For a dog owner, it often feels like we understand our pet better than we understand other people.
But some dog behaviors remain a mystery to us, even ones that we also exhibit from time to time.
Teeth chattering is an excellent example. We know that our teeth chatter when we’re cold, tired, or twitchy from too much coffee.
Dogs, however, don’t seem to follow our logic when it comes to teeth chattering. They do it in response to all sorts of stimuli — and sometimes, it seems, in response to nothing at all.
So what’s the real reason why dogs chatter their teeth? Is it as random as it seems, or is there an underlying cause for the behavior?
And should dog owners be worried when their dogs chatter their teeth?
Unclench that jaw and read on — we’ve got the answers to all your canine teeth-chattering questions ahead!
Emotional Teeth Chattering in Dogs
When we experience intense emotions, our facial expressions change accordingly.
Dogs can also modulate their facial expressions to an extent, but not as finely as we alter ours.
Instead, they display emotions through different behaviors and subconscious movements.
Teeth chattering is one-way dogs display emotions. It’s associated with several different feelings, some positive and some negative.
Excited Teeth Chattering
You reach into your dog’s toy box and pull out his favorite ball. He perks up instantly, trotting over to you with tail wagging and teeth chattering.
It can be a little alarming if you’re not accustomed to canine emotions, but don’t worry!
Your pup is just excited to play with his favorite toy and show it by chattering his teeth.
Teeth chattering is a way for your dog to release some of his pent-up energy, which is now overflowing due to the anticipation of a good play session. It’s similar to the way we start shaking or fidgeting when we’re about to explode with excitement.
You’ll probably be able to tell when teeth chattering is due to excitement. Your dog’s body language will tell you all you need to know: wagging tail, open stance, and inquisitive head tilts are all signs of excitement and joy.
So if you hear that clicking noise when you get home from work, open the treat container, or reach for the leash, don’t worry! Good things are coming, and your pup knows it!
Anxious Teeth Chattering
Just as excited teeth chattering provides a release for excess positive energy, anxious teeth chattering provides a release for more negative energy.
Like getting shaky before a job interview or biting your lip during the final seconds of a big game, teeth chattering in response to anxiety is totally normal for dogs.
Your dog may chatter his teeth when you bring a new person into your home or when you pull up in front of the vet’s office. Many owners first notice the behavior as they’re about to leave for work — a strong indicator of separation anxiety.
Most of the time, anxiety is situational and resolves itself fairly quickly. In these cases, no intervention is needed if you notice your dog’s teeth chattering.
But if it’s a recurring problem, identifying and minimizing the source of the anxiety is very important.
Whatever you do, please don’t get frustrated with your dog for chattering his teeth. The noise can be irritating, but responding to it negatively will only make the problem worse.
Sensory Teeth Chattering in Dogs
Dogs may also chatter their teeth in response to two varieties of sensory stimulation. We’re familiar with one type, but the other is typically quite foreign to us.
Teeth Chattering in Response to Cold
When we’re cold, our bodies shiver, and our teeth chatter. These quick, repetitive motions generate heat — not a lot, of course, but enough that evolution has given us this reflexive response to chilliness.
Dogs also shiver and chatter their teeth when they’re cold. It’s an automatic response to low body temperature and a good sign that your pup really needs to warm up.
If your dog’s teeth chattering is accompanied by shivering, or if it’s just plain cold out, chances are he’s only trying to warm up. Give him a sweater or blanket and a warm spot to curl up in, and those teeth will quiet down quickly!
Teeth Chattering when Smelling
Now, this is a behavior that’s unfamiliar to us as humans: teeth chattering when smelling.
Dogs don’t just smell with their noses. They have a secondary apparatus that aids in scent reception: the vomeronasal system, with openings located inside the mouth.
That’s right, your dog has a second pair of nostrils in his mouth.
And to make use of them, he has to move his mouth in strange ways.
One of these ways is, you guessed it, teeth chattering.
Done deliberately and slowly, this behavior encourages scents to travel into the dog’s mouth, where the vomeronasal system can then detect them.
Usually, the behavior occurs after the dog smells or tastes something particularly good or bad. A juicy steak on the grill or the spray of a skunk could both provoke teeth chattering.
Communicative Teeth Chattering in Dogs
Dogs communicate with one another in many unique ways. Teeth chattering is one of the strangest, but it’s also intended to be that way.
It’s called displacement language, and it’s thought to be a defensive mechanism used by dogs who feel fearful or threatened.
When your dog encounters a strange dog who seems unfriendly, he may begin to chatter his teeth. This is a way for him to release anxious energy, as we discussed previously.
But it’s also intended to weird out the other dog and distract him, drawing attention away from the chatterer.
Hopefully, the new dog will forget about his original unfriendly intentions and become more focused on that bizarre clicking noise.
And it often works, at least long enough for the dogs to get used to each other and chill out a bit.
Medical Reasons for Teeth Chattering in Dogs
Not all teeth chattering has a psychological origin. Often, it’s done in response to, or because of, various physical ailments.
Dental Problems and Oral Pain
The most common cause of sudden-onset teeth chattering in dogs is oral pain.
Periodontal (gum) disease, cavities, broken teeth, enamel loss, and other dental problems can be extremely painful. They frequently cause the dog to chatter its teeth uncontrollably.
Other symptoms of dental problems include difficulty eating, increased saliva production, red or bloody gums, and bad breath. If teeth chattering is accompanied by any of these, see a vet as soon as possible, as dental disease can be deadly.
Epilepsy and Tremors
Epilepsy, shaker syndrome, focal motor seizures, and other neurological conditions can cause dogs to chatter their teeth.
We think of seizures as causing the whole body to shake, but they can be confined to just one area as well. In many cases, seizures and tremors only affect the jaw, resulting in teeth chattering.
To tell if teeth chattering is related to a neurological condition, try to get your dog’s attention during the chattering episode. If you can get him to look at you or “snap out of it,” it’s likely not due to a seizure.
But if your dog remains completely unaware of your touch or voice, chances are he’s having a seizure. See a vet as soon as possible for treatment.
As dogs age, their bodies degenerate in many ways. They may lose fine control over their limbs, bladder, bowels, and jaw.
And when jaw control goes, teeth chattering often becomes more frequent.
Older dogs are also more susceptible to illness and injury, which can result in teeth chattering as a response to pain.
If your dog is a senior and begins chattering his teeth, see a vet to rule out any underlying medical issues. And if none are found, there’s no cause for concern — it’s just a natural result of the aging process.