Why Do Dogs Shake Their Heads?

Written by Sharon Parry
Published: June 17, 2022
Image Credit Lunja/Shutterstock.com
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Why do dogs shake their heads? It depends on how often they are doing it and if there are any other signs that something is wrong. The occasional a head shake is nothing to worry about and is probably just your dog trying to shake off water or another object that is annoying them. However, it can also be a sign of ear problems, allergies or some more serious health conditions.

Here we are going to tell you how to tell what is making your dog shake their head and give you some advice on what you should do about it.

dog shaking its head
There are many reasons a dog may be prone to head-shaking, including ear infections, ear mites, obstruction in the ear canal and more.

elbud/Shutterstock.com

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Why Do Dogs Shake Their Heads?

Dogs do not have hands or fingers, obviously. Therefore, when something is annoying them, they cannot itch it or brush it away to remove it from their body. Shaking and rubbing are mechanisms that dogs use to relieve itches and discomfort and to get things off their body that are annoying them.

This is why the occasional head shake is not a problem. You may want to check your dog’s head, especially their ears, in case they have something obvious like a twig stuck in there. Dogs with long and luxuriant ears who also like to trek through undergrowth are most likely to get themselves into this sort of bother. Cocker Spaniels are typical examples!

On the other hand, excessive head shaking or head shaking that is accompanied by some other symptoms or behavior, can indicate a medical problem. Here are the most likely possibilities.

Ear Infections

Ear infections are the most common cause of head shaking in dogs, and they can be caused by bacteria or yeast and sometimes by ear mites. The medical name is Otitis externa and it happens when germs multiply in the outer ear canal making it inflamed, sore and irritated. Dogs cannot itch or rub their ears, so they shake their head instead.

If your dog’s head shaking is caused by an ear infection you will also probably notice that their ears look red and swollen, they are scratching their ear with their back paws and there is a discharge and odor.

What to Do About It

Check inside your dog’s ears for redness and discharge by gently lifting up their ear flaps. The infection may be obvious and there may be an unpleasant odor. If there is, take your dog to the vet for treatment.

However, you may not be able to see anything because some infections are deep inside the ear.  So if the head shaking persists, take them to the vet anyway because they will have special equipment that will allow them to see deep into the ear canal.

Ear infections in dogs can be treated with a combination of antibiotics, medicated cleanser or topical medication depending on what is causing it. It is important to get the infection treated promptly because untreated ear infections in dogs can deteriorate quite quickly and lead to permanent damage to the hearing.

Prevention of Ear Infections in Dogs

The best way to prevent ear infections in dogs is to keep the area clean and dry. The yeast and bacteria that cause ear infections love warm and moist environments so you can discourage growth by drying the ears thoroughly after bathing and after your dog has been swimming. Take a dog towel on treks in case your dog takes a dip!

Also, you can use a special ear cleaning solution to keep the area clean and therefore make it less attractive to germs. Usually, you need to soak a cotton wool ball in the ear cleaner and gently massage inside the ear for 30 seconds. You can then let your dog shake their head to remove the liquid and dry the ear with a soft towel or cloth.

Never poke anything into the ear canal as this can drive pathogens and debris deep into the ear where it will cause more problems.

Ear Mite Infestations

As well as leading to ear infections, ear mite infestations can cause irritation themselves. In adult dogs, the symptoms are very similar to an ear infection. Ear mites belong to the Psoroptidae family of parasitic mites and the medical term for them is Otodectes cynotis. They live on the surface of the skin in dogs’ ear canals. They are very readily passed from one dog to another and are also found in cats, rabbits and livestock.

What to Do About It

You can check yourself for areas of redness and discharge under the ear flaps. You will not be able to see the mites because they are only 1-2 mm long and can only be seen with a microscope.

Ear mite infestations must be treated promptly so take your dog to your vet. It may be treated by flushing out the ears and using medication in the form of topical ointments or injections.

Prevention of Ear Mites in Dogs

It is difficult to keep dogs away from sources of ear mites because other dogs could have them. Ear hygiene and regular checks when grooming are useful. Also, some flea and tick treatments will also prevent ear mites.

Ear and Head Injuries

Dogs may also shake their head because they have an injury and it hurts! Dogs that are in pain also tend to have a low posture and appear withdrawn and a bit grumpy. Other dogs whine a lot and make it clear that they are not happy. Dogs will usually lick an injury but, of course, they cannot do this on their head so they may shake their head instead.

What to Do About It

Start by having a look yourself – if your dog will let you. There may be an obvious but minor injury that you can deal with by keeping it clean or perhaps applying some liquid bandage. Major injuries must be treated by a vet. If your dog is obviously in pain but you cannot find the source, take them to your vet.

Prevention of Injuries in Dogs

Sometimes freak accidents occur and our dogs get injured. However, there are some things that we can do to help reduce the risk of head injuries.

  • Play fetch with a ball. Sticks and twigs can be sharp and can cause injuries to a dog’s mouth and face. So, play fetch with toys and balls instead.
  • Road safety. Car accidents are a leading cause of injuries in dogs. Keep them on a leash near traffic and use fluorescent collars and harnesses that can be seen in low light conditions.
  • Security. Dogs roaming around the neighborhood alone are more at risk of injury. Make sure that your pooch cannot escape from your garden or yard by installing a dog-proof fence.
  • Training. Badly trained dogs are essentially out of control and these are the dogs that get injured most. Start training from a young age armed with some tasty treats!
  • Diet. Do not feed your dog bones that could splinter and hurt their mouth and teeth as well as present a choking hazard. Feed your dog a premium highly nutritious dog food and if they like crunching things, feed them kibble!

Ear Hematomas

This is a special type of ear injury that is usually caused by the dog themselves during aggressive scratching. This can start with a skin condition or an ear infection but as your dog tries to make themselves feel better, they actually make the situation worse.

It is a pooling of blood between the skin and cartilage of a dog’s ear flap. It will look swollen and red and it may even bleed. Your dog will be in pain.

What to Do About It

Dogs with ear hematomas need to be seen promptly by a vet. They will probably need to have an operation where the blood will be drained using a needle. However, it is also important to work out the initial cause of the scratching.

Allergies

Allergies occur when a dog’s body reacts to harmless things in the environment. Dogs can develop allergies to mold spores, pollen and food in the same way as humans can. Itchy ears is one symptom of an allergy and this could cause your dog to shake their head. A dog with allergies may also have recurrent ear infections, skin infections, feet chewing and persistently rub their face with their paw. You may also notice hair loss.

What to Do About It

A dog with suspected allergies needs to be seen by a vet because it can be quite tricky to work out what is causing it. Your vet may want to carry out an intradermal skin test or a blood test.

For food allergies, they may recommend a special diet that contains a single carbohydrate and a single source of protein that your dog has never had before such as duck or venison. You can get limited ingredient dog foods to help with this. Other foods for dogs with allergies have hydrolyzed proteins that have been broken down into such tiny pieces that your dog’s body cannot recognize them as an allergen.

In the short term, your vet may prescribe some ear cleanser, anti-inflammatory or antihistamine medication.

Medical Causes of Head Shaking in Dogs

There are some more serious medical conditions that can cause head shaking in dogs. All of these need to be checked out by your vet.

  • Foreign objects stuck in the ear canal.
  • Otitis media (inflammation of the middle ear) and Otitis interna: (inflammation of the inner ear)
  • Neurological conditions such as Polyneuropathy that can cause tremors that look like head shaking
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Ear vasculitis where the blood vessels in the ears become inflamed showing as purple spots, skin crusting and hair loss

What’s Wrong With Head-Shaking?

Excessive head shaking needs to be investigated and the cause treated. It could indicate a serious medical condition. Also, head shaking can, itself, cause further medical issues. Your dog may rupture a blood vessel in its ear flap which will require surgery to fix.

It is a good idea to limit all head shaking as much as you can by keeping your dog’s ears clean and dry.

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About the Author

Sharon has a Ph.D. in Public Health but has spent the last decade researching and writing about all things connected with animal health and well being. As a life-long animal lover, she now shares her family home with three rabbits, a Syrian hamster, and a very energetic Cocker Spaniel but in the past she has also been a Mom to Guinea Pigs and several cats!She has a passion for researching accurate and credible information about pets and reviewing products that make pet owners' lives a bit easier. When she isn't checking out new pet products she's trekking around the Welsh mountains and beaches with her dog - although she lets her husband and her three grown up daughters tag along sometimes if they are lucky!

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