Head shaking in dogs

Head shaking is something every dog will do at some point or another. Without hands to scratch an itch, it’s one way to relieve an irritation. But repeated or vigorous head shaking may suggest more serious problems inside your dog’s ears, nose or mouth.

Head shaking in dogs is a vigorous and deliberate action. It’s very different from head tremors, which are involuntary and less violent. The usual trigger will be irritation inside or on the ear(s). It may be accompanied by rolling or rubbing and usually lasts only a short time. Always talk to a vet if head shaking is ongoing, violent or accompanied by other symptoms, like pain or balance problems.


What to do

What to do if your dog is shaking their head

Check for obvious causes and clues as to why your dog is shaking their head:

  • Lift the ear flap and look for twigs, grass awns or other foreign bodies under the ear.
  • Check for discharge, redness or a smell at the entrance to the ear.
  • Feel for heat or swelling in the pinna (ear flap) itself, especially in floppy-eared dogs.
  • Check if one or both ears are affected.
  • Check nostrils for discharge or foreign material.
  • If your dog allows, lift their lips and check the gums and mouth for gingivitis, foreign bodies or dental problems.

Talk to a vet if your dog is head shaking without a visible cause.

Joii vets are online to take your calls 24/7



Common reasons why dogs shake their heads

The most common causes of head shaking in dogs include:


When to worry

When to worry about head shaking in dogs

Call a vet if your dog is:

  • Constantly shaking their head, so often that it’s interfering with normal activity
  • Eating less or having difficulty eating
  • Becoming lethargic
  • Developing a head tilt, unsteadiness, or balance problems
  • Sneezing repeatedly, having nose bleeds

Call a vet immediately if your dog is:

  • Having breathing difficulties with head shaking and facial swelling
  • Unable to stand
  • Having a fit or seizure
  • In pain and vocalising



How to reduce the risks of head shaking in dogs

There are things you can do to prevent the problems that lead to your dog shaking their head.

These include:

  • Keeping the ears clean: check weekly and use a mild cleanser or olive oil to clean and prevent build-up of wax.
  • Checking for grass seeds, twigs, etc. after walking in woodland or grass, especially dogs with long, floppy ears.
  • Trimming long, feathery hair that’s likely to trap and funnel foreign bodies into the ear.
  • Keeping up to date with regular parasite preventives for all pets in the household.
  • Identifying and treating allergies as soon as possible.
  • Cleaning your dog’s teeth and attending regular vet or vet nurse check-ups.



Things to look out for if your dog starts shaking their head

The following symptoms give clues to underlying causes needing specific treatment and/or investigation:

  • Shaking their head repeatedly while also licking paws and bum may indicate an allergy, especially food allergies.
  • Lots of discharge at the entrance to the ear, possibly a yeasty smell suggests yeast, ear mites or bacterial infection.
  • Presence of tiny red dots in short hairs around the base of the ear is likely to be harvest mites.
  • Developing a hot, swollen ear: aural haematoma, infected cut or bite wound.
  • Drooling saliva with head shaking suggests mouth irritation.
  • Developing facial swelling on one or both sides of the face could be an allergic reaction.
  • Nasal discharge with head shaking suggests problems inside your dog’s nose.
  • Having balance problems and/or jerky eye movements suggests a brain or balance disorder such as a middle or inner ear infections or vestibular disease.

Click on the links to find out more about the symptoms and conditions to look out for with head shaking in dogs. Any questions? Joii Vets are available 24/7 for support and expert advice.

Home treatment

How to help a dog who’s shaking their head at home

Always see a vet if your dog has severe or ongoing head shaking, facial swelling, painful ears or any of the symptoms listed above under the section “When to worry…”

For simpler cases or until you see a vet, the following may bring your dog relief, but only if they are comfortable letting you do so safely:

  • Remove any visible foreign objects.
  • Try to clean inside the ears if there is visible wax or discharge present – use boiled cooled water, weak chamomile tea or a vet-approved cleanser.
  • Clean wounds, scratches and sores with warm salt water (1 teaspoon salt to 500ml boiled cooled water).
  • Keep your dog as cool and calm as possible to minimise irritation.
  • Use a cooling compress to soothe a hot sore ear.
  • Prevent further trauma with a cone collar – to stop scratching and rubbing directly.


Want to know more about how to help dogs who’re shaking their heads? Joii Vets are on hand 24/7 for support and expert advice.

Vet treatment

What’s the vet treatment for head shaking in dogs?

Vet treatments for head shaking in dogs will depend on the cause, but could include the following:

Prescription medicines

Treatment drops, solutions and ointments:

  • Dissolving and clearing out heavy build-up of wax.
  • Treating underlying causes of irritation: antibiotic, antifungal, anti-parasitic, anti inflammatory drops.
  • Soothing the ear: anti-inflammatory drops.


Medicines by mouth:

  • Antibiotics: for severe and deep ear infections, middle or inner ear infections.
  • Anti-inflammatory medicines: steroids and non-steroidal painkillers.

Parasite treatments and preventives

  • Treatments effective against ear mites, fleas, and ticks: spot-on and/or tablets, depending on range of action.
  • Frontline® spray for harvest mites.

Special (prescription) diets

  • For dogs with itchy skin: Hills Prescription Diet Derm Complete®
  • To identify and treat food allergies: Hills Prescription Diet z/d®, Purina HA®.

Veterinary procedures

Some causes of head shaking will require a simple procedure or more complex surgery:

  • Usually needs sedation or general anaesthetic.
  • Removing foreign bodies from deep inside the ear, nose or mouth.
  • Flushing a painful, mucky ear clean and instilling treatment solutions directly.
  • Draining and treating an aural haematoma.
  • Removing growths.
  • Cleaning and stitching up painful wounds and cuts.

In most of these cases, the vet will also advise a cone collar to prevent further injury to the ear from shaking or rubbing. At least until things are completely settled.



What makes my dog more likely to start head shaking?

Dogs who are at most risk of head shaking include those who:

  • Have long, floppy ears: trap foreign bodies, prone to getting hot, sweaty ear canals.
  • Belong to certain breeds prone to allergies: Labradors, French bulldogs, and Cocker Spaniels.
  • Swim a lot and get water in their ears
  • Exercise in long grass or woodland
  • Live with cats: ear mites, scratches.
  • Older dogs: vestibular disease, growths, and dental disease.


What else can look like head shaking in dogs?

  • Head tremors: less intense than head shaking and not usually conscious. Causes include neurological (nerve/brain) problems, toxins, low blood sugar, pain, hypocalcaemia (low calcium), idiopathic tremor (unknown cause) in certain breeds, and age.
  • Seizures: usually other parts of the body also involved
  • Shaking off water or loose dirt after swimming, a bath or rolling in something unmentionable: the whole body gives a vigorous shake.
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