Why Dogs Shake Their Heads, and When You Should Worry About It

Eva Hagan - Author

Dec. 9 2022, Published 1:56 p.m. ET

Dog shaking head
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Occasional head shaking is normal behavior in most dogs; however, if you see your pet shaking their head more and more frequently, it could be cause for concern. So, why do dogs shake their heads in the first place?

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Head shaking is used to relieve discomfort.

According to PetMD, most often, when you see a dog whipping their head back and forth it’s to get something out of their ears. It is an instinct for them to shake their heads when they feel itchiness or irritation, because a head shake is an effective way to get rid of whatever is bothering them. This is because when they shake their heads they are able to use an impressive amount of force to expel whatever is in their ears, which is why you may want to give your dog some space during a head shake to avoid getting whipped by an ear.

If your dog is a regular swimmer and you notice lots of head shaking, chances are they are trying to get water out of their ears. This could be prevented by placing cotton balls in their ears before getting in the water, or making sure you are drying their ears after getting wet.

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Dog running on beach
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What does it mean if a dog shakes their head a lot?

If you notice your dog is shaking their head more and more often, it may be time to go to the veterinarian to check for an infection. The most common diagnosis for a great amount of head shaking is an ear infection.

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According to GoodRx Health, a way to check for an ear infection is to see if your dog's ear canals are swelling or red, or if their ears are producing discharge. Excessive head shaking can be especially noticeable when going to bed where instead of sleeping your dog is always scratching or shaking.

Common types of infections include ear mite infestations and yeast or bacterial infections. If you think your dog could have any of these, it is time to take them to the vet to get the proper treatment.

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Head shaking could also be a sign of allergies.

Head shaking could also be a sign that your dog is allergic to something, possibly an ingredient in their food or something they came across in their environment. Allergy symptoms involve itchy skin, which is a trigger for head shaking. If you think this could be the case, talk with your vet about putting your dog on a diet to see what is bothering them, or getting a blood test.

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Involuntary head shaking is cause for concern.

If it looks like your dog’s head is shaking involuntarily, such as tremors, twitching or jerking, there could be something wrong with their central nervous system. Common reasons for involuntary head shaking are:

  • Canine Distemper Virus (CDV): This is a highly contagious virus in the gastrointestinal, respiratory, and central nervous systems. Symptoms include muscle jerking, fever, and fatigue, and can be prevented through a vaccination, as per Animal House Veterinary Hospital.
  • Cerebellar Hypoplasia: This is a condition where the part of the brain responsible for motor skills, or the cerebellum, does not develop completely and can lead to symptoms such as incoordination, head bobbing, or tremors, as per Embrace Pet Insurance
  • Idiopathic head tremors: This is a syndrome that causes episodic head tremors, sometimes looking like the dog is shaking their head “yes” or “no,” as per a 2015 study.
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Dog at the vet
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If you think your dog is experiencing involuntary head shaking, it could be a neurological condition, which would need to be addressed with professional medical attention.

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