Chattering teeth 😬 can feel like something straight out of a cartoon.
It's a behavior you might have only personally experienced if you live somewhere where winters get bitterly cold, and the bone-deep chill isn't something you can physiologically shrug off the way you can a little chill breeze after climbing out of the pool.
Never mind experiencing it yourself; what about your dog 🐶?
Chattering teeth is a stereotypical behavior in reaction to the cold🥶, but if your dog is chattering their teeth, does it really just mean they're cold?
That fur coat of theirs should keep them warmer (at least if they have one; shorthairs are subject to more temperature 🌡️ variation), but that doesn't mean they can't get chilled.
The truth is, while true teeth chattering in humans is relatively rare outside of the cold, it's quite a bit more common in dogs🐕!
It's also not just because of the cold, though that can be a cause on a particularly cold dog walk.
So the question is, what causes chattering teeth in dogs besides being cold?
Physical or physiological reasons for teeth chattering in dogs come down to two things.
The first is, as mentioned above, the cold. Of course when it's cold out, your dog might get a bit of a chill, and they may shiver.
Chattering is a related behavior, another involuntary micro-motion the body does to help generate a bit of warmth.
Cold affects different dogs in different ways and it doesn’t just have to be when they are outside in winter weather.
Think about drafts in your house, does cold air sneak in through a door or window that your pup sleeps by? Could there be a draft from the ice-cold AC unit?
Smaller dogs have less meat on their bones and less warmth in their cores, so Chihuahuas, Dachshunds, and other smaller dogs (especially those with shorter, thinner fur coats) are much more susceptible to the cold.
Even larger dogs can get chilled and chatter, though. Only a few breeds, like huskies and mastiffs, are built for the cold. Even they, as much as they love it, can be vulnerable to the cold, especially if it's extremely cold outside.
It's also important to remember that dogs run hot compared to people. The average human body temperature, as you likely well know, is 98.6 degrees.
The second physiological reason a dog's teeth might chatter is actually related to one of their strongest features: their sense of smell. Dogs have a special organ deep in their nasal cavities called the vomeronasal organ.
It's a funky little organ that combines the senses of smell and taste into a unique dog-specific (Although other animals such as cats have it too. God bless them for such unique senses!) they use to do all those cool scent tricks they know.
That sense – tmell? smaste? – or whatever you'd like to call it, is a powerful sense, and strong odors (even those we humans can't smell) can cause physiological reactions.
Think about how if you were to bite into a lemon wedge, and how that sheer sour explosion would make your face pucker up. That's the kind of reaction we're talking about here.
When your dog is smelling something, particularly something intense that they want to get more of, their teeth might chatter as a side effect of putting that whole olfactory system to work.
“Dog chatters his teeth after intently smelling something (usually urine): often called the flehmen response, this is an effort to direct chemical signals from what was smelled to the vomeronasal organ in the roof of his mouth…Often seen if a dog encounters the urine from a female dog in estrus.” - Penn Vet University of Pennsylvania
Check out this 12-second Video of a Dog’s Flehmen Response
Luckily, other than the cold, these aren't necessarily causes for concern.
Your pup can be warmed up fairly easily, and if all they're doing is smelling something chatterlicious, chattering is perfectly fine.
Chatterlicious: Something with such a great smell that makes your dog chatter 😊 his/her teeth. Did I just coin another new term in dog wellness?
When you get right down to it, a lot of behaviors in dogs are, well, just that: they're behaviors.
They can be actions trained into them intentionally or accidentally, like begging for food or reacting to sounds in a specific way.
Or, they can be inherent behaviors that get triggered upon certain sorts of stimuli. For example, strong or unusual emotions.
Anxiety, Stress, or Fear
One of the biggest behavioral reasons dogs chatter their teeth is as an expression of anxiety, stress, or fear.
“Extreme anxiety and stress can potentially cause teeth chattering and shaking in dogs. While this is not necessarily a medical emergency, prolonged stress or anxiety can cause medical problems, and it can also severely affect a dog’s quality of life.” - Little Silver Animal Hospital
This one is fairly easy to diagnose as it’s not accompanied by other symptoms of pain and is generally noticed during stressful situations like going to the vet.
You’ll likely see other behaviors, like body language with lowered appearance and a tucked in tail. Keep in mind that dogs react to stress and fear in different ways, so not all of them will chatter their teeth.
If your dog has anxiety about meeting other dogs or is usually a submissive pup in the pecking order, it's possible that they'll feel some fear or anxiety when they're exposed to unfamiliar dogs, and that can express itself as chattering teeth.
If your pup pal chatters their teeth when you mention treats or going for a walk to the park, it's probably because they are filled excitement!
And, of course, just like fear and stress, excitement is pretty obvious. It's fairly unlikely that chattering teeth is the only sign that your dog is excited. If nothing else, that tail is probably going a mile a minute too!
The good news here is that, like the physical reasons for chattering teeth, these aren't usually a cause for serious concern.
You may want to figure out if they're stressed or afraid, but it's more of a "fix the circumstances" kind of problem or an "avoid the mean dog" situation, not a trip to the vet.
Now, as noted above, prolonged stress or anxiety can cause medical problems, and it can also severely affect a dog’s quality of life. Many studies today support the use of CBD for dogs to help manage and reduce situational anxiety.
Health-Related Causes of Teeth Chattering in Dogs
The third category, and the more serious of the three, is health-related issues. Health issues involve a variety of medical conditions, some of which can be serious enough to warrant a trip to the vet.
Anything from a cavity to an abscess to a broken tooth can cause chattering teeth. This can be as a soothing behavior, a reaction to pain, or a sensitivity to cold.
If you notice teeth chattering when your furry friend is drinking water, eating, or getting a treat, it's possible that they're having some kind of reaction to tooth pain.
They may also chatter when panting, as the cold air triggers tooth sensitivity and pain. Keep an eye out for other oral health symptoms, like inflamed or bleeding gums, difficulty eating, new or increased drooling, or a reluctance to be touched.
Another medical issue that can cause chattering teeth is actually canine epilepsy.
While popular culture likes to depict epilepsy as an all-or-nothing, full-shaking-on-the-ground seizure disorder, it actually has a wide range of different possible symptoms.
Some dogs (and people) can just lock up, their brain essentially going on standby mode until it can recover. Others have shaking manifest in a specific limb, including the jaw.
This kind of teeth chattering is tricky to identify because you need to rule out other causes or identify other symptoms that might be harder to notice. Keep an eye out for otherwise-random muscle twitches, spasms, and collapses.
If you have a particular kind of dog (small breeds, usually white), teeth chattering can be a sign of something known as "shaker syndrome," this disease is degenerative and can cause full-body tremors, including teeth chattering.
Depending on your breed, your vet should warn you of the potential for this disease and what to watch out for.
Another common health-related reason for teeth chattering is simply age. As dogs get older, their bodies start to accrue issues, and they can be anything from arthritis to dementia to chattering teeth.
It's just something that can happen to older dogs. On the plus side, as long as it doesn't interfere with their ability to eat and drink, it's not really a cause for immediate concern.
How Concerning is Teeth Chattering in Dogs?
If your fur baby is chattering their teeth, how concerned should you be? Is it dangerous behavior, a sign of something worrisome, or just a harmless quirk of your particular pup?
The truth is, it depends a lot on the situation and any other symptoms that might accompany the chattering.
As with any unexpected or unexplained behavior, if your fur baby is chattering their teeth, take a look for symptoms of other issues.
Are they eating and drinking fine? Are they still able to go to the bathroom effectively, and is the consistency acceptable? Are they sullen or bright and happy?
Look, as well, for how frequently, when, and where it happens. It could be a reaction to something nearby, a reaction to another dog, or a reaction to loud noises or stressful situations.
In these cases, the best solution is often to remove the dog from the situation and bring them someplace where you can calm their anxiety.
Here are some potential "if" scenarios that can help you determine whether you should be concerned and take further action.
If teeth chattering is a reaction to happiness and excitement, it's harmless.
If it's a reaction to stress or fear, it's also relatively harmless, at least in terms of their health. Obviously, you want to minimize how much stress and anxiety you put them under, but sometimes it's unavoidable.
If you suspect the chattering teeth is temperature related, look for solutions to warm up your pup, such as a dog bed or blanket that reflects their body heat. You should also check for drafts in your home during colder months and finally, consider a doggy sweater to warm up your baby.
If your fur baby chatters when they're stressed, you might be able to give them a chew toy or a comfort plush to keep in their mouth. In addition to giving them a calming item, it can help prevent chattering from being irritating or hurting their teeth.
If you suspect your pup suffers from situational anxiety induced teeth chattering you may want to consider a natural option such as CBD oil for dogs.
If you’ve ruled out the more benign causes or just aren’t sure what’s causing your pup to chatter their teeth, start to document any other symptoms you see and instances where the chattering is occurring.
If you observe drooling, depressed personality, muscle spasms, pain reactions; any of these can be an indication that something more is going on. In these cases, you should call your vet and schedule an appointment to get your pup looked at.
They may need medication to help control whatever is happening, or even something like oral surgery and antibiotics to fix the problem.
When you get right down to it, sometimes dogs chatter their teeth for no obvious reason. It's one of the more mysterious behaviors a dog can exhibit, and unless there's a clear correlation between the behavior and some stimulus or additional behavior, it might just be one of their many adorable quirks.
Have you ever had a dog with mysteriously chattering teeth? If so, what did you do about it? What did the cause end up being? I'm curious about what sorts of experiences you may have had, and I'm sure other readers are, as well! So, tell us your story in the comments below. I'd absolutely love to hear it!
K Marie Alto
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer (https://www.amazon.com/author/kmariealto), and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 45K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).