Is it an Emergency? Shivering, Lethargy, and More

Up close of a scared dog

In part I of this article, we discussed the common complaints of vomiting, diarrhea and limping, and when you should panic—or, more often, not—when you note these signs in your pet.  In this, the second part, we will discuss the common complaints of shivering/shaking, and weakness/lethargy.

What if my dog or cat is shivering/shaking?
Often, we will receive calls of panic when a pet owner notes that his or her pet is shivering and/or shaking uncontrollably.  Pets may shiver or shake for many reasons—pain, fear, anxiety, nerves, or simply being too cold.  There is even an endocrine disorder called Addison’s disease which can cause excessive shivering as well.  We often see dogs shiver and shake during thunderstorms or July 4th fireworks.  Some will even respond this way if there’s a lot of unusual noise nearby because of construction or sirens.    

If the shivering is truly temperature related (which it usually isn’t), chances are you’ll be a little too cold as well, or you’ve just brought your furry canine in from the very cold outdoors.  If neither is the case, his or her shivering is most likely not from being too cold.

Finally, there’s pain as a cause of shivering or shaking, and this is a very common reason.  The difficulty here is trying to determine whether or not the degree of pain, or the source of pain, should be of concern enough to panic and take your pooch or kitty straight to your veterinarian or to an emergency facility.  Often this is a judgment call, but here are a few guidelines.  If the shivering and shaking is accompanied by excessive panting, this is usually a sign of stress, and more intense pain or discomfort.   If you see, or feel, an obvious problem—a grossly abnormal limb indicating a possible fracture, an extremely bloated or tense abdomen indicating a possible bloatpancreatitis, or other intestinal pain, or extreme stiffness (as if your pet doesn’t want to move) especially in the neck or back with or without gait abnormalities or ataxia (appearing as if your pet is drunk and wobbly), which may indicate a herniated disc or a muscle problem along the spine, you want to seek veterinary medical attention as soon as possible—the sooner the better.  

If you don’t note any of the above symptoms, you might try giving your pet a veterinary approved, species appropriate, pain or anti-inflammatory medication if you have any in your home “pet medicine cabinet.”  In a pinch, for dogs, you can try a buffered aspirin or Ascriptin (which is aspirin with antacid) at a dose of one baby aspirin per 15 to 20 lbs of body weight, or one adult aspirin or Ascriptin per 60 to 80 lbs of body weight.  Do not use any more than once, and do not use any other “pain” medications for your dog or cat without first checking with your veterinarian.  Note that acetaminophen, the active ingredient of Tylenol, can kill a cat!  If the subtle pain symptoms persist, see your veterinarian for some more specific diagnostics or for more aggressive treatment.  

What about weakness/lethargy?
This is often one of the more challenging symptoms because the presentation is often very subtle, and can mean so many different things.  If your pet is suddenly “ADR” (Ain’t Doin’ Right), we usually try to rule out the other obvious symptoms we’ve already discussed.  First, it’s never a bad idea to take your pet’s temperature.  If you don’t already own a thermometer for your pet, get one!  A normal temperature for your dog or cat is somewhere between 100.5 to 102.5 degrees F (up to 103 degrees if they are nervous or stressed).  If his or her temperature is over 103.5 degrees, you should consider a veterinary visit.  Generally, if their temperature is normal and they aren’t exhibiting other more serious problems (vomiting/diarrhea, limping, shivering/shaking, obvious pain, etc.), and you don’t note a bloated abdomen or white gums (which could indicate blood loss or blood cell destruction from an acute bleed, a clotting disorder, or an immune system disease), I usually advise my clients to give it a day or so before panicking—especially if the pet will still eat and go for a walk.  If you can’t identify any obvious cause, and by 24 hours your pet is still lethargic or won’t eat or want to go for his walks, it’s time to make that visit to your veterinarian or to the emergency facility.

Very often we’ll also see pets, especially dogs, become somewhat lethargic because of muscle soreness after overdoing it (exercise-wise) at the dog park or the doggie day care facility.  We also see pets act a bit too mellow because of psychological issues (a change in their routines or schedules, changes in your routine or schedule, the loss of another family pet, etc).  Dogs and cats can actually exhibit signs of depression, and it often manifests as lethargy.  This more subtle form of weakness or lethargy is usually not an immediate concern, but if tincture of time and a little extra attention doesn’t solve the problem, then make that appointment to see your veterinarian.  

I hope this information and these guidelines will help you better understand and evaluate your pet’s symptoms and problems, will put your minds at ease a bit, and, hopefully, save you some time and money.

If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian – they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.

See more about conditions related to shivering

and lethargy

Addison's Disease in Dogs 

How To Tell If Your Pet Is In Pain

Top 10 Signs of a Sick Dog 

Top 10 Signs of a Sick Cat


Reviewed on: 
Tuesday, February 7, 2017