What Is White Shaker Dog Syndrome?

Why is my Dog’s Head Bobbing?

Does your fur baby’s head resemble a bobblehead figurine? Dogs with a constant head tremor don’t have “Barkinson’s”, but they could be suffering from White Shaker Dog Syndrome. Head bobbing, shaking, or tremors can indicate a rare genetic disease that mainly affects small breed dogs with white coats.

Bichon Shaking Head

What is White Shaker Dog Syndrome?

White Shaker Syndrome is a neurological disorder where a dog suffers from involuntary tremors while doing voluntary activities. A significant proportion of dogs who suffer from Shaker Syndrome tend to be young, small breed, white-coated dogs. The tremors are generalized head and body tremors that gradually worsen if undiagnosed and untreated.

This condition is heritable, and symptoms of the disease begin to occur between the ages of 6 months and three years. Although the tremors are disruptive to a dog’s quality of life, they are not painful and do not cause central nervous system depression or seizures. 

The following names also refer to white Shaker Syndrome:

  • Steroid Responsive Tremors.
  • Idiopathic Tremor Syndrome.
  • Shaker Dog Syndrome.
  • Acquired Tremor Syndrome.
  • Generalized Tremor Syndrome.
  • Little White Shakers Syndrome.

The Clinical Signs of Little White Dog Shaker Syndrome

The onset of White Shaker Dog Syndrome symptoms can be sudden. Clinical signs can manifest subtly and then increase in severity as activity and stress levels increase. The signs can completely dissipate when an affected individual is at rest and in a calm state.

The following symptoms may indicate that your pet is suffering from idiopathic head tremors:

  • Involuntary, rhythmic, and repetitive shaking movements of the muscles in the head or neck, especially when attempting a voluntary task.
  • Neurological abnormalities such as visual impairment or nystagmus (oscillation of the pupils in the eye).

The tremors can exclusively affect the head or extend down and affect the rest of the body if the symptoms are aggravated with stress or activity. In severe cases, an affected pet can become incapacitated, rendering them unable to eat, drink, or move until the tremors subside. 

Shaker Dog Syndrome is highly likely if your pet’s tremors decrease when they are calm or sleeping. Closely monitoring the onset of tremors, as well as their severity, will help your vet understand your pet’s symptoms better. 

Causes of Head Tremors in Dogs

Some owners of afflicted dogs may be wondering, “what causes head tremors in dogs?” 

Head tremors can be due to a primary or a secondary condition. Primary conditions may include Shaker Syndrome and Atlantoaxial Vertebral Instability. Secondary conditions may consist of intoxication, hypoglycemia, or electrolyte imbalances.

The exact cause of White Shaker Dog Syndrome is still unknown, but it is known to be a genetically inherited disorder. Researchers hypothesize that it may be an immune-mediated dysfunction due to a previous infection or idiopathic. Several theories have been postulated, but none have yielded any concrete evidence. 

The condition is considered an autoimmune disease process, as the tremors in dogs respond well to corticosteroid drugs. The steroids suppress the immune system, inhibiting the inflammation that causes neurological symptoms.

Diagnosing Dog Head Bobbing

The process of diagnosing a neurological abnormality can be a tedious and costly exercise. To pinpoint the origin of a neurological problem, numerous potential medical causes of tremors must be investigated to include or exclude specific disease processes.  

A patient presenting with new-onset muscle tremors requires a complete physical examination a detailed clinical history that explores a patient’s diet, environment, behavior, and clinical symptoms.

A minor medical database is constructed that includes blood tests (to rule out kidney, liver, or electrolyte issues), urinalysis, fecal analysis, and some infectious disease tests. In addition, some infectious diseases such as canine distemper or rabies are strongly considered in unvaccinated patients.

If these tests do not yield any abnormalities, the golden standard of diagnosis will extend the database to include possibly:

  • Specialist referral to a neurologist or internal medicine specialist.
  • A cerebrospinal fluid tap to sample fluid surrounding the spine or brain. The sample is used to test for pathogens or parasites that may cause neurological symptoms. 
  • An MRI can help visualize the brain and spinal cord if any masses or cancers are suspected.  

If all of the above tests yield inconclusive or negative results, then a diagnosis of exclusion is made. This means that all other possible causes were ruled out; therefore, Shaker Syndrome is the only possibility left. 

This process can be costly and frustrating for an owner, so many vets don’t always go ahead with the golden standard of diagnosis. Sometimes, vets will make a presumptive diagnosis and start cortisone treatment to see if the condition is steroid-responsive or not. 

A dog with Shaker Syndrome will improve within one to two weeks of initiating treatment, confirming the diagnosis.

A dog’s signalment is also crucial in making a diagnosis as this condition is often seen in small, white coat breeds hence the name Little White Shaker Syndrome.  It has, however, also been documented in larger dogs with a variety of different coat colors, just not as frequently.

Siberian Husky shakes his head

How do Vets Treat White Shaker Syndrome?

White Shaker Syndrome requires an immunosuppressive dose of corticosteroids to treat the neurological symptoms. The medication prescribed is usually prednisone as it is fast-acting and affordable. 

The treatment resolves symptoms within one to two weeks. The ideal clinical outcome is to achieve a tremor-free patient at the lowest effective prednisone dose. Tapering the initial dosage down to the lowest effective amount maximizes the treatment efficacy with minor adverse side effects. 

Adverse effects of chronic steroid usage can include:

  • Increased appetite and thirst.
  • Increased urination. 
  • Potential iatrogenic Cushing’s Syndrome. 
  • Immune suppression. 

Adding benzodiazepine drugs (like diazepam or alprazolam) can also decrease the frequency of tremors due to anxiety or over-excitement. 

Some dogs may not respond well to corticosteroid therapy or suffer from severe side effects, so alternative immunosuppressive drugs may need to be considered. These drugs can include mycophenolate, leflunomide, or Cytosar. Unfortunately, the availability and affordability of these drugs are not always practical alternatives.

There are no approved options for white dog shaker syndrome home treatment, but some options are available if your pet suffers from exasperated symptoms when anxious. CBD-containing products, L- tryptophan-containing nutritional supplements, or Rescue Remedy can help ease symptoms but not cure them.  

The Prognosis of Muscle Tremors in Dogs

Idiopathic head tremor dogs respond well to corticosteroid treatment, so the prognosis is good, and their symptoms can be controlled. The main concern is the side effects of long-term low doses of cortisone. 

If your pet shows any adverse effects to their medication, be sure to discuss them with your veterinarian.

Are Certain Canine Breeds Predisposed to White Shaker Dog Syndrome?

There is an over-representation of certain breeds when it comes to this condition, and the following dogs have shown a predisposition to Shaker Syndrome:

  • Maltese Poodles
  • West Highland White Terriers
  • Bichon Frisé

Less affected breeds that have been reported include Poodles, Beagles, and Yorkshire Terriers. 

Can White Shaker Syndrome in Dogs be Prevented?

White Shaker Syndrome is a genetic disorder that is highly heritable. Therefore, preventing the disease is only possible by not breeding with affected individuals and removing any parents and siblings from any future breeding pools.

Responsible breeding will save prospective pets from discomfort caused by genetic diseases.  

Dog Shake

Summary

Dogs diagnosed with White Shaker Syndrome can lead good quality lives if their condition is detected early, monitored closely, and treated effectively. It is essential to schedule regular visits to the vet to avoid severe adverse effects from chronic cortisone treatment.