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feline health problems
Cat shaking head

The essentials

  • It’s normal for your cat to shake their head — Cats often instinctively shake their heads when they eat or have an itch.
  • Occasionally, underlying medical conditions cause head shaking — Head shaking could be a symptom of an ear infection, allergies, and some neurological diseases.
  • Treatment for head shaking varies — Depending on the cause, your vet will be able to determine the appropriate treatment.

Why do cats shake their heads?

It’s perfectly normal for your kitty to shake their head occasionally. But if your cat suddenly starts shaking their head a lot more than usual, it could indicate a problem. There are several possible underlying causes including:

  • Ear infection. Ear infections cause pain and discomfort. Many cats will shake their head and scratch their ears to remove debris and fluid from the ear canal.
  • Ear mites. Mites in your cat’s ears cause intense itchiness and lead to shaking and scratching.
  • Aural hematoma. Hematomas and swelling can develop in the ear from broken blood vessels, causing discomfort or pain.
  • 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.
  • Ear injury. An injury or trauma to the ear may lead to head shaking.
  • Allergies or skin disease. An allergic reaction can cause a cat to scratch their ears or shake their heads to relieve the itchiness.
  • Polyps. Cats can develop polyps, or small growths, deep inside their ear canal. These can interfere with a cat’s balance and cause them to shake their heads.
  • Cerebellar hypoplasia. This neurological disorder known as wobbly cat syndrome can affect a cat’s balance and cause them to shake their head involuntarily.

👉 It’s time to call the vet when head shaking accompanies itchy ears, gunky or smelly ears, face rubbing, loss of balance, or swelling or redness in the ears. Head shaking with no other symptoms means it’s probably OK to watch and wait. 

The difference between head shaking and head tremors

A head shake is when your cat shakes their head on purpose. A head tremor is when they develop a shake that they can’t control, such as with neurological disorders like wobbly cat syndrome. 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. Get your quote based on your pet’s breed, age, and location at Fetch by the Dodo.

Treatment options

If your cat starts shaking their head abnormally, the appropriate treatment will depend on the cause. Some symptoms can be managed easily, while others need more complex treatment.

  • Ear infection. Ear infections are usually caused by a yeast infection. They’re commonly treated with topical medications, in addition to oral or injectable antibiotics.
  • Ear mites. Treatment generally begins by cleaning your cat’s ears to remove any wax or debris, then using topical medication to kill the mites.
  • Aural hematoma. Your vet will treat the underlying cause of the ear irritation. However, surgery is typically needed to drain the hematoma.
  • Foreign objects inside the ear. 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.
  • Ear injury. Depending on the injury, wounds are cleaned and sutured if necessary. Your cat will likely also be prescribed antibiotics.
  • Allergies or inflammatory skin disease. Similar to ear infections, most allergies and inflammation are treated with medications like steroids or antihistamines.
  • Polyps. Inflammatory polyps can be surgically removed by your veterinarian.
  • Cerebellar hypoplasia. This condition is caused by a lack of development of the brain, so there isn’t a treatment. But cats with cerebellar hypoplasia aren’t in pain and often  will learn to adapt over time.

Frequently asked questions

Do cat ear infections go away on their own?

Ear infections are painful and won’t go away on their own. Usually, your cat will need to be seen by a vet for proper treatment.

Can humans get ear mites from cats?

No, ear mites can only be transferred between cats, dogs, and other pets like ferrets.

Can I put peroxide in my cat’s ear?

No! 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.

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!