Why Do Dogs Shake Their Head?

Does your dog ‘shake off’ after waking up, getting wet or enjoying a nice scratch from you? Dogs occasionally shake and this can be normal, but excessive shaking that’s limited to the head and ears could mean something more. 


If your dog is shaking their head, especially if the shaking is constant, you may want to do some investigative work! We’re covering why dogs shake their heads, what it might mean, and how to pursue the best course of treatment for your pet. 

why does my dog keep shaking his head

WHY DO DOGS SHAKE THEIR HEADS?

There are a few reasons why your dog could be shaking their head, and not all of them are cause for alarm. However, if your dog is constantly shaking their head–more than just occasionally–there could be something in the ear. This ‘something’ could cause pain and irritation and the shaking is a way to remove it.


The powerful muscles in a dog’s neck and back make head-shaking an effective way of ejecting something lodged in the ear. If your dog keeps shaking their head, it means your pup isn’t able to remove the irritant on their own. This could either mean that there is an object deep within the ear canal that can’t be shaken out, or that there’s an inflammation deep within the ear canal or on the ear flap that needs your attention. 

PET Fact

Your dog’s ear flap is called the “pinna” and consists of skin, fur, and cartilage that make up the outer ear. While this anatomy isn’t exclusive to dogs, the funnel-like shape of a dog’s pinnae helps give them their keen sense of hearing! 

6 POSSIBLE CAUSES OF HEAD-SHAKING IN DOGS

While the reason for head-shaking can vary in each case, there are a few common causes for this specific behavior. Knowing the basics can help you better identify when and why your dog is experiencing discomfort, and can inform your decision on how best to help them. 
So, do pet allergies cause anal gland issues? If so, how do pet allergies cause inflammation in that area?

1. Allergies
Does your dog spend the days digging or exploring in bushes and underbrush? Environmental allergens like grass, pollen, and dust can contribute to irritation in your dog’s ear. These allergens may cause itching and inflammation which can lead to head-shaking. In the summertime, these allergies can be more severe and your dog may be exposed to more allergens if they spend more time outside. 

2. Water in the ear
Does your dog love to swim? Swimming is a great way to exercise your pet–especially in summer–but beware that water in the ear is a common cause of dog head-shaking.

The risk for fluid retention in the ear increases for breeds with long ear canals or ear flaps that fold over the ear canal. Improper drainage of water can lead to ear infections, so be sure to keep an eye out for head-shaking if your pup was recently enjoying water play outside or in the bath.

3. Ear infections
Ear infections can be caused by yeast, bacteria, or both. Infections can be caused by many things including allergies, conformation and increased moisture or humidity within the ear canal. Signs of a yeast infection include redness, swelling, brownish ear wax, or a foul smell inside your dog’s ear.

Dog breeds like basset hounds, golden retrievers, cocker spaniels and other floppy-eared breeds can be more susceptible to yeast infections in the ear, so be sure to keep an eye out if your furry friend matches this description.

Bacterial infections can cause redness, swelling and discharge that is thick, yellow or greenish in color. The discharge can also have a foul smell and ears are often painful.
what to do for dog shaking head

4. Lodged debris
Something stuck in your dog’s ear could be a serious cause of head shaking, and may require a visit to your vet. So what sort of things get stuck in dog’s ears? Grass seeds, thorns, and even twigs are common culprits that can wind up in your dog’s ear while they’re out exploring and having fun. Plant material that becomes lodged in the ear canal needs to be removed quickly by your vet. 

5. Mites
While not the most common cause of head-shaking in dogs, this one can be tough to spot. These microscopic critters can hitch a ride if your dog is in close contact with other infected dogs or goes to any area where other dogs or wild dogs (think foxes, coyotes) nest. The mites stick around to feed on the natural oils and waxes present in your dog’s ear or along the ear flap. Signs of mites include head shaking, ear scratching and thick, dark discharge from the ear that looks like coffee grounds.

5. Polyps
Ear polyps in dogs are rounded or cylindrical growths that can be benign or malignant and usually warrant a diagnosis from your veterinarian. Polyps can cause pain, itching, and inflammation in your dog’s ear and may even narrow the appearance of the ear canal and cause infection. If you suspect that your dog has ear polyps, contact your veterinarian for next steps.

WHAT TO DO IF YOUR DOG SHAKES THEIR HEAD

If your dog is having trouble with head-shaking, first attempt to see inside the ear. Using a flashlight and clean, gentle hands, take a look for any visible debris in the outer ear flap or ear canal. You may also want to look for redness, excessive ear wax, discharge or unusual smells. If you need to inspect the inner ear, it’s best to consult your veterinarian before inserting fingers or anything else inside your dog’s ear canal. 

Having trouble keeping your pup still for an ear inspection? To help relax your dog while you look, give them a pet calming chew or their favorite toy. Another great way to keep them calm is to have a friend occupy them with some soothing chin or chest scratches. For more energetic or easily agitated dogs, you may want to contact your vet to perform the exam.

If your dog’s head-shaking is accompanied by ear scratching, visible redness or swelling, call your veterinarian to schedule a physical exam. Your vet can help identify or rule out causes based on your pet’s symptoms and condition. 

HOME TREATMENTS FOR HEAD SHAKING IN DOGS

If your dog’s head-shaking is a recent discovery, try doing a quick diagnostic check like the one detailed above. A simple exam might reveal a straightforward issue that can be addressed with home treatments like ear wipes or a dog ear wash.

  • Is your pet the outdoorsy type? Cleaning your dog’s ear with vet-formulated ear wipes after outdoor activities like digging and swimming is a good practice for active pups, and can help prevent debris from getting inside their ears. 
  • If your dog already seems to have debris in their ear, try using an antibacterial ear wash or one that’s recommended by vets to gently clean the ear.
Vet recommendations for dogs shaking their head

If you suspect that your dog’s head-shaking is due to an underlying cause, take note of their usual daily activities and environment before contacting your veterinarian for support. They’ll help you get to the root of the problem, so that you and your pet can get back to feeling comfortable again!

Putting the Vet in Vetnique

Joya Griffin, DVM, DACVD
Dr. Joya Griffin is an Ohio native and graduated from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. She has a special interest in fungal and immune-mediated skin diseases as well as feline and equine dermatology. Dr. Joya always strives to care for her patients as if they are her own pets and loves building long-lasting relationships with their pet parents. Dr. Joya also stars in the Nat Geo WILD television series, “Pop Goes the Vet with Dr. Joya,” which highlights the challenging and mysterious cases she encounters in veterinary dermatology.

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