Dog Shaking Head? Here’s When To Worry

Updated May 30, 2024
A dog shakes his head at the beach.

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Most pet parents have been woken up at one time or another because their pup has been shaking his head or scratching at his ears.

However, in some cases, what may seem like a harmless itch could be a sign of something more serious.

If left untreated, this could lead to discomfort, pain and even hearing loss.

Head shaking in dogs and scratching at the ears are often related but can have different causes. 

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Why Do Dogs Shake Their Heads?

Head shaking in dogs allows pups to get something out of their ears that shouldn’t be there.

When dogs feel itchiness or irritation in their ears, they instinctively shake their heads.

While this can solve the problem if the dog has some water, a piece of grass, or an insect in his ear, continued head shaking indicates that the irritation is ongoing and needs to be addressed by their vet.

Why Does My Dog Keep Shaking His Head?

There are several reasons as to why dogs shake their head. These can include:

Regardless of cause, if excessive or repetitive, an examination by your veterinarian is warranted.

Each cause has a different treatment, and it’s only through physical examination and testing that proper treatment can be determined.

Bacterial and Yeast Infections in the Ear

The most frequently diagnosed health problem that causes excessive head shaking dogs is an ear infection.

Ear infections tend to be itchy and produce a lot of discharge and inflammation, all of which make dogs want to shake their heads.

If you lift up the flap of your dog’s ear(s) and see redness, swelling, or discharge, an infection is likely.

Ear mite infestations can cause similar symptoms, but they are not as common as yeast or bacterial infections in dogs (particularly adult dogs).

Keep in mind that infections may occur deep within a dog’s ear, so an infection may be present even if you don’t see obvious signs of one.

Itchiness in the Ear Due to Allergies

Allergies are another common problem that leads to head shaking in dogs.

Individuals can be allergic to ingredients in their food or triggers in their environment (pollen, mold spores, dust or storage mites, etc.).

Symptoms of allergies in dogs typically include some combination of:

  • Itchy skin

  • Hair loss

  • Recurrent skin and ear infections

  • Scratching at the ears

  • Head shaking

  • Chewing of the feet

  • Rubbing at the face

Water in the Ears

Head shaking that occurs because of water getting into the ears is easily prevented by placing cotton balls (or half a cotton ball for small breeds) in the dog’s ears prior to bathing or swimming.

Avoid spraying or dumping water directly on your dog’s head during a bath.

Instead, bathe his body from the neck down and wipe down his face and ears with a damp washcloth.

If your dog won’t stand for cotton balls in his ears while swimming, consider using an ear band or cleaning his ears with a drying solution post-swim.

Your veterinarian can recommend a safe and effective product based on your dog’s particular needs.

Serious Conditions Related to Head Shaking in Dogs

Other health conditions that can make dogs excessively shake their heads include foreign objects that become lodged in the ear canal, inflammatory diseases, or even neurologic disorders causing head tremors. These are easily confused with head shaking.

If your dog has recurrent ear infections, your veterinarian will look for an underlying cause, such as allergies, anatomical abnormalities, or hypothyroidism.

Diagnosing and treating the reason behind a dog’s head shaking is important. Not only because it's a symptom of a potentially serious problem, but because continued or vigorous head shaking can lead to ruptured blood vessels within a dog’s ear flap. 

Foreign Objects in the Ear Canal

Dogs enjoy playing outside and getting dirty, but unfortunately, that can mean that dirt, debris and other material such as plant debris, seeds, burrs, and insects can get into the ears causing irritation and head shaking.

Inflammatory Diseases

Certain inflammatory conditions and auto-immune diseases like pemphigus can lead to itching, scratching and shaking of the head. 

Usually, these conditions are accompanied by other symptoms like crusts and ulcers and redness of other parts of the body. 

Diagnosing and treating the reason behind a dog’s head shaking is important. Not only because it's a symptom of a potentially serious problem, but because continued or vigorous head shaking can lead to ruptured blood vessels within a dog’s ear flap. 

These conditions can be challenging to diagnose as often require ruling out other medical conditions as well as through a biopsy of the skin. 

Neurological Disorders

Certain neurologic diseases can lead to head shaking, or something that looks very similar to shaking like tremors or head bobbing.

Head Tremors Vs. Dog Shaking His Head

The main difference between head shaking and head tremors is that shaking is a voluntary action whereas tremors are not. 

Tremors, as a neurological disease, are often accompanied by other symptoms as well, such as trouble walking, falling over, or even seizures. 

Videography can be useful in determining the difference and a consultation with a veterinary neurologist may be warranted for further testing and treatment.

When To Worry About a Dog Shaking His Head

If your dog is shaking his head repeatedly and the behavior does not stop over the course of a day or so, it’s time to make an appointment with your veterinarian.

How Vets Diagnose a Dog Shaking His Head

Your veterinarian will typically perform an otoscopic examination. During this exam, your vet will look down into your pup's ear to determine if water, dirt or debris or foreign objects are present.

If excessive debris is present, then cleaning the ears may be necessary. Sedation may be required if your dog is uncomfortable or in pain. 

If an ear infection is suspected, a sample may be swabbed and looked under the microscope for signs of bacteria and/or yeast. 

If a food allergy or intolerance is suspected, then performing a food trial may be necessary.

this involves putting a dog on a diet that contains a single carbohydrate (such as rice or potato) and single source of protein that has never been fed to the dog before (like duck or venison) or that has been hydrolyzed (broken down into tiny, non-allergenic pieces).

The dog must eat only this food for a month or two. If the symptoms disappear or at least significantly improve, a food allergy is likely.

Environmental allergies are best diagnosed through intradermal skin testing, but blood testing is a reasonable option for some dogs.


Jennifer Coates, DVM

WRITTEN BY

Jennifer Coates, DVM

Veterinarian

Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...


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