If you notice your dog’s leg is suddenly shaking or trembling, this is likely to concern you. When at rest or sleeping, a dog’s legs are usually still. Any involuntary shaking, especially if it occurs more than once, should be examined further.
To determine why our dog’s leg is shaking, we often need to put our detective hats on. There are many possible causes, some of which are serious while others are not.
Determining The “Type” Of Shake…
It is important to decide if your dog is shivering, twitching or having muscle tremors.
If the weather is cold and your dog is laying on a cold floor, it is not uncommon for them to start shivering. This is especially true in puppies and slimmer dogs. Shivering tends to occur all over the body, though can be easily seen in the front limbs.
Muscles will twitch due to an involuntary muscle spasm. They may have a solitary twitch, or several twitches all at once. For most, these muscle fasciculations occur rarely, are of no concern and are just ‘one of those things’.
True muscle tremors are rhythmic and repetitive movements. The leg appears to be shaking and this is out of the dog’s control. These tremors can go on for long periods of time.
If unsure of what is going on, your vet should be happy for you to video the event. This way, they can review it during a consultation or via email. This is useful as you may find your dog doesn’t exhibit the behavior when in front of the vet.
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12 Reasons Why Your Dog’s Front Leg Shakes or Trembles
One of the most common reasons for localized shaking is pain. Additional signs can include limping or an unsteady gait. You may also find your dog licks or chews at the source of discomfort.
For these dogs, the trembling tends to only affect one of the front legs. There are many considerations for this behavior including arthritis, a bone fracture, a tumor, an ingrown claw, a joint infection or a recent bite. It is sensible to check the leg over, to see if there is anything visibly amiss.
As discussed earlier, dogs who are cold will shiver, just like us. Low body temperatures result in shaking all over as the dog unconsciously tries to warm themselves up. Hypothermia can occur in freezing weather, or when an animal is very sick.
If your dog seems cold, see if raising the temperature in the room improves things. You can also encourage them to lie on a warm blanket and place a light sheet over their body.
Anxiety can cause a large number of effects on the body. A nervous dog might pant, whine or even tremble. These involuntary muscle tremors are usually seen all over the body, including in the fore limbs.
If your dog is suffering from anxiety, it is important to pinpoint the cause. What seems to trigger the events? Does anything you do help reduce the shaking?
Causes can range from separation anxiety and noise phobia to being in a new and strange place. Mild anxiety can be relieved with distraction and removal of the stressor. For those pets with severe anxiety, they may require the help of a canine behaviorist and some prescription anxiolytic medicine.
4. White Shaker Syndrome
This lesser-known disease is also called ‘generalized tremor syndrome’. The name ‘white shaker syndrome’ refers to the fact that it tends to be little white dogs who are affected; Maltese, Westies and Shih Tzus. Despite this, any small dog of any colour can potentially develop this condition.
The tremors tend to start from one year of age and can get worse with activity and excitement. For most, this is their only symptom. However, some dogs may experience additional neurological signs.
There is no test to confirm White Shaker Syndrome, so your vet will rule out all other causes of the tremors before initiating treatment. As steroids can treat the tremors, most experts believe it is an autoimmune disease.
5. Addison’s Disease
This is an endocrine disorder that generally affects females who are young and middle-aged. Signs include frequent bouts of stomach upset, depression, bloody stools, abdominal pain, and periodic shaking.
Addison’s is more common in breeds including the Poodle, Westie, and Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier. It is diagnosed with a series of blood and urine tests. It is not always diagnosed early as it is often mistaken for other more common diagnoses.
While Addison’s Disease is not a curable disease, most dogs are well managed with ongoing medicine.
6. Abnormal salt levels
The dog’s body is a finely tuned machine and even a slight variation in salt levels can have catastrophic effects. Salt toxicity, chronic vomiting and severe dehydration can all lead to abnormal salt levels.
As well as tremors, dogs may have an upset stomach and act uncoordinated. This is a true emergency so affected animals must be brought to the vet right away.
7. Low blood sugar levels
When a dog is experiencing hypoglycemia, an owner usually notices that they are not acting themselves. Their muscle can twitch and spasm and they may seem very sleepy or even collapse.
One of the most common causes of low blood sugar is an insulin overdose in diabetic dogs. We can also see hypoglycemia in those who have an ‘insulinoma’, or an insulin-secreting tumor of the pancreas.
For insulin overdoses, we aim to replace the sugars in the blood either orally or intravenously. Surgical removal of an insulinoma would be the treatment of choice when possible.
8. Toxin build up due to liver or kidney disease
One of the main roles of the liver and kidneys is to remove excess toxins from the body. When this doesn’t happen, dogs become very poorly. Towards the end stages of liver or kidney failure, there can be a high level of toxins in the blood.
Toxins that have not been filtered cause a range of signs including nausea, vomiting and shaking. These dogs will have other symptoms including weight loss and lethargy.
9. Poison ingestion
If your dog has eaten something poisonous, they may begin to shake after a short while. Toxic substances that can cause shaking include chocolate, nicotine, mycotoxins and some human medications.
If you fear your dog has ingested something they shouldn’t have, the sooner they are seen by a vet the better. Oftentimes, the quicker vomiting is induced, the better the prognosis.
As well as vomit induction, it may be appropriate to start feeding activated charcoal meals to limit toxin absorption. On top of this, most patients benefit from hospitalisation and intravenous fluid therapy to help flush their system through.
10. Central nervous system issue
An infection, bleed on the brain, seizures or a brain tumour can all lead to muscle tremors. Tremors may be just one of the signs and you may also notice symptoms such as wobbly walking, confusion or a fever.
A central nervous system condition is always a veterinary emergency. If you know something is not right with your dog, have them checked over straight away. It is not always easy to reach a diagnosis when it comes to CNS disease, and your vet may order several tests including a number of imaging studies, blood tests and a CSF tap.
11. Canine Cognitive Dysfunction
As dogs get older, many will suffer from cognitive decline. More common signs include restlessness, confusion and incessant barking. For some, we may also see shaking.
Many vets attribute this shaking to the anxiety that comes with ‘doggy dementia’. It can help to comfort your dog and be nearby. Long-term, patients benefit from prescription medications and brain-supportive diets and supplements.
Frustratingly, we may not always know why our dog’s legs are shaking. Sometimes, despite every test, we won’t always reach a diagnosis. In these cases, we usually take a wait and see approach, ensuring things get no worse.
When to seek veterinary help
Most of the time, leg shaking is something that you should mention to your vet. This is especially true if there is no obvious cause like a dip in the temperature or an ingrown claw in the pad.
Your vet will listen carefully to your dog’s history, as you explain when the shaking started, when it happens most and how long the episodes last.
Your vet should perform a full neurological and orthopaedic exam. Depending on the results of these examinations, they may order further tests such as a blood test or limb x-rays.
Treatment and prognosis will be dependent on the underlying cause. For most, there will be something that can be done. Due to this, it is important your dog is seen as soon as you notice the shaking.
The Take Home Message
Leg shaking in a dog can have an assortment of causes. Consider if your dog has other signs, which could help point us in the right direction. Be prepared for your vet to ask for a detailed history and to perform several tests to pinpoint the issue.