Just like a human would instinctively scratch at an itch, dogs will instinctively shake their heads to relieve the discomfort. While head shaking can be normal for your dog occasionally, frequent head shaking is a sign of an underlying issue, typically in your dog’s ears. If your dog is shaking his head, here are a few potential causes, treatment options, and ways to prevent issues in the future.
5 Reasons Your Dog Could Be Shaking Their Head
While all of your dog’s head-shaking behaviors stem from itchiness or discomfort, the underlying cause for those symptoms can vary. Here are 5 reasons that your dog could be shaking his head.
1. Ear Infection
Bacterial or yeast infections are the most common reason for a dog to shake their head. They’re especially common in dogs with floppy or fluffy ears and in dogs that are prone to skin allergies.
Dogs have a unique ear canal shape—it’s long with vertical and horizontal stretches, connecting in a J or an L shape. This curved ear canal makes it easier to trap moisture and debris, leading to a build-up of bacteria or yeast.
Other common symptoms of an ear infection in your dog include:
- Redness and inflammation of the ear
- Unpleasant odor
- Scratching at their ear
While many ear infections are brought on by activities like bathing or swimming, repeated ear infections can be a sign of more serious underlying conditions like hypothyroidism, pemphigus, lupus, or vasculitis.
Allergies in your dog typically manifest themselves as itchy, irritated skin, including the ears. In some cases, allergies can lead to ear infections as well, making your dog’s ears even more sensitive and uncomfortable.
Your dog’s allergies could be seasonal, like a person’s, and a reaction to something in their environment like pollen or dust. Your dog may also be sensitive to a specific ingredient in their food, typically a protein like beef, chicken, or eggs.
Because there can be different underlying causes of your dog’s allergies, the symptoms may differ. The most common signs of allergies in your dog include:
- Swelling of the face, ears, lips, and eyelids
- Red, inflamed skin
- Chronic ear infections
- Itchy, runny eyes
- Constant licking
3. Irritant or Foreign Object in the Ear
If your dog is violently shaking his head and pawing at his ears, he may be trying to dislodge something from his ear canal. Grass and water are common irritants to get stuck in your dog’s ear, especially in the warmer months when your dog is swimming and rolling around outside.
Common signs that your dog has a foreign object in his ear are:
- Pawing at ear
- Bloody discharge
Small irritants like grass seeds in your dog’s ears can also lead to ear infections, so it’s always important to watch for those symptoms.
4. Ear Mites
Ear mites, though not as dangerous as ticks or heartworms, are still a parasite that you want to keep off of your dog. They feed on the wax and oils in your dog’s ear canal, causing irritation, discomfort, and itchiness.
Ear mites are too small for humans to see with a naked eye, so many of the common signs are similar to an ear infection. Symptoms of ear mites in dogs include:
- Skin irritation in and around your dog’s ears
- Scratching and pawing at ears and head
- Head shaking
- Dark ear discharge
- Unpleasant odor
Ear mites are most prevalent in puppies and younger dogs, especially those that have frequent play dates with other pups.
5. Ear Polyps
Ear polyps are small tumors that grow in the lining of your dog’s ear canal, and they can be one of two kinds: ceruminous gland adenomas (benign) and adenocarcinomas (malignant).
The cause of ear polyps isn’t always none, as with most cancers. Risk factors play a role, like a genetic or breed-specific predisposition for ear infections and chronic inflammation.
The most common clinical signs of ear polyps are:
- Inflamed, itchy, and painful ears
- Persistent odorous discharge
- Head shaking
- Ear scratching
Some dogs will develop a loss of balance, a head tilt, and even a loss of hearing, depending on where the polyps are growing inside your dog’s ear.
How Do You Treat Your Dog’s Head Shaking?
Your dog’s treatment will depend on what the underlying cause of his head shaking is.
In most cases, your dog likely has an ear infection, and those can usually be resolved within 1-2 weeks after a visit to the vet and thorough ear cleaning with an ear cleanser and topical medication. Your vet may also prescribe antibiotics or anti-inflammatory medications.
If your dog has ear mites, the vet will provide a similar treatment as an ear infection, offering a topical medication or eardrops and a thorough cleaning.
If your dog has chronic ear infections, your vet will need to perform further diagnostic tests to determine the underlying cause. These tests may include blood testing to check for hyperthyroidism, culture testing of the bacteria in your dog’s ears, and even a CT scan or an MRI.
Sometimes surgery is required for dogs with persistent and medicine-resistant ear infections. A surgical excision is also a primary option for ear polyps, both benign and malignant.
How to Prevent Ear Infections in Your Dog
The best way to prevent ear infections in your dog is to clean and maintain your dog’s ears regularly, especially if your dog loves to swim.
Use a vet-recommended ear cleaning solution in your dog’s ear canal and gently massage the base of their ear for 20-30 seconds so the cleanser can break up the wax and debris inside your dog’s ear. Then, use a dry cotton ball or a towel to soak up any extra moisture and debris.
Avoid DIY ear cleaning solutions, as many contain harmful ingredients that can irritate your dog’s ears further, like hydrogen peroxide and alcohol.
Keeping your dog’s ears dry is equally as important as keeping them clean. Every time your dog comes in from the pool, the rain, or any other situation where he could get excess water in his ears, use a dry cotton ball or soft towel to gently dry his ears and soak up the excess water.
Placing cotton balls in your dog’s ears while you bathe them is also a helpful way to keep water out of his ears.
Should You Be Worried About Your Dog’s Head Shaking?
It’s always a good idea to check with your vet if you’ve noticed any unusual behavior with your dog, including head shaking.
While ear infections are common and easily treatable in most cases, a vet will also be able to check for underlying health issues or other reasons that your dog may be shaking his head.
If you’re concerned about your dog, our licensed veterinarians can help answer your questions and diagnose your dog’s condition from the comfort and convenience of your own home. Book a vet appointment now to get expert advice and treatment options.