Persistent head shaking in dogs can be unnerving for pet owners, to say the least. It’s a behavior that can indicate anything from a mild irritant to a serious health concern.
While occasional head shaking can be normal (say, after a bath or following particularly satisfying ear scratches), vigorous behavior warrants attention, as it could signify discomfort or an underlying health issue.
From ear infections to allergies, and foreign objects to more serious conditions, understanding the causes of head shaking is crucial for any pet owner.
At Doylestown Veterinary Hospital, experts like Dr. Mimi Fitchett, DVM, have extensive experience in diagnosing and treating various conditions that lead to this behavior – and have consulted with countless pet owners regarding what steps to take if the shaking doesn’t stop.
Common Reasons for Head Shaking in Dogs
According to Dr. Fitchett, ear infections remain public enemy number one when it comes to head shaking.
Bacterial or yeast infections, almost always secondary to underlying allergies, often result in redness, discharge, and an unpleasant odor. Veterinary treatment is typically necessary.
There are a few other reasons, however, for head-shaking hardships.
Infection may be the usual suspect when it comes to head shaking, but allergies, as previously mentioned, are often at the root of the problem. Allergies triggered by a variety of factors – dust mites, mold, pollen, and certain proteins in dog food – cause inflammation – which leads to secondary infections.
“Whether environmental or food, allergies are definitely up there,” Dr. Fitchett says.
In addition to some vigorous head shaking, allergy symptoms may include itchy skin and frequent scratching. The good news? With proper veterinary guidance, allergies can be successfully pinpointed, addressed, and managed. This may involve changing their diet, using hypoallergenic bedding, or avoiding walks during high pollen times. In more severe cases, your vet may recommend allergy testing or medications.
2. Foreign Objects
When outdoors, dogs can pick up all sorts of bits and pieces on their paws and in their hair. Grass and dirt can sometimes find their way into the ear canal and get stuck, causing irritation, inflammation, and – yes – head shaking.
Regularly inspecting and cleaning your dog’s ears at home can help prevent the normal buildup of wax and debris. This can be done using a gentle, vet-approved ear-cleaning solution, but doctors warn that over-cleaning can also be detrimental and causes inflammation and disrupts the normal microbiome of the ear canal, making it important to strike a healthy balance.
3. Swimmer’s Ear
While water may occasionally become trapped in the ears after bathing or swimming, potentially leading to discomfort, Dr. Fitchett believes this concern is largely all wet.
“If a dog gets a little water in their ear, it’s like when we get a little bit of water in our ears,” she says. “You don’t really need to treat that unless infection is present. And dogs shouldn’t be getting a lot of water in their ears, anyway, unless they’ve maybe gone to the ocean.”
While OTC remedies and drying solutions are available, Dr. Fitchett urges patients to seek guidance before using them.
“I would speak to your veterinarian about what product to use and how to use it,” she says.
Although uncommon, highly contagious parasites like ear mites can infest a dog’s ear canals, causing intense itching, discomfort, and head shaking. Ticks, too, can cause issues, particularly if your dog spends a lot of time outdoors.
Not only can they be challenging to locate, but without removal and treatment they can cause infection and, in extreme cases, deafness.
5. Canine Idiopathic Head Tremors
Believed by some to be caused by stress, these spontaneous tremors are largely benign, have no identified cause, and typically go away on their own. And – Dr. Fitchett notes – tremors are usually easy to tell apart from a dog “flopping its ears back and forth.”
“Tremors look a little different,” she says, adding that YouTube has plenty of videos that can help to assuage pet owner’s fears.
6. Other Causes
While far less common, tumors or polyps in the ear canal can cause head shaking in dogs, Dr. Fitchett notes. Additional signs usually include inflammation, discharge, a foul odor, and scratching.
And, of course, there are other outlying causes – uncommon, though they may be.
“We think dogs can get headaches,” Dr. Fitchett continues. “We think dogs can get tinnitus – that ringing in the ear – just like we do. And those are kind of hard things to determine.”
“Some dogs might have malformations in their neck bones, where their skull and their first one or two vertebrae attach,” she continues. “You might get head shaking with that. That’s rarer and something we see in small breed dogs.”
Other professionals suggest that oral and nasal disease may result in shaking, but Dr. Fitchett has yet to encounter this in patients. “I think there would be other symptoms,” she says.
The bottom line? Pet owners should seek help if their dog’s head shaking is “chronic and persistent.”
“If you notice a change in what your dog normally does, and you’re seeing it over one or two days – that should be checked out,” Dr. Fitchett says.
“If it’s not an ear infection, there’s simply a lot more to rule out. And for all of the things on this list, you need a professional to look in your dog’s ears.”