What is White Shaker Syndrome?

By Langley Cornwell

White Shaker Syndrome is a condition that’s known scientifically as idiopathic cerebellitis; it’s a disorder that causes a dog’s entire body to shake uncontrollably. The word idiopathic means the condition or disease is of unknown origin, and may or may not arise spontaneously. The word cerebellitis lets you know the condition is located in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that regulates voluntary muscle movement (like shrugging your shoulders when you don’t know something or crooking your finger repeatedly when you want someone to come to you). The cerebellum is also responsible for common coordination. So cerebellitis means that an important part of your dog’s brain is inflamed.

The condition has taken on the nickname White Shaker Syndrome because, while pets of any color can be affected, it appears that dogs with a white coat are more likely to suffer from the condition. Medical literature has determined that white West Highland terriers and Maltese dogs seem to be predisposed.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that one of our dogs is tremendously shy and fearful. When we were first introduced to her, she shook so badly that her legs buckled and she fell to the floor.

As a responsible pet owner, we took her to the vet immediately after we rescued her. Until that time, I had never heard of White Shaker Syndrome (also called Generalized Tremor Syndrome). The vet did a battery of tests to determine if our new, white pup suffered from the condition.

Diagnostic Tests

To determine if a dog has White Shaker Syndrome, in most cases the veterinarian will need a comprehensive history of a dog’s physical and behavioral health prior to the first signs of the tremors. Because we rescued our dog from a bad situation and took her promptly to the veterinarian, we didn’t have any health records for her.

Our vets performed a thorough physical exam on our shaky little dog. They started with all the standard lab work including a urinalysis, an electrolyte panel, a complete blood count and a blood chemical profile. On top of that, they added a test that took a sample of the fluid from her spinal cord so it could be sent to the laboratory to analyze her central nervous system.

Because it’s difficult to pin down the exact reason a dog has White Shaker Syndrome, veterinarians will use a process of elimination during the diagnostic testing to rule out each of the common causes of the dog’s trembling. This will continue until the cause of the disorder is determined. Then, proper treatments can be established.

Causes

In many cases, it’s never specifically determined why a dog may be affected by the syndrome – hence the use of the word idiopathic (the condition or disease is of unknown origin). Even so, it’s most commonly associated with a slight central nervous system condition. Additional causes for the tremors can be anxiety and fear, seizures or hypothermia.

Treatment

Specific treatment depends on the cause and severity of the condition. If there is inflammation or infection, your dog will be given the proper medications and may be hospitalized until her health stabilizes. In milder cases, corticosteroids are given for reducing the inflammatory response. Most dogs recover quickly.

It was determined that our dog suffers from generalized anxiety, and trembling is part of her response. To help her gain confidence and manage her anxiety, we taught her basic skills, which I wrote about in How to Train a Fearful or Insecure Dog. Then we progressed to more complicated training games, as outlined in Training Games for Shy Dogs. These techniques have improved our dog’s quality of life and enhanced our relationship with her.

Top photo by Ann Gordon
Bottom photo by edavid3001

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