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The essentials

  • There are several reasons a dog may shake their head — The cause can be something minor, like itchiness or light debris, or a concerning condition like a neurological disorder.
  • A veterinarian can determine the root cause — Visit the vet if your dog is shaking their head excessively or presenting other symptoms like dizziness or vomiting.
  • Treatment depends on the cause of head shaking — Allergies can be managed with medications and diet changes, while tumors may require surgery.

With their ears flopping from side to side and their lips jostling about, a dog shaking their head can be amusing. But is it just your dog being a dog, or is your furry friend in pain?

While the reason your pup is engaging in this questionable behavior can be something mild, like allergies or a little water in their ear, it can also include something alarming, like a neurological disorder or tumor.

Let’s look at the common causes of canine head shaking, from minor to most serious:

1. Ear debris

Say you’re walking through the park and a little pollen gets in your ear. Your natural instinct will probably be to take advantage of your opposable thumbs to pluck it out. Now, imagine you have paws that aren’t capable of such things.

Even a minute irritant, like grass, fuzz, dirt, or water in your dog’s ear, can cause them to shake their head furiously to dislodge whatever is stuck. In some cases, excessive ear wax build-up may also be the culprit.

Here are ways to manage ear debris in dogs:

  • Ear cleanings. Whether you do it yourself or visit the groomer, routine ear cleanings are the best way to keep your pooch’s floppy ears free of debris and moisture that can cause infections or discomfort.
  • Ear cleaners. Consider using a vet-approved ear cleaner like Virbac Epi-Otic or Vet’s Best Ear Relief for a thorough cleanse. You can also stock up on wipes or topical creams.

2. Allergies

Head shaking can signify seasonal or food allergies in our canine companions. Watch for accompanying symptoms like sneezing, watery eyes, itchy skin, or gastrointestinal issues like vomiting or diarrhea.

Here are ways to manage allergies in dogs:

  • At-home remedies. Canine allergies may be managed with home remedies like shampoos for dry skin or applying manuka honey to inflamed areas.
  • OTCs and prescriptions. Over-the-counter antihistamines like Benadryl and Zyrtec can be used to address seasonal allergies in dogs. Your vet might also prescribe medication or steroids. If your dog has a food allergy, a prescription hypoallergenic diet may be required.
  • Limit exposure. Does your dog shake their head more when you’ve gone too long without vacuuming? They may be sensitive to dust mites and other environmental irritants. You’ll also want to avoid foods or treats that cause adverse reactions.

3. Ear infections

One of the most common causes of canine head shaking is an ear infection. When fungus or bacteria builds up in a dog’s ear, it results in painful swelling and inflammation. Lift your best friend’s ear flap and check for any redness, discharge, scabs, or a foul odor. If any of these are present, they likely have an infection.

While this can happen to any dog, hairy-eared breeds, such as cocker spaniels and German shepherds, are typically most affected. Fortunately, ear infections are treatable.

Here are ways to manage ear infections in dogs:

  • Medication. Your vet may prescribe antibiotics or ear drops to treat an infection. In the event of a yeast infection, antifungal medication may be prescribed.
  • Ear cleaning. You will likely need to clean your pup’s ears daily with a prescribed or over-the-counter cleaner that clears up the infection and ​​removes debris or wax that can inhibit the medications from doing their job.
  • Surgery. Dogs with chronic ear infections might need to have their ear canals surgically opened to remove all the diseased tissue .

4. Ear mites

Though it’s most common in puppies, adult dogs are also susceptible to ear mites. These pests can quickly spread from one pet to another and reproduce rapidly, so prompt treatment is critical. They’re difficult to spot with the naked eye, but keen-eyed owners may notice tiny white specks.

“Ear mites cause intense itchiness to the puppies and dogs and usually leave a dark red-brown waxy to granular discharge accumulation in the red ear,” says veterinarian Dr. Bruce Armstrong. “They can be diagnosed by microscopic examination of the wax and debris under a microscope where the adult mites and eggs can be seen more easily.”

Here are ways to manage ear mites in dogs:

  • Topical cream. Tresaderm is a topical solution that kills mites and their eggs when applied to infested dog ears.
  • Antibiotics. Dogs that have been excessively scratching their ears may be prescribed a round of antibiotics to heal the damaged skin.
  • Thorough home cleaning. Your dog’s bedding and any surfaces they interact with should be washed or treated with a flea-killing powder or spray.

5. Foreign objects

Owners concerned about their dog’s head shaking may want to consider whether or not they have a physical object lodged into their canal. Whether it be a foxtail or piece of grass they accidentally got stuck in their ear while rolling around in the yard, a foreign object obstruction can cause all sorts of problems for our furry friends, including disorientation and deafness.

Here are ways to manage foreign objects in a dog’s ear:

  • Extraction. If the foreign object is visible, you can try to gently remove it with a pair of tweezers.
  • Surgery. In the case that the foreign object is lodged too deep into your pup’s ear, they may need to be sedated while the object is surgically removed from the canal.
  • Flushing. A vet may try to flush out a foreign object by filling your dog’s ear with a cleaning solution, causing it to overflow. Flushing should absolutely be performed by a veterinary professional and not at home.

6. Neurological disorders

Dogs experiencing head tremors may suddenly jerk or tilt their head involuntarily. In these rare cases, your pup may have a neurological disorder. Owners should look out for accompanying symptoms like an unsteady gait, jerky eye movement, or dramatic shifts in body language. Neurological disorders include epilepsy, vestibular disease, and intervertebral disc disease.

Drug or herbicide or pesticide toxicity can lead to head tilt and weakness more than head shaking as can certain metabolic problems

Dr. Armstrong
  • Anti-inflammatories. Your vet may prescribe certain anti-inflammatory medications or steroids for the remainder of a dog’s lifetime to limit the symptoms of a neurological disorder.
  • Surgery. Though risky, surgery may be performed on a dog’s spine or brain to address a neurological disorder.
  • Diet changes. Foods that reduce inflammation in dogs, such as blueberries, turmeric, or anything packed with omega-3 fatty acids, can be added to their diet.

7. Tumors

It’s also possible your dog’s head shaking is due to a cancerous or benign tumor in their ear canal  that’s causing discomfort. Other symptoms like loss of balance and abscesses around the ear can also be indicative of a tumor. While this can happen at any age, it’s most common for senior dogs.

Here are ways to manage ear tumors in dogs:

  • Surgical removal.  Surgical incisions or laser surgery is used to remove benign tumors. Malignant tumors may require a complete removal of the outer and inner ear canal.
  • Radiation therapy. If surgery cannot completely remove an ear tumor, the affected dog may undergo radiation treatment to eliminate the tumor cells.

When should I see a vet about my dog shaking their head?

In most cases, occasional, infrequent head shaking is considered perfectly normal for our canine pals. However, once you notice that your pup is persistently and vigorously shaking its head, it’s time to make an appointment at the vet’s office. Even if it ends up not being serious, the actual shaking could cause damage to their delicate ear flaps, so you’ll want to resolve it sooner rather than later.

You’ll also want to factor in any other symptoms besides their head shaking. If they’re wheezing, throwing up, or just generally seeming “off,” a veterinarian is the best person to determine what’s going on with your pup and treat it accordingly.

Frequently Asked Questions

What should I do if my dog keeps shaking their head?

While occasional head shaking is normal, a dog excessively shaking their head may have an underlying condition like an ear infection. Consult your vet on the cause of your dog’s head shaking and the treatment.

What can you do for a dog with a shaking ear?

The best way to manage a dog’s head shaking is with routine ear cleanings using vet-approved cleaners or wipes. If your dog has recently gotten into tall brush or gone swimming, you can visit your vet to make sure there’s nothing lodged in their ear.

How can I tell if my dog has an ear infection?

A canine ear infection typically presents as red swelling or inflammation in and around the ear canal, along with discharge, scabs, or foul odor.

Why won’t my dog stop shaking their head?

Dogs shake their heads for several reasons, including allergies, ear infections, neurological disorders, and ear tumors. Schedule a vet visit to find the root cause of your dog’s head shaking.