One day a client brought his dog to the clinic because she was shaking her head. During the exam, I noted that her ears were clean and had no sign of infection. I explained to the owner that although ear infections are a common cause of head shaking in dogs, there are other reasons for the behavior.
In this article, we’ll talk about the top reasons your dog might shake his head when your furbaby doesn’t have an ear infection. Then we’ll explain when you should contact your veterinarian about the unusual behavior and what the doctor will do to diagnose the cause.
Overview of unusual shaking of the head in dogs
There are times you expect to see your dog shake his head. Examples include after a bath, when exiting the pool or lake, or when playing with a favorite toy. But, when your furbaby constantly shakes his head, it’s unusual.
If the shaking behavior is vigorous or persistent, you should probably contact your veterinarian. Another thing you should find concerning is when your pup exhibits involuntary shaking of his head, such as tremors, twitching, or jerking movements.
Most likely reasons for a dog shaking his head if he doesn’t have an ear infection
Pug dog with a red, inflamed ear.
Allergies to food or environmental triggers can cause skin irritations that may affect the ear canal. If your dog is shaking his head because of allergies, you may notice
- Red or sore ears
- Scratching the ears
- Rubbing the head/ears against furniture or other objects
- Head shaking
- Lack of discharge or odor
When allergies affect the ears, it can lead to secondary infections. Treatment for allergies involves anti-inflammatory medications, antihistamines, and allergen avoidance(if possible).
Sometimes foreign objects like grass awns or seeds enter and irritate the ear canal. When dogs get foreign material in their ears, you may notice:
- Sudden and constant head shaking
- Frantic behavior
- The ear looks clean
- The ear may or may not be inflamed
If your dog is shaking his head vigorously and won’t stop, he may have something stuck in the canal. Even if you can see the object, it’s best to take your furbaby to the veterinarian. You could inadvertently push the material deeper into the ear canal if you try to remove it at home. The doctor can use special instruments and sedate your dog if needed.
Ear mite infection in a dog.
Parasites like ear mites and fleas can cause irritation and head shaking in your dog. Fleas and other insects may leave bites around the ear that cause skin itching and irritation. When this happens, dogs reflexively shake their heads to relieve the discomfort. If your pooch has ear mites, you may notice:
- Intense scratching of the ears
- The ear looks dirty(debris resembles coffee grounds)
- Dark brown discharge
- Shaking of the head
- Itching may increase at nighttime due to increased mite activity
Ear mites and other skin parasites can be treated with the appropriate antiparasite medications and topical applications. You should also consult with your veterinarian about ridding your home of pests.
If ear wax builds up in your dog’s ears, it can cause low-level itching and head-shaking. You may observe your dog scratching around his ears or shaking his head frequently. Usually, this can be managed at home by purchasing a dog ear wash solution. Follow the package directions or ask your vet how to best clean your pup’s ears.
Neurological conditions can cause head tremors or other involuntary head shaking. The most common condition causing head tremors is idiopathic head tremors. When a disease or condition affects the brain, you may observe:
- Rapidly bobbing the head up and down or from side to side
- Wide stance
If the tremors or head bobbing motions continue for more than several minutes, take your dog to the veterinarian. There may be an underlying condition that requires immediate treatment.
When to consult a veterinarian and when to wait
If your dog’s head shaking is minor, he’s not showing signs of pain, and the ear looks normal, you may be able to monitor him for a few days. In the meantime, check the ears for wax buildup and consider cleaning them.
However, you should take your dog to the veterinarian if:
- Your dog suddenly starts shaking his head
- The head shaking is constant
- Your dog is uncomfortable or in pain
- The ear is red and inflamed
- A discharge or nasty odor is coming from the ear
How will my vet diagnose the reason my dog shakes his head excessively?
To determine the cause of your dog’s head shaking, your veterinarian will:
Disclaimer: This content is not a substitute for veterinary care. Always consult with your vet for health decisions. Learn more.
- Get a history of recent activities that may have triggered the behavior
- Examine your dog
- Look in the ear using an otoscope
- Collect a sample of any debris or discharge
- Conduct a neurological examination if indicated
Many times, your vet will be able to reach a diagnosis based on the physical signs and history.
Frequently asked questions
What neurological conditions can cause head shaking in dogs?
The most common condition that causes tremors or head shaking is idiopathic head tremors. Other possible causes of shaking include infections like distemper or cerebellar hypoplasia. Fortunately, neurological disorders are not a major cause of head shaking in dogs.
Can dental issues lead to head shaking in dogs?
Anything that causes discomfort or pain in your dog’s mouth/head can cause head shaking.
How can I prevent unusual head shaking in dogs?
Some ways to prevent unusual head shaking in your dog include:
- Identifying and avoiding potential allergens, for example, feeding a hypoallergenic diet for food allergies/sensitivities
- Cleaning your dog’s ears routinely to prevent wax or dirt buildup
- Using flea and other parasite preventatives