A few days ago at the dog park, Debbie nudged me and said “Ash, look at that!” She was pointing toward a medium-sized mixed breed whose teeth were chattering so violently I was surprised we couldn’t hear them, even from several yards away. “Why are that dog’s teeth chattering?” she asked. “Is there something wrong with him? Is he, like, retarded or something?”
Now, my sister, Colleen refers to me as an FKIA (it stands for Famous Know It All), but there are actually some things that I don’t have answers for. “I have no idea, Debbie,” I replied – after, of course, pointing out that “retarded” is not generally considered to be a nice word when applied to humans, and probably not much nicer when used in reference to dogs.
Naturally, though, my curiosity was piqued, so when I got home, I sat down at the computer and started typing phrases into Google, like “chattering teeth in dogs,” “jaw chattering in dogs,” and “male dog chattering teeth” (since the one at the dog park looked, from a distance, like an intact male). I learned a lot – it turns out that there can be many reasons for dogs chattering their teeth. Here are 11 of them.
Sometimes, dog teeth chattering occurs during playtime, or when the dog’s person comes home, or if he is about to go for a drive. It is simply because the dog is having so much fun, or feeling so much joy, that he can’t contain it – so he chatters.
This disorder gets its name because it was first identified in small white dogs, like Bichons, Maltese and toy poodles. However, despite the name, a teeth chattering dog can be of any breed or size.
The symptoms include, in addition to the chattering, tremors that can cause the dog to have trouble standing or walking. A tilted head, involuntary movement of the eyes and overall poor coordination can also occur. The symptoms may worsen over a period of a couple of days, and then stabilize. They may be aggravated by excitement or stress.
Stress and excitement, as well as trying to perform simple tasks, such as eating, seem to worsen the tremors, while relaxation seems to lessen them. This condition does not seem to cause any pain to the dog, or to adversely affect his mental state.
The cause of white dog shaker syndrome is not known. Some veterinary scientists believe that this type of jaw chattering in dogs is the result of an immunological disorder. Others theorize that it is due to swelling in the cerebellum, which is the part of the brain that regulates balance and movement, and suggest that it is viral in origin.
A teeth chattering dog that has white dog shaker syndrome will usually be a year or two old when the first symptoms occur. However, the first symptoms can also occur in puppies, and in dogs as old as 6.
If your vet believes that your dog’s teeth keep chattering due to white dog shaker syndrome, the first course of action will be to rule out other possibilities. There are other conditions that can cause chattering, like focal seizures, imbalances in the dog’s sodium, potassium or calcium levels, and low blood sugar.
If white dog shaker syndrome is the reason that your dog’s teeth keep chattering, then benzodiazepines can ease the symptoms, although this is not always completely effective – about 25% of dogs will still chatter to some extent.
Remission is always a possibility, and may be triggered with the use of prednisone (a corticosteroid). Some vets will use this in conjunction with benzodiazepines. Keep in mind, though, that remission is not a cure – the symptoms can always come back.
If your dog is affected to the point where walking and standing are problematic, when the symptoms are present you should keep him away from stairs and other obstacles that could harm him if he falls. Keep his water and food dishes easily accessible. Also, avoid long walks and lengthy exercise sessions until the tremors ease.
Since the cause of white dog shaker syndrome is not known, it cannot be prevented. However, with proper medication and keeping him as comfortable as possible, the condition can often be controlled.
Sometimes, the most obvious explanation for dogs chattering their teeth is also the simplest one – they’re cold! This is often the case with small dogs like Chihuahuas, Jack Russells, MinPins and Yorkies. If you have a small dog, you might want to invest in a sweater for him so that he can remain comfortable during the colder months.
A teeth chattering dog could be happy or excited, or he could be displaying another emotion. He might be stressed, in pain or frustrated. If the cause is not addressed, the behavior could end up becoming compulsive. If your dog seems to be chattering for no apparent reason, a trip to the vet might be a good idea in order to rule out conditions that could be causing pain.
Oral problems can cause pain, and if your dog’s teeth keep chattering, he could have periodontal disease or decayed teeth. Many people don’t realize that dogs can experience dental pain, just as humans can (see Dental Care for Your Dog). Your dog can’t tell you when his teeth hurt, but you might notice certain signs, like a reluctance to eat or general lethargy. If your dog is chattering, his mouth pain could be the cause.
Take a look inside your dog’s mouth and check for inflamed gums or broken teeth. The lower gum is where you are most likely to find these problems, although they can occur in the upper gum as well. If you see anything that causes you concern, seek veterinary care. If your dog gets relief from his oral pain, he will likely stop chattering.
This condition is very much like white dog shaker syndrome, in that there is no known cure. Cocker Spaniels seem to have a predisposition to this disorder, and it is also prevalent in the Maltese and Bichon. It is hereditary, and generally manifests when the dog is about a year old. Like white dog shaker syndrome, it can cause jaw chattering in dogs. Your vet can diagnose the condition and treat it using methods similar to those employed for white dog shaker syndrome.
With this condition, your dog feels a tightness in his jaws during the seizure, and this leads to jaw chattering. Dogs with this disorder do not typically have severe seizures, and they are usually so brief that you might not even notice them – the only sign could be a bit of chattering.
If your dog’s teeth are chattering and he is drooling, this could be an indication that he has epilepsy. Usually, the symptoms leading to an epileptic seizure will come on quickly. The dog will appear normal, and then begin to stagger a bit, back up, and sit on his hind legs. His facial muscles and eyelids will start to spasm, and this is what leads to the teeth chattering and drooling. Breathing difficulty will follow, and the dog will foam at the mouth.
I probably don’t have to tell you that if your dog’s chattering is accompanied by any of these other frightening symptoms, you should take him to the vet. Even if your dog has received a diagnosis of epilepsy, if he has a seizure that lasts five minutes or more, a visit to the vet is in order.
This is what is known as “displacement language.” If your dog perceives a threat, perhaps from a larger, aggressive dog, or from a human that he does not trust, he may begin to chatter. Dogs chattering their teeth could be trying to draw the attention of the other dog, or the person, away from being interested in harming him. He is doing this by chattering, hoping that the one threatening him will be more interested in figuring out what he is doing than in attacking. In such cases, chattering might also be accompanied by spinning or nose licking.
In essence, it’s probably something like what some kids do in school – act the clown, impersonate the teachers, or generally act a bit crazy to keep from being bullied by the bigger, tougher kids.
It’s always interesting to see dogs out on walks, sniffing and sometimes licking at telephone poles, tree trunks, fire hydrants, and other objects on which they find “pee mail.” Some dogs will chatter their teeth, and might even foam a bit at the mouth when they are smelling or tasting (I know, I know, but give them a pass; they’re dogs!). It means that they dislike the smell, or the taste, of the previous dogs’ deposits.
A teeth chattering dog could also be indicating that he is anticipating something good. If he chatters when you are about to give him a treat, he’s letting you know that it smells good, he’s well aware that it’s going to taste great, and he can’t wait to enjoy it.
A male dog chattering his teeth can be an indication that he has smelled a female that is in heat. Then he will lick and sniff at her, and might chatter his teeth as well. Sometimes, even neutered males will do the same. If your dog can’t reach the female, he might also try to dig under your fence to get to her.
You could probably compare dog mouth chattering in older canines to the habits of tooth-sucking, lip smacking and other behaviors that you often see in elderly humans. If your dog is not displaying any other behaviors that might indicate physical problems, you can likely just put the chattering down to old age.
So, was there something wrong with that mixed breed down at the dog park? Maybe. But on the other hand, he might just have been really happy to be there, might have smelled a female that appealed to him, or felt threatened by some of the larger dogs. Maybe it was just all the great smells and the anticipation of being taken off his leash to play with other dogs.
Sometimes, your dog’s mouth chattering has a simple explanation that you might be able to identify by observing what is going on around him. If it’s accompanied by difficulty standing or walking, or by other troublesome symptoms, make sure that you see your veterinarian to rule out medical and dental problems. After all, your dog can’t tell you if he’s in distress, he should be monitored. Most of the time, jaw chattering in dogs is not a huge issue. Even when the cause is medical or dental, the condition can usually be managed.