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Cat shaking its head outside

The essentials

  • It’s normal for your cat to shake their head — Cats often instinctively shake their heads when they eat or have itchy ears.
  • Occasionally, there are underlying causes for your cat’s head shaking — Head shaking could be a symptom of an ear infection, allergies, and some neurological diseases. It’s important to know the cause to help you give them the care they need.
  • Treatment for head shaking varies — Depending on the cause, your veterinarian will be able to determine the appropriate treatment.

While it’s normal for your cat to occasionally scratch or shake their head, constant shaking or involuntary tremors indicate something is wrong. Ear infections are the most common answer to why your cat can’t stop scratching and shaking their head, but not the only possible reason. Always take your cat to the vet if you notice that the behavior is becoming a habit, or if they’re experiencing tremors that aren’t related to common things like anxiety and cold weather.

Why is my cat shaking their head?

Your cat may shake their head to counter a random tickle or rip off a piece of food such as when they’re pulling a chunk of meat apart. This behavior is normal in felines, but incessant shaking or trembling isn’t. If your cat has a constant itch or appears to be trembling, you should take them to the vet for treatment. Don’t try to diagnose the problem yourself. They could have something lodged in their ear or have an infection that needs medicine.

Ear infection

Both inner ear and outer ear infections cause pain and discomfort due to inflammation. Many cats will shake their head and scratch their ears to remove debris and fluid from the ear canal. Outer ear infections affect the ear flap, also called the pinna, and can be very itchy and painful. Yeast growth usually causes the problem, but other potential causes of ear infections include foreign objects, ear mite infestations, or bacteria. Ear infections are commonly treated with topical medications, in addition to oral or injectable antibiotics.

Since ear infections can be caused by various things, you should always take your cat to the vet so they can determine what caused the problem and give your cat the right treatment. After they examine your cat, they’ll likely need to clean their ears before sending you home with medicine.

Ear mites

Ear mites (Otodectes cynotis) are a type of ectoparasite that can live in your cat’s ears. Black specks that look like coffee grounds in your cat’s ears signify the problem. A cat may shake its head or vigorously scratch the visible portion of their ears (ear pinna) with their paws to try to relieve the itch.

Thankfully, ear mites are easily treatable with medicine from a vet. Your vet may clean your cat’s ears first and then prescribe ear drops that will kill the mites. Ear mites are fairly common in outdoor cats and even indoor kittens. Unfortunately, they’re highly contagious and can infest other parts of the body. If you have multiple pets, you may want to take them all to the vet at once to be treated for ear mites.

Aural hematoma

An aural hematoma develops when small blood vessels in between the cartilage of the ear flap and the skin burst, resulting in swelling or what’s known as “cauliflower ear.” Your cat may develop an aural hematoma as a secondary issue if they’ve been shaking or scratching their head too much, such as from a flea allergy or from an ear infection. Also known as “pillow ear,” an aural hematoma is extremely painful to your cat and can even cause hearing loss depending on the severity.

Your vet may recommend draining the hematoma with a needle for minor cases. However, if the pinna is swollen badly enough to obstruct the ear canal, surgery may be a better option. Your cat’s ear may appear crinkly after healing from an aural hematoma, but this is merely a cosmetic concern.

Foreign bodies

Your cat may have a seed or other foreign material lodged in their ear, causing them to shake it to try and remove it. If there is a foreign body lodged in your cat’s ear canal, they’ll likely need to be sedated so that it can be removed.

Do not attempt to retrieve a foreign object out of your cat’s ear. You could accidentally bump them or they could move and dislodge the object further, possibly causing permanent hearing loss.

Ear injury

An accident or fight with another cat or dog could result in an ear injury. It’s also possible for your cat to develop a painful localized infection or abscess that can extend down the ear canal. Keeping an eye on your cat’s overall health helps catch injuries faster, which leads to quicker recovery and reduces their risk of developing an infection. Their wounds will always need to be cleaned, but your vet may need to give them sutures depending on the extent of their injury. Your cat will likely also be prescribed antibiotics.

Allergies or skin disease

Did you know that many cats and dogs are allergic to fleas? Not only do these annoying parasites cause small, red, itchy bites, but they can actually cause intense allergic reactions and give your cat intestinal tapeworms if ingested.

👉 In addition to flea dirt and excessive scratching, hair loss may be a sign of fleas.

In severe cases, flea bites can even cause life-threatening anemia in kittens as a result of the loss of blood. If your form of flea prevention isn’t working, your vet will likely recommend switching it up or using a combination of methods. They may also prescribe steroids or antihistamines to help reduce the itching and swelling temporarily.

Other environmental or food allergies could also be causing your cat to scratch and shake their head. Unfortunately, allergies  in cats are on the rise and veterinarians are seeing more cases over the past few years. Your vet will help you determine the cause and recommend next steps, such as a food trial or medication.


A polyp is a benign soft tissue growth. While not inherently dangerous, these small lumps can form deep inside your cat’s ear and cause them to scratch or shake their head. Nasopharyngeal polyps actually form deep in the middle ear and then grow down the Eustachian tube towards the back of their mouth.

Other types of ear polyps may affect the outer ear or pinna. Your vet may recommend surgically removing the polyp if it’s causing problems with your cat’s balance or hearing, or if your cat has a nasopharyngeal polyp that’s partially obstructing their breathing.

Nasopharyngeal polyps can extend from the Eustachian tube to the ear canal. They are not uncommon benign changes but very persistent and almost always have to be removed under anesthesia. They may recur but surgical option seems to be the best alternative therapy if reasonably done and infection controlled.

Dr. Bruce Armstrong

Cerebellar hypoplasia

This neurological congenital disorder, known as wobbly cat syndrome , can affect a cat’s balance and cause them to shake their head involuntarily. Usually, affected cats were infected with the panleukemia virus in utero. The mother cat might have come into direct contact with the virus or even passed the virus on to her kittens by receiving a panleukemia vaccine while pregnant. Cats with cerebellar hypoplasia display clinical signs at birth. They have underdeveloped brains and there isn’t a cure, but treatment is available. Cats with cerebellar hypoplasia aren’t in pain and often learn to adapt over time.

The difference between a shaking head and a tremor

Your cat may shake their head or entire body on purpose. A sudden, forceful movement may indicate that they’re trying to remove a foreign object or scratching an itch.  A head tremor, on the other hand, is when they develop a shake that they can’t control, such as with neurological disorders like wobbly cat syndrome.

Be sure not to mistake your cat shivering for shaking or having tremors. Cats thrive in temperate climates and get cold easily, which is why you’ll frequently find them sunning in the window year-round. Take extra precautions to keep your cat warm during the winter, especially if they’re a young kitten who’s still very fragile.

It’s important to tell the difference between when a cat is shaking uncontrollably— such as a result of anxiety, low blood sugar, or a seizure — as opposed to consciously shaking their head. If your cat suddenly develops a head tremor, contact your vet for an emergency appointment.

Many emergency visits to the vet are covered by pet insurance — find out what is (and isn’t) covered by reading our comprehensive pet insurance coverage guide.

Frequently asked questions

Is head shaking an emergency?

All cats shake their heads from time to time. However, if it’s become a new obsession or accompanied by other symptoms, you should definitely take your cat to the vet to see what’s causing it. Sudden tremors that aren’t caused by cold weather or anxiety may indicate that your cat is having a seizure or other medical emergency that requires immediate care.

Can humans get ear mites from cats?

Nope. Ear mites can only be transferred between cats, dogs, and other pets like ferrets. If you have a cat with ear mites, it’s best to also take your other pets to the vet for treatment or monitor them closely since the parasite can spread quickly.

Do cat ear infections go away on their own?

It isn’t likely. Ear infections can be caused by a variety of reasons. Your cat needs to see a vet to have their ears cleaned and thoroughly examined to determine the cause and best treatment plan. They’ll likely need antibiotics and may need other medicine to relieve itching or kill ear mites if they have any.

Can I use peroxide inside my cat’s ear?

No, peroxide isn’t safe for cats internally or externally because it’s too strong for their skin. Never use vinegar or hydrogen peroxide to clean your cat’s ears. Instead use gauze or a cotton ball (never a Q-tip!) to clean, wipe, and dry the inside of your cat’s ears. While there are several safe OTC products that can be used to clean their ears, you should check with a veterinarian first if you suspect there is a foreign object lodged in their ear canal.

Why does my cat shake their head when they eat?

In some instances, cats shake their food from instinct, like a predator killing its prey. Sometimes your cat will shake their head and break off excess food if they bite off too much. Or, they could simply be enjoying their meal!