Shuvuuia was a small and lightly built animal. At 60 cm (2 ft) in length it is one of the smallest known dinosaurs. The skull is lightly built with long and slender jaws and minute teeth. Shuvuuia is unique among non-avian theropods in the skull's ability to perform prokinesis, that is, it could flex its upper jaw independently of its braincase.
The hindlimbs of Shuvuuia were long, slender, and short-toed, which may indicate significant running capabilities. The forelimbs, however, were unusually short and powerfully constructed. Although originally Shuvuuia and other alvarezsaurids were thought to have only a single digit on the front limb, newer specimens show the presence of reduced second and third fingers in addition to the massively enlarged thumb known from previous specimens. Like other alvarezsaurids, Shuvuuia may have used its forelimbs to open insect nests, and its slender, unusually mobile jaws to probe after such prey.
Fossils of Shuvuuia are currently known from two locations within the Djadochta Formation: Ukhaa Tolgod and Tögrögiin Shiree. These sites are thought to be about 75 million years old (late Campanian age). Contemporary genera included Velociraptor and Protoceratops.
Specimen IGM 100/977 of Shuvuuia was found surrounded by small, hollow, tube-like structures resembling the rachis (central vane) of modern bird feathers. Though highly deteriorated and poorly preserved, biochemical analyses later showed that these structures contain decay products of the protein beta-keratin, and more significantly, the absence of alpha-keratin. While beta-keratin is found in all integumentary (skin and feather) cells of reptiles and birds, only bird feathers completely lack alpha-keratin. These findings show that, though poorly preserved, Shuvuuia likely possessed a coat of feathers.