly seen in young dogs and certain breeds like Dobermans, Bulldogs, French Bulldogs, Boxers, and Labradors, but they are possible in any breed.

Like idiopathic tremor syndrome, the cause of idiopathic head tremors is unknown, and they are neither painful nor upsetting for the affected dog. Unlike idiopathic tremor syndrome, idiopathic head tremors only occur in the head, happen while a dog is at rest, and do not respond to steroids. Perhaps the most unique characteristic of idiopathic head tremors is that they can actually be stopped in the moment by simply distracting the dog.

Although there is no treatment for idiopathic head tremors, the good news is that the condition usually resolves itself as the dog grows older.

Find Out What Is Causing Tremors in Your Dog

Tremors in dogs are often difficult to diagnose because they are relatively common in many diseases affecting the central nervous system. Determining the cause requires a thorough history, complete physical and neurological exams, and a series of diagnostics, so please visit an expert if your dog is experiencing tremors.

Southeast Veterinary Neurology is neurologist-staffed seven days a week to put your pup on the road to recovery. Call any one of our locations in Miami, Boynton Beach, Jupiter, or Virginia Beach, VA to schedule a consultation with a veterinary neurologists today.

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