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9 Top Clinical Reasons Why Dogs Shake Their Heads

If your dog is constantly shaking his head, it’s understandable why you may be worried.

Head shaking is normal behavior depending on the situation. However, when it becomes constant, it can be a sign of a deeper problem.

Most of the time, it’s nothing more serious than an irritation in the dog’s ears or the simple need for a good head shake.

There could be an object (like an insect, for example) in the ear canal or any other number of reasons why your dog is shaking his head.

Do you know when a head shake is something to worry about? Keep reading for a complete list of causes you should know.

Dogs Were Born to Shake Their Heads

Dogs, especially breeds with long floppy ears are designed by nature to shake their heads. The reason isn’t so much about the head, but is usually to relieve whatever is happening in the ear canal.

Vigorous head movements are an excellent way to shake irritants loose. Excess water, a piece of grass, dirt, or even an itch can be relieved with a good shake.

Unfortunately, those powerful head shakes can cause problems of their own.

The Risks of Repeated Vigorous Head Shaking

Strenuous ear shaking can cause blood vessels in the dog’s ear flap to burst. The result is a dog ear hematoma. These are surprisingly common and occur because of damage to the cartilage in the ear.

If you have a dog, then I’m sure you’ve seen the full body wet-dog body shake. Did you know that a Labrador Retriever can shake their heads at a speed of 4 Hz?

That means the dog is able to move his head back and forth a total of 4 times per second! The smaller the animal, the faster he/she has to shake in order to dry off. Source:

Excess water in the ear can cause a dog to shake his head.

Aural Hematoma

Aural haematomas are the result of broken blood vessels within the dog’s ear flap.

These broken blood vessels pool in the skin of the ear flap. They are characterized by swelling and further irritation. Most times this only affects one ear. While the fluid can be drained by a licensed veterinarian, there is a chance it will recur.

When this happens, the ear may need to be lanced and drained again. This procedure can be done under anesthesia, depending on the dog’s health, underlying conditions, and veterinarian decision.

Common Reasons Why Dogs Shake Their Heads & When To Be Concerned

The following list is designed to provide an overview of the most common reasons why your dog shakes his/her head. It’s a normal thing. However, if it happens a lot there may be an underlying condition that needs to be addressed.

1. Ear Mites

Ear mites (otodectes cynotis mites) are microscopic parasites that affect dogs and cats.

They are not visible to the naked eye; however, under a microscope they look like writhing masses of dirt. This parasite is more commonly seen in cats. Ear mite infestations are rare in adult dogs.

2. Foreign Object

Dogs who stick their heads out of the car window, play in tall grass, or have access to big back yards may get foreign objects stuck in the ear canal. Most of the time, this isn’t too serious. However, if anything becomes lodged too deeply, it may need to be removed by a veterinarian.

Examples of foreign objects include grass, grass seeds, insects, twigs, etc.

3. Bacterial Infections

Bacterial infections can occur in a dog’s ear due to excessive moisture, debris, yeast and fungus. Recurrent ear infections are usually treated with antibiotics and/or medicated ear drops. If your dog has recurrent ear infections, the veterinarian may want to search for an underlying cause.

Causes may be related to allergies, anatomical abnormality (shape of the ear), or hypothyroidism.

4. Yeast Infections

Ear infections are very itchy and will cause a dog great discomfort. You may notice your dog pawing at the ear, rubbing the ear on the carpet, or shaking his/her head. You may notice redness and swelling under the dog’s ear flap. In some cases, there may be discharge.

Sometimes infections can occur deep within the ear canal. Symptoms may not be obvious. For persistent issues like dog head shaking, it’s always best to seek the advice of a veterinarian.

Ear infections can cause a dog to shake his head.

5. Allergies

Allergies are a big topic when it comes to dogs. They can be allergic to a certain type of dog food or they may have environmental allergies.

It can be difficult to get a correct diagnosis. When searching for the cause of a food allergy the dog may be placed on a diet that contains just one single carbohydrate and one protein. For example rice and chicken.

The dog will have to eat only that food for a few months to see if the symptoms lessen or disappear.

Symptoms of allergies include itchiness, dry skin, hair loss, and recurrent skin infections. Intradermal skin testing and/or blood testing is used to diagnose environmental allergies in dogs.

Unfortunately, allergies tend to cause very itchy skin. They can also lead to ear infections. This combination will drive your dog to dig, scratch, chew, and rub at the face. Of course, your dog may also start shaking his/her head frequently.

6. Excess Water

Swimming is great exercise for dogs. It relieves the wear and tear of joints and allows your dog to build cardiovascular endurance. Besides, most dogs love a good swim!

Unfortunately, water easily becomes trapped in the ear. This is especially true of dogs with floppy ears. The best way to avoid this from happening is to put a soft cotton ball into the dog’s ears prior to swimming.

Of course, not all dogs will tolerate this! If he won’t, just be sure to dry out your dog’s ears with a soft cloth when he’s finished. If you need to wash your dog (tub or shower) try not to spray water directly at the dog’s face.

Just wash him from the neck down. When he/she is out of the shower, use a damp cloth to wipe down the face and ears.

7. Neurological Disorders

Neurological disorders in dogs affect the brain as well as the nerves throughout the body and the spinal cord. This can cause a range of symptoms including head tremors. Head tremors in dogs can easily be confused with head shaking.

8. Idiopathic Head Tremors

Idiopathic head tremors in dogs are characterized by involuntary side-to-side or up-and-down head movements. This is considered a benign disease that does not usually respond to treatment. Luckily, this condition doesn’t appear to get worse. In fact, it may even regress over time.

The exact cause of head tremors is not known.

9. Vestibular Disease

Vestibular diseases affect a dog’s balance. The vestibular system has central components located in the brain. They have peripheral components located in the inner and middle ear. It usually presents as a sudden loss of balance and disorientation.

The result may be a head tilt and irregular jerking eye movements (nystagmus).

Causes of vestibular disease include middle or inner ear infections, certain drugs that may be toxic to the ear, head trauma, injury, tumors, or hypothyroidism.

When to see a Veterinarian

Excessive head shaking occurs when a dog continuously shakes his/her head over the course of a full day. You know your dog better than anybody. If something doesn’t seem quite right, it probably isn’t.

Vigorous shaking can cause hematomas to develop. These (as mentioned above) require drainage and will typically recur. Sometimes what you think is a head shake is actually a head tremor or even the start of a seizure.

It’s likely not a cause for panic, but it is a sign that you need to schedule an appointment with the veterinarian.


If your dog suddenly starts pressing his head into the wall or spinning in circles, please get your dog to the vet asap. This could be a sign of a brain tumor or other condition requiring appropriate treatment .

Normal vs Abnormal

It’s normal for a dog to shake his head and body after swimming. If your dog continues shaking his/her head and shows signs of discomfort (scratching, pawing at the ears), it could be an ear infection.

Watch your dog’s body language so that you can give the veterinarian a good account of what’s been happening.

There are any number of possible reasons. The important thing is to get a proper diagnosis. Once that happens, you’ll be in a better position to help your dog get back to his/her old self again.

As dog owners , we want nothing more than to keep our dogs happy and healthy. Luckily, in most cases, a little bit of veterinary care is all it takes.

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MSPCA-Angell – Idiopathic Head Tremor Syndrome

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