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11 Reasons Dogs Shake Their Heads That Might Surprise You

Head shaking, ears flapping, collar jangling — you probably see your dog doing this at least once a day. But is there any reason for this behavior? Or should you be concerned? Why do dogs shake their heads?

Rest assured that head shaking is a common behavior that all dogs do on the regular. While you use your hands to solve most problems, for your pooch, there’s little that a good shake of the head can’t fix. However, just like with most behavior, when something happens too frequently, there may be cause for concern.

If your pet is constantly shaking its head, there may be an underlying issue causing the behavior. This post covers some common reasons for head-shaking behavior that you don’t need to worry about. Then it discusses possible concerning reasons why your dog might be shaking its head, and what you should do about it.

why do dogs shake their heads

Why do Dogs Shake their Heads? 3 Common Reasons

It is completely normal for your dog to shake its head every now and then, and not necessarily a sign of illness or injury. Here are a few general reasons for head shaking.

1. Dislodging an Object in Their Ear

Since pooches don’t have opposable thumbs, head shaking is the easiest way to get rid of an object that is stuck in their ear. After playing outside or rolling in the grass, your dog might have some grass, dirt, water, or even an insect in its ear. A vigorous shake of their head is an easy way to remove the offending object.

dog shaking head in pool

2. Loosening Up in the Morning

Just like humans tend to stretch in the morning when first getting out of bed, your pet may just be shaking its head to loosen up. After sleeping in one position for a long period, it is common for a dog to yawn, stretch, and give its head a good shake. Dogs also tend to repeat this behavior after napping throughout the day.

brown dog shaking head in snow

3. Playing or Feeling Excited

Sometimes when dogs are playing with a favorite toy or when they see a person they really like, they will get very excited. It is normal for dogs to express this excitement by shaking their heads and flopping those ears about. They may even go all out and do a happy full-body shake.

8 Causes for Concern in Head-Shaking Behavior

While the occasional head shake is nothing to be concerned about, persistent shaking could indicate an underlying problem. If your dog is shaking its head often and repeatedly, you should check the ears for scratches, redness, or swelling. In general, it is best to contact your vet as soon as possible, as ear problems can escalate rather quickly. 

Below are 8 causes for head-shaking behavior that warrants a visit to your local vet.

1. Ear Infection

An ear infection is the most frequent issue that causes excessive head-shaking in dogs. These infections can occur in the outer, middle, or inner ear canal. Bacterial or yeast infections of the external ear canal are the most common.

Bacteria and yeast are always present in the environment. They thrive in places that are moist or slightly inflamed. If conditions become favorable for their growth, they can multiply and cause a bacterial or yeast infection in your pet’s ear.

To prevent excessive moisture, it’s important to dry your dog’s ears thoroughly after swimming or bathing. Also check for objects that may have gotten stuck in your pet’s ears after playing outside. This will help prevent ear irritation and inflammation which can lead to infection.

If you suspect that your pet has an ear infection, you can lift your dog’s ear flaps and check for redness, swelling, or discharge. However, if the infection is deeper in the ear, you might not see any of these signs. If your dog keeps scratching and shaking, it is still best to take them to the vet.

brown and black dog shaking its head

2. Ear Mites

An ear mite infestation can cause similar symptoms to ear infections. This health problem is uncommon in adult dogs and is more often seen in puppies, especially if they come from crowded living conditions.

Ear mites are microscopically small and live in a dog’s ear canal. This causes irritation for the dog which leads to a lot of head shaking. You may also notice redness, swelling, or discharge in your pet’s ears.

Since it can be hard to tell an ear mite problem from a common ear infection, it is best to take your dog to the vet and not try to treat the symptoms yourself. A vet will be able to flush out and thoroughly clean your pup’s ears. You will likely also receive some ear medication and tick or flea treatment to give your pet.

boxer shaking its head

3. Itchiness Due to Allergies

If your pet keeps having bouts of head shaking, but you see no signs of infection, it could be due to allergies. Dogs can have allergic reactions to something in their food or environment. This can cause itchy skin in their ears, which may be the reason why your dog is shaking its head so often.

Other symptoms caused by allergies that you can look out for are hair loss, a dog scratching its ears, and chewing on its feet. A vet can help you determine what is causing your pet’s allergies. Some environmental allergens that may be affecting your pooch include pollen, dust, and mold.

A vet can do an intradermal skin test or a blood test to diagnose the allergy. These procedures are not at all dangerous, but the dog is usually given a light sedative to keep them calm.

bichon frise shaking its head

A food allergy can take a while longer to determine. Your vet can give your dog a specific diet to follow for about a month. These diets contain a single protein or carbohydrate source to help narrow down what causes your pet’s allergy.

After a recommendation from your vet, you can also switch to a brand of dog food for allergies that is likely to alleviate your pup’s symptoms.

4. Water Clogging the Ears

A quick shake of the head is usually enough for your pet to get rid of any water remaining in its ears after swimming or bathing. However, sometimes water gets trapped in the ear and can cause your dog to keep on shaking its head.

It is important to pay attention to your pet’s behavior and help them out in these cases. Use ear wipes or an absorbent dog towel to thoroughly dry out your dog’s ears. If your pup is fond of water, you can try putting cotton balls in its ears before swimming.

dog shaking head

If your dog is still shaking its head the next day after you dried its ears, the water might be too deep in the ear canal for you to reach. Rather than forcing an earbud deep into your pup’s ear, take your dog to the vet where the ear can be carefully cleaned.

Although this may seem like a minor issue, excessive moisture in the ear can lead to infection, as discussed earlier. So, rather take care of the problem quickly to stop it from escalating.

5. Foreign Object in the Ear Canal

Just like water, small objects often find their way into a dog’s ears. Grass seeds, dirt, and even tiny insects can get stuck in your pet’s ear canal. Most of the time dogs can easily dislodge the foreign object with a strong head shake. However, if the object remains stuck in your dog’s ear, it can cause them great irritation.

This can also lead to swelling, inflammation, and eventually infection. So, if you see your dog continually shaking its head or pawing at its ears, it may be time for a closer look or a trip to the vet.

dog shaking its head with lots of water

6. Ear Trauma

Along with head-shaking behavior, if you notice that your dog’s ear is suddenly very sensitive to touch, the ear may be injured. A scratch, bump, or wound on the ear can occur from time to time as your dog goes about its daily activities.

The ear trauma could have been caused by an external source, like a bite wound from another dog at the park, or a scrape against a tree branch. Other times, the cause is self-trauma, like when your pup continually scratches its ear.

An ear injury can be rather painful for your pet, as the damaged ear will keep bumping against objects and aggravating the wound. It is best to get the injury treated as soon as possible. If it is a recurring problem, such as ear scratching, you should ask your vet for advice on how to curb the behavior.

7. Ear Hematomas

Even though we love our pets very much, it unfortunately does happen that we miss signs of injury or sickness. If any of the above causes are left too long without proper treatment, an ear hematoma may occur.

why do dogs shake their heads

When a dog violently shakes its head, small blood vessels under the skin of the ear can burst and cause a pool of blood to accumulate. This is known as an ear hematoma, also called an aural hematoma or a blood blister.

Vets can treat this blood blister inside the earflap by draining the fluid with a needle, or performing a minor surgery under anesthesia. Although hematomas are treatable, they are quite serious and painful for your pet. This is why it is important to find and treat the cause of head shaking behavior as soon as possible before a blood blister develops.

8. Ear Tumors

While there is no need to expect the worst the moment your dog starts shaking its head, it is good to be aware of one more serious condition. As a beloved pet grows older, they are more susceptible to cancer-related problems, which can also affect their ears.

Head shaking is one of the symptoms shown by dogs who have a tumor growing in their ear canal. These tumors can be benign or malignant, and can affect the external, middle, or inner part of the ear canal.

labrador shaking head

If your pet has a medical history of recurring ear infections, it can place doggo at a higher risk for developing a tumor in its ears. When a tumor grows too large, it can obstruct the ear canal and cause other problems, like loss of balance and hearing.

Therefore, it is important to check your senior pet’s ears regularly and go to the vet sooner rather than later if something seems suspicious.

What to Remember About Head-Shaking Behavior in Dogs

Dogs often shake their heads as part of normal canine behavior, in which case you have nothing to worry about. It is only when the behavior happens frequently that you need to take a closer look. Most head-shaking issues are caused by an underlying problem in a dog’s ears.

In these cases, a trip to the vet and immediate treatment is the best way to help your pet. Since your beloved pups can’t talk, it is important to pay attention to their behavior and do your part in caring for them.

labrador shaking its head black and white

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