Head shaking in dogs is very common: as a veterinarian, I encounter this problem on a weekly basis. There are many causes for head shaking and the odd shake here and there may not be too much cause for concern. But frequent head shaking can also be a sign that something is seriously wrong with your dog.
When Is Head Shaking a Problem?
If your dog has continued to shake for more than a few hours and if the shaking hasn’t gotten any better then there is likely an underlying cause. Head shaking is ultimately due to irritation and your dog shaking is their way of trying to relieve that irritation.
An appointment with your vet is highly recommended if your dog is:
- shaking their head aggressively or almost constantly, or
- if head-shaking persists for more than 2 days.
If your dog is unwell otherwise or appears to be in a lot of pain, then of course it is not fair to leave them in this state to see if the problem resolves itself. Therefore, you should take them to see your vet in this case also.
“If your dog is shaking their head aggressively or almost constantly, or if head shaking persists for more than 2 days, an appointment with your vet is highly recommended”
Dr. Alex Crow, Veterinarian
5 Common Reasons Dogs Shake Their Heads
The most common reasons for a dog shaking their head are:
1. Head shaking after being in water
It can be perfectly normal for a dog to shake every now and then, especially if they have recently submerged their head in water. A dog that’s been swimming or had a shower can shake their head afterward to get rid of any water that’s found its way into their ear canals.
However, if your dog has not been in water, head shaking usually indicates an issue with your dogs’ ears. A dog’s ear canals are much longer and deeper than a human’s and therefore are more prone to disease.
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2. Foreign objects Lodged in the Ear Canal
A dog’s ear canal is very long and unlike our own, it has a bend where the vertical ear canal becomes the horizontal ear canal. On top of this, many dogs have very hairy ears which can trap dirt or foreign objects that might get stuck in there. Foreign objects such as grass seeds can easily find their way into your dog’s ear and cause extreme discomfort.
If this is the case, then your dog will likely start suddenly shaking their head very vigorously. While they may shake it out themselves, this is unlikely, and they will often require a trip to the vet to have the foreign object removed.
3. Ear Infections
Bacterial or fungal infections within the ear are common in dogs, especially when you consider all the dirty places where they put their heads. The most common signs that your dog has an ear infection are when they shake their heads or scratch their ears. Soreness and discharge are other common symptoms of an ear infection, both of which will cause your dog to shake their head. Panting in older dogs can indicate a number of things, but can also be the result of a severe ear infection.
It is very easy to know if your dog has an ear infection. Read our veterinarian article: How Do I Know if My Dog Has an Ear Infection? or view our pictures of ear infections in dogs.
If you suspect that your dog has an ear infection, then take them to your vet as they may need antibiotics or their ear flushing out.
4. Ear Allergies
Allergies are very commonly seen in early spring to late fall. When new plants are blooming, and pollen is in the air, most dogs will show signs of seasonal allergies.
Dogs display signs of allergy in many ways, for some it’s itchy feet and for others it’s an itchy tummy. For some dogs their allergy will affect their ears the most. Your dog could be allergic to anything, whether that be something in their food or something in the environment. This results in irritation or inflammation of the skin within your dog’s ear canal, and can further predispose them to ear infections.
Ear solutions such as Zymox, and medication such as Benadryl twice a day can help decrease the itching and inflammation in your dog’s ears. However, make sure you always consult with your veterinarian before giving your dog any new medication. Read more on our page about dog ear infections and allergies.
5. Tumors or growths
Abnormal tumors or growths can develop within the ear canal and result in irritation and inflammation as they press on the surrounding healthy tissue.
They will also physically block the ear canal, preventing any dirt from naturally draining out. While many of these growths are benign such as polyps, others may be more sinister and potentially cancerous and so any new growth should be checked by your vet.
Disclaimer: This content is not a substitute for veterinary care. Always consult with your vet for health decisions. Learn more.
However, due to their location within the ear canal and the irritation they cause, they will often have to be removed regardless.
4 Steps to Take at Home if Your Dog is Head Shaking
Step 1: Start with simply observing your dog and thinking about where they have been recently that could have caused head shaking. Did you recently wash them? Have they been swimming? Is there an obvious reason that they may be transiently head shaking that may resolve itself?
Step 2: Examine your dog’s ear from the outside, is there any discharge, inflammation or an obvious foreign object that can be safely removed?
Step 3: If there is no obvious foreign object to be seen then the next step is to use a gentle ear cleaner in your dog’s affected ear(s). Squirt a good amount of the cleaner in the ear canal, massage the base of your dogs’ ear and wipe out with cotton wool. If the issue is an overaccumulation of wax/dirt, then this may solve the problem.
Related article: View our recommended dog ear cleaning solutions.
Step 4: If the above steps haven’t worked then it’s likely your dog will need veterinary intervention. Take them to your local vet who can examine deep down the ear canals and prescribe medication if necessary.
Will the Head Shake Resolve by Itself Over Time?
While some head shaking may spontaneously resolve with time, if the head shaking has been persisting for more than 2 days, or if your dog is almost constantly shaking their head, then it’s unlikely to get any better on its own and leaving it may make things a lot worse and create further damages to your dog’s ears.
“If left untreated, allergies, foreign objects, or infections will result in a lot of irritation and damage.”
Dr. Alex Crow, Veterinarian
This damage can even be irreversible. Chronic inflammation of the canal walls can result in a breakdown of the local immune system within the ears, further predisposing to more severe ear infections in the future. Similarly, foreign objects that are left can migrate deeper into the ear canal and even break through the ear drum into the middle ear.
I’d highly suggest having your head-shaking dog examined by your vet sooner rather than later. Having seen firsthand the results of neglecting ear disease, the state some dogs find themselves in is very saddening. I have personally encountered cases where a dog needed to be euthanized due to excruciating untreatable ear disease.
What Will Happen at the Vet? (Diagnosis, treatments)
Your vet will first start by examining your dogs’ ears with an otoscope, an illuminated torch that will allow them to visualize the inside of your dog’s ear canal. Foreign objects, discharge, and inflammation can be identified in this manner.
It may be possible for your vet to remove any foreign object there and then, depending on how painful it is for your dog and how well behaved they are; sedation can be used otherwise.
Swabs can be taken to culture any harmful microorganisms present; this allows targeted treatment with antibiotics and/or antifungals to be used. Inflammation and allergy can be treated with anti-inflammatory drugs such as steroids.
In severe cases and particularly in those dogs that have not responded to treatment, it may be recommended that your dog is sedated for a more thorough examination. Their ears can be flushed out, any hairs plucked, and any further damage assessed while your dog is asleep.
Why Early Diagnosis of Head Shaking in Dogs is Important
The earlier ear disease is diagnosed, the more successful treatment will be. Foreign objects that are left or ear infections that are untreated can result in irreversible damage and a lot of discomfort for your dog.
What if my dog keeps shaking his head but his ears are clean?
This could indicate that your dog has a foreign object in their ear or a potential allergy. There doesn’t always have to be a build up of wax or discharge for there to be a problem present.
What if my dog is shaking his head and also tilting his head to one side? Does it say anything more about the cause?
This could indicate that the middle ear is affected, that is the area of the ear deeper to the ear drum. This results in vestibular disease and your dog should be seen by the vet as soon as possible.
What if my dog is shaking his head and panting?
Panting can indicate a number of things, but it most likely means your dog is hot or in pain. This could be due to inflammation or a fever for example if a severe ear infection is present.
What if my dog is shaking his head and sneezing a lot?
There is a connection between the ear and the nasal cavity that can sometimes become affected in cases of severe ear disease. Sneezing may be one such symptom that indicates involvement of the nasal cavity. This could also indicate that your dog has allergies. The sneezing may be unrelated but regardless should be investigated by your vet.
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