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What You Need to Know about Your Dog’s Idiopathic Head Tremors

I am writing this post to inform you that although scary, no need to panic. My dog Stella in the past few months started this head bobbing thing and when I first saw it I thought OMG my dog is having a seizure. I called the vet to ask what was going on and he said nothing to worry about but get informed! So after much reading and research this is what I have found and thought it was a good idea to pass on the info. If my dog is doing it, then I’m sure many of you have seen it in your dog. Knowledge is power so here it is.


Many dog owners have to watch their precious friends suffer from idiopathic head tremors on a regular basis. This problem can make owners feel helpless as their pets experience uncontrollable “head bobbing.” Some dogs bob their heads side-to-side, while others bob up-and-down. Either way, many have described the bobbing as resembling the “dog version” of Parkinson’s disease in humans.

Idiopathic head tremors can occur with just about any “bully dog breeds.” Some of these breeds include Bulldogs, Pit Bulls and Doberman Pinchers. Researchers continue to conduct studies. Yet, currently, no one really knows for sure why the tremors occur. Theoretically, the tremors are harmless. However, they can sometimes resemble seizures, which can be very stressful on owners.

How to Deal with Your Dog’s Idiopathic Head Tremors

If your dog experiences these annoying tremors, it’s important to remain calm. According to experts, the head bobbing doesn’t actually affect your pet. Yet, panicking will only cause your best friend to panic as well, which may cause the tremors to increase.

Instead, evaluate the condition of your dog. Is your buddy responsive and alert? What color are your furry buddy’s gums? Have any other parts of your pet’s body been affected by the tremors?

A typical idiopathic head tremor episode will generally last around three minutes. Once the head bobbing is over, your dog should return to normal, as if the tremors never occurred at all. If your dog does appear to have been affected, contact your local veterinarian immediately.

If your dog suffers from tremor episodes several times per day or over a period of a few days, that’s a good reason to visit your vet. Most pets never experience tremors while actually in the vet’s office. So, try to get your dog’s episodes on video. That way, your veterinarian can review the footage and use it to help him/her make an educated diagnosis.

Are Idiopathic Head Tremors Hurting Your Dog?

Many dog owners have reported their pets having recurring idiopathic head tremors for a while. Then, they suddenly just stop altogether. Until that happens, keep a journal which details the tremors. This will help you better understand what some of the possible triggers may be for the head bobbing condition.

In the meantime, remain calm, because these seizure-like symptoms are not life-threatening. That means they have no long-term effects on your dog. The actual point of treatment is to lower the stress and anxiety levels of dog owners who hate watching their pets suffer.

Dog owners with pets who suffer from idiopathic head tremors say that their buddies are entirely aware during episodes. Their ears stay up as if alert. They respond to your calls and commands as usual. And, their appetites aren’t affected.

The next time your dog suffers a tremor episode, simply try calling her/his over to you. Then, have your pet sit still so that she/he can focus. Usually, this will help to release your pet from the “tremor trance.” Some owners even say that doggie treats can also release them from the trance.

Six Questions About Idiopathic Head Tremors

By Laura Landstra and Jay McDonnell, DVM, MS, Diplomate ACVIM (Neurology)

1. What are idiopathic head tremors?
Idiopathic head tremors are a series of repetitive, horizontally (“no” gesture) or vertically-directed (“yes”), involuntary muscle contractions involving the head and neck. A typical episode lasts about three minutes (yet may seem to last much longer as you are watching it!). Dogs remain fully conscious and aware during the episode, and when the episode ends, your dog should be completely unaffected. The tremors are benign – meaning the dog is not caused any pain or distress, and there are no short or long-term effects.

2. Who gets them?
Young to middle-aged male and female dogs are most commonly affected. All dogs including mixed breed dogs have been seen with these tremors but Dobermans, Bulldogs, French Bulldogs, Boxers, and Labradors seem to be more commonly affected.

3. What causes them?
We don’t know, hence the term “idiopathic.” The exact cause of head tremors has yet to be determined. However, the most likely cause is dyskinesia (a movement disorder) that originates in the basal ganglia – the area of the brain involved in patterned motor activity. Another theory is that affected dogs have an abnormality involving the stretch mechanism and the proprioceptive pathway of the head – i.e., the trigeminal nerve. This theory suggests that when the dog’s attention is diverted during an episode, the head tremors temporarily stop because the neck muscles contract, thereby releasing the stretch mechanism that first provoked the tremors. In both instances, there is likely a genetic basis since it occurs most commonly in certain breeds of dogs.

4. How are they diagnosed?
Idiopathic head tremors are a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning that other diseases must be investigated and ruled out before idiopathic head tremors can be diagnosed. A diagnostic workup may include a bile acid test (pre- and post-prandial), ocular examination, brain MRI, and a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) analysis. These tests will allow your veterinarian to ensure that your dog’s behavior is not caused by an ocular or progressive central nervous system problem before he/she makes a diagnosis of idiopathic head tremors. Dogs with idiopathic head tremors do not exhibit any other neurological abnormalities, and will have normal findings from both the MRI and CSF analysis.

5. What should I do when my dog is having an “episode?”
Don’t panic! Your dog is not affected by the tremors, but may become alarmed or stressed by your reaction. Distracting your dog is the most helpful way to end the episode. Try supporting your dog’s head, or offer your dog a treat such as peanut butter, Karo syrup, honey, or vanilla ice cream in an attempt to distract your dog out of the episode. If there is someone available, have them videotape the episode. If the episode does not spontaneously terminate in 5-10 minutes, try to distract them with food or walking outside.

6. What about treatment?
Currently, there is no treatment for idiopathic head tremors. Head tremors often are confused with epileptic seizures; in these cases the patient is prescribed phenobarbital. However, this drug does not improve idiopathic head tremors, and long-term administration may have deleterious effects on the liver. The most helpful “treatment” for idiopathic head tremors is to distract the patient out of the episode, as described above.