I used to own tri-colored Beagles and loved their long, adorable, soft ears. I remember the quiet flapping noise their ears made when they shook their heads vigorously. But I also recall a few trips to the vet when the ear flapping and head shaking advanced into a more severe problem.
Dogs often shake their heads as part of their normal routine, such as waking up from a nap or trying to shake off a stressful or new event. They may also shake their ears and heads due to allergies, bug bites, foreign objects, wax build-up, or water lodged in a dog’s ears. However, if you notice your dog shaking their head in a more pronounced, frequent way, your dog could have a serious medical problem and need a medical appointment.
Keep reading to learn more about common causes and when your dog’s head shaking is a reason for concern.
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Common Reasons That Dogs Shake Their Heads
Dogs shake their heads all the time and it is usually nothing to worry about. Dogs don’t have fingers to scratch or clean themselves or deal with minor irritations.
Although dogs can use their paws pretty effectively to scratch an isolated itch, they may have to employ their full body by rolling on their backs or shaking their whole body and head to relieve a bigger irritation. Here are some of the more common reasons dogs shake their heads:
Shaking it Off
I have noticed that both of my dogs shake their heads when they pop up from a nap or a good night’s sleep to slough off their sleepiness. This is followed by some brief stretching to invigorate their bodies so they can begin their day. They also shake their heads every time I remove their harness and leash as if to free themselves from the constraint of their walking gear.
Dogs will also shake their heads and bodies after a stressful event, such as an unpleasant encounter with another dog or a bath. Shaking after a bath makes sense as they try to wick off the water and dry themselves. But it also seems to be how dogs emotionally recover from something they don’t like.
When my dogs have allergies, they lick their paws, roll around on their backs, scratch at their sides and ears, and shake their ears a lot! They have seasonal allergies, mainly in the summer, so I often give them 25 mg. of Benadryl (see on Amazon) at night so they can sleep better, which was recommended by my vet. Please check with your vet for allergy medicine recommendations for your dogs and ensure they do not contain anything like decongestants that can cause dogs to be hyper.
If your dog has severe allergies, consider doing allergy testing. Once tested, allergy shots can be given. Shots are effective about 50-75% of the time. Another remedy is to ask your vet to give your dog a Cytopoint injection for allergic dermatitis (itchy skin). The shots cost around $60-$80 but can be very effective and last several weeks. This may help your dog with the head and ear shaking, rolling around, and licking their paws.
Other remedies for minor allergies include Aller-Immune Bytes from Zesty Paws (see at Amazon), which contain colostrum and salmon oil, as well as Pet Honesty Allergy Support (see at Chewy), which contains colostrum, turmeric, probiotics, vitamin C and natural wild Alaskan salmon oil. I have used both of these to supplement either Benadryl or Cytopoint.
Water or Wax Build Up in their Ears
If you have ever had swimmer’s ear, you may know how annoying it is to get water trapped in your inner ear. In some cases it can lead to infection, but it is easily treatable. Dogs tend to suffer from Otitis Externa (infection in the ear from water) quite a bit because the ear canal of a dog is much longer and has a much different shape than the ear canal of a human.
The length and shape of the ear canal offer many benefits for the dog, but one of the downsides is water becomes easily trapped in the ear. This is especially true for dogs with floppy ears
To dry out the water in a dog’s ear, you can gently place a cotton ball in your dog’s ear canal. You can also try this Ear-Dry-Solution from Chewy to help dry out the water. If water is left in your dog’s ear it can lead to a yeast or bacterial infection.
To help reduce wax buildup in your dog’s ear, I have found that regularly using Pet MD Ear Wipes from Chewy can help a lot. They are gentle and have a pleasant fresh smell of Eucalyptus, and my dogs seem to like them.
If this does not work, check with your vet for a recommendation for liquid drops that can reduce ear wax. If ear wax builds up too much, it can be very uncomfortable and lead to hearing loss.
Insect Bites and Mites
Because dogs often lie on the ground outside, they are subject to insect bites like fleas, ticks, spiders, and mosquitos. Many insect bites are self-resolving, but ticks and, in some cases, spider bites should be treated by a vet. Mites look like coffee grounds and should also be treated by a vet.
I had a Golden Retriever, who slept on a mat on the floor in our bedroom. One morning we noticed that he was scratching and shaking his head continuously. At first we saw only a lump on the top of his head, but then his whole head swelled. We rushed him to the vet, who gave him some antihistamines and a cortisone shot.
Apparently, a spider bite had caused a terrible reaction. He recovered quickly after treatment and eventually stopped shaking his head and scratching.
Foreign Objects or Injury
If you see your dog shaking their head consistently throughout the day, it may have an injury or an object in the ear. Foxtails attached to your dog’s skin or head are among the most common problems for dogs running around in fields. Foxtails are grass-like weed that grows in the Western United States. They have barbed-like heads that can become embedded in your dog’s skin or ears.
Once embedded, they need to be removed as they will not come out by themselves and can cause severe infections and other problems. If you cannot easily remove a foxtail from your dog’s fur with tweezers, take your pup to the vet as soon as possible.
Dogs can also pick up sticks and burs, which can lodge in their ears. A dog may sometimes shake his head violently to dislodge something in his ear, which can cause bleeding or swelling if he breaks a small blood vessel. If this happens, seek medical help.
Ear infections will usually cause your dog to shake his head and paw at his ears. Some dogs such as Basset Hounds and Springer Spaniels are more prone to ear infections due to their long floppy ears. Keeping your dog’s ears clean with medicated wipes (Vetnique Labs Oticbliss from Chewy) helps to reduce moisture and wax build-up that may lead to fungal or bacterial infections.
Dogs who have not been vaccinated may be prone to canine distemper virus which can cause a whole list of symptoms, including involuntary jerking head movements. Other illnesses, such as the canine parvovirus or even canine flu, can cause chills and fever. This may lead to trembling, which is most noticeable in the head.
Minor but frequent head movements without other symptoms may be idiopathic tremors which some breeds, such as French Bulldogs, Boxers, and Dobermans. Often puppies and young dogs will outgrow these tremors as they mature. Other more severe tremors may need more diagnostic investigation by a skilled medical provider.
When to Be Concerned
If your dog shakes his head frequently or violently, he may have a more serious problem than just an itchy head or ear. If your dog has any of the following warning signs, take him to the vet for a check-up:
- Leaning over or tilting head while shaking head
- Severe, virorous head shaking that will not relent
- Shaking and pawing and scratching at head or ears
- Other symptoms present such as fever, lethargy, poor appetite, weakness
- Lumps or swelling on the head or ears
- Whining, crying, or despondency accompanied by head shaking
- Waxy build up in ears accompanied by shaking
- Foul discharge or odor in ears
Dogs shake their bodies and heads daily as part of their regular routine. They are shaking off sleep, eventful encounters, water from a bath or swim, or just as a transition from lying down to something fun like going for a walk. Additionally, dogs will shake their heads if they are itchy or need to clear their ears of something.
You only need to worry if your dog starts shaking his head in a more pronounced and consistent way or if he has other symptoms pointing to an underlying illness. In these situations, you should always take your dog to your vet as soon as possible to prevent the escalation of potential problems.
In most cases, however, a short daily head shaking is your dog’s way to clear his ears, mind, and spirit and be ready for the next adventure of the day!