Decoding Canine Behavior: Why Do Dogs Shake Their Head and How to Respond

Dec 17


Rachael Huntress

Rachael Huntress

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Ever noticed your lovable canine shaking their head and wondered, “why do dogs shake their head?” Dogs indeed have their unique language, and head shaking is one of those myriad gestures that can speak volumes about their health and comfort. Understanding these subtle cues, like why do dogs shake their head, can be the key to ensuring their well-being and happiness.

Key Takeaways

  • Head shaking in dogs is normal,Decoding Canine Behavior: Why Do Dogs Shake Their Head and How to Respond Articles but frequent or vigorous head shaking can indicate an underlying issue.
  • Common causes of excessive head shaking include ear infections, allergies, foreign objects in the ears and mites.
  • Regular ear care and consulting a veterinarian are essential for preventing and treating excessive head shaking.

Understanding Your Dog's Head Shaking

A dog shaking its head Have you noticed your dog shaking its head, seemingly to dislodge something annoying? You’re not alone. Dogs shake their heads to eliminate irritants from their ears, such as earwax, flea bites, or foreign objects. This is essentially their way of keeping their ears clean and free from discomfort. However, while occasional head shaking is normal, frequent or vigorous shaking could imply underlying issues such as discomfort from earwax buildup.

Head shaking in dogs is often observed, but not all head shakes should be treated the same. Occasional brief head shake is standard, however, if your dog persistently shakes their head, it might require your attention. Continued head shaking might indicate a serious problem beyond just an itch. If your dog is frequently and forcefully shaking their head, a vet consultation for an examination is recommended.

Normal head shaking

A little shake here and there is a natural way for dogs to rid their ears of irritants. Allergies, yeast and bacterial infections in the ear, water, and excessive earwax buildup are some of the potential triggers for occasional head shaking. You might see your dog shaking their head, rubbing their ears against their paws or legs, or scratching their ears. While these are common reasons dogs shake their heads, it’s important to keep an eye on your canine friend to ensure this doesn’t become a regular occurrence.

You might be curious regarding the ‘normal’ frequency of your dog shaking its head. The answer, unfortunately, is not straightforward. The frequency of normal head shaking behaviors in dogs varies from one dog to another and depends on a variety of factors. However, a useful guideline is to monitor if the head shaking becomes excessive or is accompanied by other discomfort signs. If so, professional help may be needed.

When to worry

While occasional head shaking is normal, continuous and frequent head shaking could be a sign of an underlying problem. If your dog’s head shaking becomes persistent, forceful, or is accompanied by any of the following symptoms, it’s time to schedule a visit to the vet:

  • Ear discharge or odor
  • Redness or swelling in the ears
  • Scratching or rubbing at the ears
  • Tilting of the head
  • Loss of balance or coordination
  • Changes in behavior or appetite

Signs such as sudden lethargy, a subdued temperament, or showing ear pain and sensitivity might suggest an ear injury when observed in conjunction with head shaking. Staying aware and closely monitoring your dog’s ears is recommended, as early detection can expedite resolving any underlying issues.

Common Causes of Excessive Head Shaking

Ear infection in dogs Having established the concerns regarding your dog’s head shaking, let’s shift our focus to some prevalent causes. Excessive head shaking can be a symptom of a broader issue, including:

  • Ear infections
  • Allergies
  • Foreign objects in the ears
  • Ear mites

Common causes of excessive head shaking in dogs include:

  • Ear infections
  • Ear mites
  • Allergies
  • Foreign objects in the ear
  • Wax buildup
  • Skin irritations or allergies
  • Dental issues

Understanding these common causes can help you better respond to your dog’s needs.

Ear infections

Ear infections are a common issue in dogs, and they often result in symptoms such as itchiness, redness, discharge, and swelling in their ears, including the dog’s ear flap.

If your dog is showing these signs along with excessive head shaking, an ear infection may be the culprit.

Treatment for ear infections typically involves topical medications like antibiotics, and thorough cleaning and drying of the ears to eliminate discharge and excess earwax. However, if your dog suffers from recurrent ear infections, diagnosing the underlying cause, which may include anatomical abnormalities, hypothyroidism, allergies, or other contributing factors, is necessary.


Allergies are another common cause of excessive head shaking in dogs. These could manifest as:

  • Hair loss
  • Itchy skin
  • Recurrent ear and skin infections
  • Head shaking
  • Ear-scratching
  • Face-rubbing
  • Foot-chewing

If your dog is displaying these symptoms alongside head shaking, they may be suffering from allergies.

To diagnose allergies in dogs, implementing dietary changes or conducting skin testing might be required. In instances of food allergies, a specialized diet is employed to ascertain if food is the underlying cause of the allergic reaction. Common food allergens for dogs include:

  • beef
  • dairy products
  • chicken
  • wheat
  • eggs

It’s also worth noting that environmental factors such as:

  • tree, grass, and weed pollens
  • mold
  • dust
  • dust mites
  • certain molds

These factors are often seasonal and can potentially trigger allergies in dogs.

Foreign objects

Foreign object in a dog's ear Foreign objects lodged in a dog’s ear can lead to irritation, inflammation, and various symptoms such as ear infection and discomfort. These objects could range from:

  • bugs
  • burrs
  • grass seeds
  • paper
  • tissues
  • articles of clothing
  • sticks
  • wicker
  • bones
  • food wrappers
  • rocks
  • other small objects

If your dog suddenly starts shaking its head or scratching its dog’s ear, seeking veterinary intervention for safe removal of the foreign object is necessary. Remember, your dog’s ears are sensitive, and improper handling of the dog’s ears can cause more harm than good.

Ear mites

Ear mite infestations are caused by tiny, parasitic organisms that can lead to symptoms such as scratching, head shaking, and the accumulation of dark brown debris within a dog’s ears. These infestations are highly contagious and can be transmitted through close contact with infected animals such as dogs, cats, rabbits, and ferrets.

If your dog is infested with ear mites, a vet will prescribe a specific medication to eradicate the mites. The treatment process may also involve flushing the dog’s ears to eliminate any debris. Neglecting ear mites can cause prolonged damage to the ears, leading to increased sensitivity, hearing loss, and balance disturbances.

Serious Conditions Linked to Persistent Head Shaking

Dog with ear hematoma While comprehending the common causes of excessive head shaking is important, awareness of the serious conditions associated with persistent head shaking in dogs is equally significant. Persistent or vigorous head shaking can lead to ruptured blood vessels in a dog’s ear flap, resulting in aural hematomas that may necessitate surgical intervention.

Further, persistent head shaking can also indicate inflammatory diseases, signaling a potentially grave health issue that warrants investigation and appropriate treatment. There can also be a link between neurologic disorders and head shaking in dogs, indicating a serious health concern that requires veterinary attention.

Ear hematoma

An ear hematoma is a condition characterized by a blood blister resulting from the rupture of a blood vessel and subsequent bleeding into the space between the skin and cartilage of a dog’s ear flap. Overly aggressive scratching or head shaking may be caused by an underlying medical condition, such as an ear infection or skin condition. These actions can worsen the condition and should be avoided..

Treatments for ear hematomas in dogs include draining the hematoma with a needle, surgical correction, and the prescription of corticosteroids like prednisone as an alternative to surgery. It’s crucial to prevent any further infection and additional damage, as well as to identify the underlying cause of the scratching and head shaking.

Preventing ear hematomas in dogs is a challenging task, but addressing the root causes of head shaking can aid in minimizing the likelihood of this complication.

Inflammatory diseases

Inflammatory diseases can lead to excessive head shaking in dogs, necessitating additional examination and treatment. The primary inflammatory disease in dogs that leads to excessive head shaking is an ear infection. Other inflammatory conditions may encompass outer ear inflammation or infection (otitis externa) and allergies.

There are several inflammatory disorders in dogs, such as ear infections, allergic reactions, and inflammation of the central nervous system, all of which are associated with head shaking. In order to identify these conditions, diagnostic tests such as advanced imaging (MRI), cerebrospinal fluid analysis, and infectious disease testing may be utilized.

Neurologic disorders

Neurologic disorders can lead to head shaking in dogs, indicating a potentially serious underlying health issue that requires veterinary care. Prevalent neurologic disorders that may lead to head shaking include Canine idiopathic head tremor syndrome (IHTS), neurological and neuromuscular disorders, and cerebellar-related tremor.

Neurologic disorders in dogs can stem from various factors such as intervertebral disc disease, degenerative conditions, stroke, meningitis, encephalitis, brain tumors, and genetic conditions like epilepsy. Diagnosis may involve blood tests, urinalysis, fecal tests, analysis of cerebrospinal fluid, x-rays, contrast x-rays, CT scans, MRI, and EMG and NCS.

Some breeds, including Doberman Pinschers, English Bulldogs, Boxers, French Bulldogs, and Labradors, are more prone to neurologic disorders that may result in a dog’s head shaking early and dog shakes.

Preventing and Managing Excessive Head Shaking

Dog getting its ears cleaned Preventing and managing excessive head shaking in dogs requires a comprehensive approach, which includes regular ear care, precautions with water, and consulting your veterinarian. Regularly cleaning your dog’s ears can help prevent the buildup of earwax and other irritants that can cause discomfort and lead to head shaking.

During baths or swimming, using cotton balls in your dog’s ears can help prevent water from entering the ear canal, which can cause discomfort and lead to head shaking. If your dog exhibits chronic head shaking, it’s crucial to consult your veterinarian for proper diagnosis and treatment, as it may indicate a serious health issue.

Regular ear care

Regular ear care can be advantageous in preventing issues that may cause excessive head shaking. Consistently cleaning a dog’s ears offers numerous advantages, such as:

  • Preventing ear infections
  • Enhancing hearing
  • Removing trapped water from the ear canal
  • Alleviating itchiness and discomfort
  • Reducing odors
  • Promoting overall comfort and well-being.

The frequency of cleaning your dog’s ears is dependent on their ear health, but typically, it is suggested to clean your dog’s ears once every one to two months. It’s also important to:

  • Use a vet-recommended ear cleaning solution
  • Follow the correct method for cleaning a dog’s ears
  • Avoid using cotton swabs
  • Only use ear cleaning solutions recommended by a veterinarian
  • Be gentle to avoid further irritation or injury.

Water precautions

Water entering a dog’s ears can cause severe complications, including:

  • Intense, painful infections
  • Discomfort
  • Increased bacteria and yeast production
  • Aggressive head shaking
  • Ear canal discharge
  • Odor from the inner ear
  • Redness or swelling in the inner ear
  • Refusal of ear touching or handling.

Using half a cotton ball in dogs’ ears during baths or swimming serves to prevent water from entering the ears, thus decreasing the likelihood of ear infections. Wiping down a dog’s face and ears with a washcloth after water exposure can help remove any residual water, reducing the risk of infection and discomfort.

Consult your veterinarian

If your dog’s head shaking continues despite your efforts, professional help should be sought. Persistent head shaking can signal an underlying health issue that necessitates accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.

A detailed physical examination by a vet, possibly supplemented by diagnostic tests, can aid in identifying the cause of your dog’s excessive head shaking. The vet might suggest treatments such as:

  • addressing underlying ear infections
  • cleaning the ears
  • managing allergies
  • treating any other underlying health conditions

These treatments can help in preventing excessive head shaking, resolving your dog’s issue.


In conclusion, understanding the reasons behind your dog’s head shaking and knowing when to seek professional help is crucial to ensure their well-being. Remember, regular ear care, safeguarding against water entry, and timely veterinary consultation can effectively manage and prevent excessive head shaking. Stay observant of your furry friend’s behavior, and remember – a shake of the head is not just a shake, it’s a language!

Frequently Asked Questions

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

If your dog is shaking his head repeatedly, it is important to seek veterinary care as soon as possible. Diagnosing the underlying cause of this behavior and determining an appropriate treatment plan can help relieve your pet's discomfort.

Why does my dog shake his head like a seizure?

My dog may be shaking his head due to idiopathic head tremors, a condition that is more common in immature to middle aged dogs and some specific breeds.

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

If your dog is scratching their ear, has discharge, an odor, redness, swelling, crusts or scabs, hair loss, rubbing, head shaking, or a head tilt, it could be a sign of an ear infection.

Why do dogs shake their head with a toy?

Dogs shake their head with a toy to practice their hunting skills, just as they would do when catching prey. This behaviour is perfectly normal and helps them simulate a successful hunt.

How can I prevent water from entering my dog's ears during baths or swimming?

To prevent water from entering your dog's ears, use cotton balls in their ears during baths and swimming, and make sure to wipe their face and ears with a washcloth after.

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