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Your dog might shake from head to toe while waiting for their breakfast or riding in the car. They might twitch and tremble in their sleep. Or their back legs could quiver when they walk across the room. 

Dog shaking is common and there are myriad causes and ways to tame the trembling. So, if you’re wondering why your dog shakes and how to help, let’s dig in.  

Dog Shaking: Some Common Causes

There is no single reason dogs might shake, tremble or twitch, according to Dr. Jami-Lyn Derse, veterinarian and founder of Veterinary Housecall Care. Commonly, dog shaking is related to: 

  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Excitement
  • Cold
  • Medical conditions
  • Exposure to toxic substances
  • Pain
  • Dreaming

“You can’t just look at a dog shaking and know the reason,” Derse says. “You have to look at the whole clinical picture.”

Derse advises pet parents to play detective. Does your dog only shake in their sleep? Are they shaking their leg or does their whole body tremble? What situations seem to trigger shaking or make it worse? Paying attention to the specifics allows you to provide valuable information to your vet that can help with a diagnosis.

Why Does My Dog Shake in His Sleep?

dog lying in bed

It’s common for dogs to move and shake in their sleep while they are dreaming. Your dog might be conjuring up chasing a squirrel, running free through the woods, or jumping up on the table to snatch a tasty treat. The vivid dreams may cause your Labrador’s legs to twitch or your Boxer’s entire body to shake. As long as your dog is only shaking in his sleep, Derse believes the movements can be chalked up to happy dreams, but always consult with your local veterinarian if you are concerned.

Why Does My Dog Shake His Head?

Dog shaking his head outside

Ear infections are among the most common reasons dogs shake their heads. In addition to frequent head shaking, Derse suggests looking for symptoms like odor, discharge, excessive scratching, hair loss around the ears and not wanting to be touched on the ears.

Bacterial and yeast infections can affect any breed but floppy-eared breeds like Cocker Spaniels, Golden Retrievers, Brittany Spaniels and West Highland Terriers are more prone to getting ear infections.

If your dog is shaking their head and you notice other symptoms like odor, scratching or discharge, make an appointment with your veterinarian to get your dog’s ears checked. 

Why Does My Dog’s Leg Shake?

Old dog walking outside

If your dog’s legs shake or they struggle to walk, pain could be the culprit. “Pain is one of the biggest reasons dogs shake. The pain causes them to tense up and holding all of that tension causes them to shake,” Derse says. “Many owners don’t realize that shaking is one of the clinical signs of pain.”

Pain that causes shaking legs could be due to anything from osteoarthritis to injuries. It may be accompanied by other symptoms such as whining or whimpering, growling or snapping, panting and shaking or lack of appetite. 

If you suspect your dog’s legs are shaking due to pain, make an appointment with your veterinarian.

Why Does My Dog Shake in the Car?

Dog in backseat of car

Some dogs love to ride in cars, sticking their heads out the window to feel the cool air whipping through their fur, while others spend the entire ride trembling in the backseat. If your normally easygoing pup turns into a shaking mess in the car, Derse notes that anxiety could be to blame.

Excitement could also cause your dog to shake in the car, especially if they associate car rides with trips to their favorite places like the dog park, hiking trails, or the beach. 

“Some dogs get so excited that they can’t contain it and they start shaking,” Derse says.

If your dog is shaking in the car due to stress or anxiety, there are calming aids that can help including calming vests or supplements. 

Nausea can also cause a dog to shake in the car. Talk to your veterinarian if you suspect your dog has motion sickness.

Why Does My Dog Shake When I Pet Him?

Woman petting Beagle dog

Touch and petting can elicit both a fear or pleasure response in dogs. Look for other clues and body language to determine whether your dog is shaking from excitement or fear. Does he tuck his tail and try to hide when you attempt to pet him or wag his tail, put his front paws in your lap and nudge you with his nose to beg for more?

Understanding behavioral cues can help you understand your dog’s response. If it’s fear-based, working with a veterinarian, trainer, or behaviorist can help create a positive association with being petted.

Do Dogs Shiver When It’s Cold?

Dog with nose in blanket

Dogs may shiver when their body temperature is low. A Chihuahua left outdoors in sub-zero temperatures will start to shiver but a Saint Bernard might not have the same response. Look for other signs such as whining or whimpering, clamoring to get indoors or raising their paws off the ground to keep from touching cold pavement to determine if frigid temps are causing your dog to tremble.

Medical Causes of Dog Shaking

There are many medical reasons dogs shake, including: 


Distemper is a contagious virus that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems. Distemper is more common in puppies and unvaccinated dogs and symptoms include fever, coughing, vomiting, muscle twitches and convulsions.

Generalized Tremor Syndrome

As the name suggests, body tremors are the most common sign of the disorder, which is caused by inflammation in the myelin substance that covers the brain and spinal cord.


The disorder causes repeated episodes of seizures. It’s often an “idiopathic” disorder, which means there is no known cause that can be identified despite extensive testing. However, liver disease, brain tumors, and kidney failure can also cause seizures that cause the entire body to shake.

Toxic Exposures

Certain medications, rodent poison, insecticides and even certain foods, including xylitol (the artificial sweetener), caffeine and chocolate can cause tremors in dogs.

Fever, cerebellar hypoplasia, other infectious diseases, other neurological diseases, and some medications can also cause tremors.

Dog Trembling: When to See a Vet

Small Chihuahua shaking

You could search online for “why is my dog shaking” or “dog shaking uncontrollably” to try to determine the cause, but Derse suggests calling your veterinarian instead.

“I would much rather see a dog and tell the pet parent that it’s not a big deal than wait and leave something untreated,” she says.

With the help of a full physical exam, your vet can provide an accurate diagnosis and offer treatment options, which may range from medication, calming products, or behavior modification to help your dog stop shaking.