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Why Is My Dog Shaking Their Head? Complete Veterinarian Guide - PawSafe

Why Is My Dog Shaking Their Head? Complete Veterinarian Guide

Photo of Tamsin De La Harpe

Written by Tamsin De La Harpe

Beagle dog shaking head

If you’ve noticed your dog frequently shaking their head, you might be wondering what’s prompting this behavior. Head shaking in dogs can be a sign of several issues, ranging from minor irritants to more serious health conditions. Understanding why your dog is shaking their head is crucial for providing the right care and ensuring their comfort and health.

To answer the question of what causes head shaking in dogs, we’ve looked at the best research on shaking, looking at everything from neurological issues, to ear problems, head pressing, and the common head tilt in dogs.

If you find yourself wondering, “why is my dog shaking their head so much,” it’s a good time to sit up and pay attention. Excessive head shaking is a common symptom of a health issue and may need you to take a closer look. Of course, sometimes dogs shake their heads for harmless reasons, so it can be overlooked. Here’s what you need to know if you see your dog shaking their head a lot.

Before we dissect this question further, we need to distinguish between head shaking, the head tilt, and head pressing in dogs.

Head Shaking Vs. Head Tilting Vs. Head Pressing in Dogs

Doodle dog shaking new why is dog shaking its head

Understanding your dog’s body language is crucial in identifying their needs and ensuring their well-being. Three behaviors that often cause confusion among dog owners are head shaking, head tilting, and head pressing. Each action signifies different things and can have various causes.

Head Shaking

Head shaking in dogs typically indicates irritation or discomfort in the ears. Common causes include ear infections, presence of water or foreign objects in the ear canal, ear mites, or allergies. Frequent head shaking requires attention to address any underlying issues causing the irritation.

Head Tilting

Head tilting, often seen as an adorable quirk, can signify a range of things from curiosity and confusion to pleasure. Dogs tilt their heads to enhance their hearing and localization of sounds, as noted by Dr. Bonnie Beaver, DVM, in “Canine Behavior: Insights and Answers.” This behavior may also be a response to tactile stimulation, showing contentment and enjoyment, especially when their ears are gently rubbed.

Head Pressing

Head pressing is a behavior where a dog compulsively presses its head against a wall or hard surface, different from the occasional head leaning against their human for affection. This can be a sign of serious neurological problems, including brain tumors, head trauma, or toxic poisoning. Unlike head shaking or tilting, head pressing is often associated with distress or discomfort and warrants immediate veterinary care.

Distinguishing Between the Behaviors

While head tilting can be a normal and even endearing behavior indicating curiosity or pleasure, head shaking and head pressing are more likely associated with discomfort or medical issues. Head shaking is a response to something irritating the dog’s ears, while head pressing usually indicates a significant health concern requiring prompt medical attention.

an infographic showing reasons for excessive head shaking in dogs

9 Common Reasons Dogs Shake Their Head

Dogs shake their heads for many reasons, including getting rid of water after a swim, as part of playing tug, or because of various medical issues such as allergies, infections, neurological issues like seizures and even tumors. Here are the most common possible reasons for excessive head shaking.

Fluffy dog shaking head close up

1. Inflammation And Ear Infection

A common cause of head shaking is inflammation in the canal or otitis(Ear infection). This can happen because of foreign objects, allergies, irritants, or parasites. When inflammation is caused by or linked to a fungicidal or bacterial infection, it becomes an infection.

Ear infections are by far the most common reason behind head shaking in dogs. These uncomfortable conditions can cause significant distress and discomfort, prompting dogs to shake their heads in an attempt to find relief. Understanding ear infections — their causes, symptoms, and treatments — is crucial for dog owners to promptly address this issue and prevent further complications.

Symptoms of Ear Infections

Dogs suffering from ear infections may exhibit a range of symptoms, including:

  • Frequent Head Shaking and Ear Scratching: Attempting to relieve discomfort and itchiness.
  • Redness and Swelling: Visible signs of inflammation in the ear canal.
  • Odor and Discharge: A bad smell accompanied by pus or a waxy buildup is a telltale sign of infection.
  • Pain and Sensitivity: Dogs may whimper or pull away when their ears are touched.

Treatment and Prevention

Treating ear infections typically involves:

  • Cleaning: Professional cleaning by a veterinarian to remove debris and discharge.
  • Medication: Antibiotics, antifungals, or anti-inflammatory drugs, depending on the infection’s cause.
  • Management of Underlying Causes: Addressing allergies or hormonal imbalances to prevent recurrence.

Preventative measures include regular ear checks, keeping the ears dry after swimming or bathing, and proper ear cleaning as recommended by your vet. It’s important to avoid inserting anything deep into the dog’s ear canal during cleaning to prevent injury.

If you notice changes in the color of your dog’s ear wax, consult our earwax color chart to see if they have an infection.

2. Allergies

Various types of allergies can cause your dog to shake their head if their ears become itchy. You can read this article about itchy dog ears for more on this problem and other causes of itchy ears.

3. Ear Hematoma

Occasionally dogs develop blood blisters on the inside of their ear flap (pinna). This is a painful condition that can lead to a lot of swelling and discomfort. Like many other conditions, they may tilt their head or try to scratch it.

These blood blisters can be caused by many factors, including allergies, autoimmune diseases, von Willebrand’s Disease, injury, and infection.

4. Ear Polyps and Growths

Sometimes a dog can develop tiny tumors or growths(polyps)  in their ear canals. They can be benign and form in the ear glands or more aggressive if they start in the ear lining. Chronic ear inflammation may cause these tumors, so if your dog has a head shaking problem, be sure to have your vet look for these potentially dangerous growths.

5. Grass Awns And Other Foreign Objects

An overlooked, but prevalent reason a dog may be shaking their head and tilting it to one side is grass awns. Grass “seeds” often get lodged in a dog’s nose, skin, toes, or ears.

They also have tiny barbs that prevent them from being shaken out naturally, and instead, they migrate into the middle and inner ear, where they can cause significant damage.

Unlike with allergies, the ears won’t be itchy, but your dog may paw their ear to try to remove it. It can cause damage and infection, so a vet needs to remove the foreign body.

Other foreign bodies can also enter the ear canal. This could include dust particles or insects.

6. Water

Water or excess moisture that travels into the ear canal is an irritant that can cause your dog to shake their head excessively. Always be careful to clean and dry your dog’s ear after swimming, and gently rub your thumb against the ear canal to drive excess moisture up and out (not deeper into the ear).

Also, be careful not to let any water into your dog’s ears when you bathe them. Place a cotton ball in each ear to soak up any stray droplets. Remember, excess moisture in the ear can cause secondary yeast and bacterial infections.

7. Parasites

Ear mites (Otodectic) usually infest the external ear canal and cause inflammation and head shaking. These are highly contagious among pets, and your vet needs to prescribe an appropriate parasiticide and ear wash to eliminate them. The discharge from ear mites is usually dark and waxy, looking like coffee grounds.

Other parasites that may be causing your dog to shake their head are ticks or fleas lodged in the ear passage that may irritate your dog. Use reliable tick and flea treatment if you suspect your dog has ticks.

8. Playing Tug-of-War

On a lighter note, dogs also shake their heads during play, especially when engaging in tug-of-war games. This behavior is a natural expression of their predatory instincts and enjoyment.

Dogs relish the tug-of-war play because it mimics the action of capturing and dismembering prey in the wild. It’s a healthy outlet for their energy and strengthens the bond between dogs and their owners. Head shaking in this context is normal and indicative of a dog fully immersed in the joy of play.

9. Neurological Conditions Leading to Head Shaking in Dogs

While head shaking in dogs is often attributed to ear problems, it’s important to recognize that neurological conditions can also prompt this behavior. Understanding these causes is crucial for identifying when head shaking might be signaling a more serious issue requiring veterinary care.

Vestibular Disease

Vestibular disease affects the dog’s balance system, which is partly located in the inner ear. Symptoms can include head shaking, tilting, stumbling, or even nystagmus (rapid eye movement). This condition can be particularly alarming but is often treatable, especially if caught early.

Idiopathic Epilepsy

Epilepsy can cause a variety of symptoms in dogs, including occasional head shaking as part of a focal seizure. While epilepsy is more commonly known for causing convulsive seizures, focal seizures can manifest in subtler ways, such as intermittent head shaking.

Brain Tumors

Brain tumors can press on areas of the brain responsible for motor control and balance, leading to head shaking. This symptom is usually accompanied by other neurological signs, such as behavioral changes, seizures, or difficulty walking.


Inflammation of the brain, or encephalitis, can lead to head shaking due to discomfort or as part of more complex neurological symptoms. Encephalitis can be caused by infectious diseases, immune-mediated processes, or unknown factors.

Head Trauma

Head trauma can cause immediate or delayed neurological symptoms, including head shaking, depending on the severity and the area of the brain affected. Any dog that has suffered a significant blow to the head should be evaluated by a veterinarian.

Recognizing Neurological Signs

Head shaking related to neurological conditions is often persistent and may be accompanied by other signs of distress or abnormal behavior. Unlike head shaking caused by ear problems, which might resolve with treatment of the ear condition, neurological head shaking tends to persist or worsen over time without specific treatment aimed at the underlying cause.

If your dog’s head shaking is accompanied by any other unusual symptoms, such as loss of coordination, changes in behavior, seizures, or signs of pain, it’s critical to seek veterinary care promptly. Advanced diagnostic tools, such as MRI or CT scans, may be required to accurately diagnose the condition and determine the best course of treatment. Early detection and treatment are key to managing neurological conditions effectively, ensuring your dog’s health and quality of life.

Home Remedies for Dog Head Shaking

Keep the Ears Clean

Regular cleaning with a vet-approved ear cleaner can help remove debris or wax buildup that might be causing irritation. Be gentle and avoid deep insertion into the ear canal.

Dry Ears After Water Activities

Ensure your dog’s ears are thoroughly dried after swimming or bathing to prevent moisture buildup, which can lead to infections.

Soothing Solutions

For mild irritation, a diluted solution of apple cider vinegar and water can help soothe the ear’s environment. However, this should be avoided if there are open wounds or signs of infection.

Limit Exposure to Allergens

If you suspect allergies, try to identify and reduce exposure to potential allergens, such as pollen, dust, or certain foods.


Provide your dog with toys or activities to distract them from the urge to shake their head or scratch their ears.

Remember, these remedies are suitable for mild cases only. If your dog’s head shaking persists or if you notice any symptoms of an underlying issue, it’s crucial to seek veterinary advice.

When to Take Your Dog to the Vet for Head Shaking

Head shaking in dogs can sometimes indicate a more serious problem that requires professional veterinary care. Here are situations when you should definitely take your dog to the vet:

  1. Persistent Head Shaking – If the head shaking continues for more than a day or two, despite trying home remedies, it’s time to see the vet.
  2. Signs of Ear Infection – Look out for redness, swelling, discharge, or a bad odor from the ears. These are signs of infection that need medical treatment.
  3. Pain or Discomfort – If your dog seems to be in pain, whines, or withdraws when you touch their ears, it indicates something more serious.
  4. Accompanying Symptoms – Head shaking coupled with other symptoms like lethargy, loss of balance, or changes in behavior warrants a vet visit.
  5. Visible Foreign Objects or Injuries – If you can see something stuck in your dog’s ear or if there’s an injury, professional removal and treatment are necessary.
  6. After Swimming – Dogs that shake their heads excessively after swimming may have water or an infection in their ears. If drying their ears doesn’t help, a vet can check for infections or foreign bodies.

Promptly addressing the cause of head shaking can prevent further discomfort or more severe health issues. Your vet can provide a thorough examination, diagnose the underlying cause, and recommend the appropriate treatment to get your furry friend back to feeling their best.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Is head shaking normal in dogs?

Occasional head shaking in dogs is normal, especially if they’re trying to relieve a temporary itch or discomfort in their ears. However, frequent or intense head shaking is not normal and could indicate an underlying issue needing attention.

My dog keeps shaking its head, should I worry?

If your dog persistently shakes its head, it’s a sign something may be bothering them, such as an ear infection, water trapped in the ear, or foreign bodies. It’s best to consult a vet if the behavior continues.

What could be in my dog’s ear if it’s shaking its head?

Common culprits include water, ear mites, yeast or bacterial infections, foreign objects (like grass seeds), or wax buildup. A vet can help identify and remove the irritant.

My dog shakes its head after swimming, what to do?

Ensure you thoroughly dry your dog’s ears after swimming to prevent moisture buildup, which can lead to infections. If head shaking persists, it may be wise to have a vet check for water trapped deeper in the ear canal.

How to clean a dog’s ears after head shaking?

Use a vet-recommended ear cleaner and gently wipe the outer part of the ear canal with a cotton ball or pad. Avoid inserting anything deep into the ear. If you notice excessive wax, discharge, or a foul odor, seek veterinary advice before cleaning.

Can ear mites cause head shaking in dogs?

Yes, ear mites are a common cause of head shaking due to the intense itching they provoke. They require specific treatment, which a vet can provide after confirming their presence.

Dog shaking head and has a bad smell coming from the ear–why?

A bad smell from the ear combined with head shaking typically indicates an infection. This situation requires veterinary examination and treatment, as infections can worsen and lead to more serious complications.

My dog shakes its head and tilts its head, what does it mean?

Head shaking combined with tilting can suggest an ear issue affecting balance, like an infection or vestibular syndrome. It might also indicate discomfort or partial hearing loss. A vet visit is crucial to diagnose and treat the underlying cause.

Can allergies cause head shaking in dogs?

Yes, allergies can cause irritation and inflammation in the ears, leading to head shaking. Identifying and managing the allergen — whether it’s food, environmental, or something else — is key to reducing symptoms.

Conclusion: Understanding Head Shaking in Dogs

Head shaking in dogs, while sometimes a normal behavior, can often signal that your furry friend is dealing with discomfort or health issues that need addressing. From water in their ears after a joyful swim to more concerning problems like ear mites or infections, understanding the reasons behind this behavior is key to ensuring your dog’s health and happiness.

It’s important to remember that while some causes of head shaking can be easily managed at home with proper ear care and cleaning, others require professional veterinary attention. Persistent head shaking, especially when accompanied by symptoms like bad odor, discharge, or visible discomfort, should prompt a visit to the vet. Not only can they provide a proper diagnosis, but they can also offer the most effective treatment to get your dog back to their happy, head-shake-free self.

Ear health is an integral part of your dog’s overall well-being. Paying attention to their behavior, including head shaking, and responding appropriately ensures that your dog remains comfortable, healthy, and ready to enjoy life to the fullest. Always err on the side of caution and consult with your vet when in doubt. Your vigilant care and quick action are vital in keeping those joyful head tilts and shakes just part of their playful repertoire, rather than a sign of distress.


Meet Your Experts

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Tamsin De La Harpe


Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.