Excessive Head Shaking in Dogs: Why Does My Dog Keep Shaking Their Head?

When is your dog’s head shaking normal and when should you be concerned?

It is natural for a dog to shake their head when something irritates their ear, Shaking is highly effective for removing water, insects, debris, or other irritants. A couple of vigorous shakes should take care of the job.

For example, during bug season, my dogs will shake their head quite frequently—when biting insects go after the ears or face. The reason is apparent. The same thing happens after a bath or when it rains. Heck, even I might shake my head when I have my hands full, and bugs are after me.

Further information: Head Shaking in Dogs: When to Worry

Excessive Head Shaking in Dogs: Why Does My Dog Keep Shaking Their Head?

When is head shaking a reason for concern?

If your dog continues to shake their head persistently, it means that despite the powerful forces shaking generates, it is not solving the problem. Perhaps the biting insect is latched on hard, there is pain, or the ear is itchy. Eventually, your dog might continue to try to rub it off.

One day, on the way from the horse farm, JD kept shaking his head and would not stop. And then an ant waltzed out of his ear. The shaking stopped.

When your dog starts shaking their head like that, examine the ears, eyes, head, neck, and skin carefully. Pay particularly close attention to the ears.

A thorough inspection of Jasmine’s ear, after she started shaking her head, tilting it to one side, and whimpering, revealed a tick latched to her ear flap.

Common reasons for excessive head shaking in dogs

Common reasons why your dog might shake their head excessively include:

  • allergies
  • foreign objects and other irritants inside the ear
  • inflammation
  • infections
  • parasites
  • ear polyps

Otitis, inflammation of the ear canal

A common cause of head shaking is otitis, inflammation of the ear canal. Grass awns, ear mites, and other things might be at play, but allergies are the most common causes of ear inflammation.

A secondary infection often follows—an inflamed ear makes a great playground for bacteria or yeast.

If you examine the ear, you might notice other common signs of otitis such as:

  • redness
  • swelling
  • bad odor
  • discharge
  • pain
  • rubbing at the ears

Don’t forget that even if you don’t see anything but your dog is obviously in discomfort or pain, the problem might be deeper in the ear—do not put off seeing a veterinarian.

Further information: Angry Vet On Ear Infections: Deciphering Ear Problems in Dogs

Foreign bodies

Foreign bodies deserve a special note because some of them can cause severe pain or damage. It could be a blade of grass embedded deep in the ear, or worse, grass awn.

If you have a reason to suspect a foxtail, also don’t delay. Because of their structure, those nasty little things can travel throughout your dog’s tissues and cause terrible damage.

Obi’s story: Acute Ear Pain in a Dog: What Caused Obi’s Severely Painful Ear?

Vasculitis

Vasculitis is inflammation of the blood vessels in the ear flap. It is not very common, but some breeds are susceptible, such as Dachshunds or Jack Russel Terriers.

It seems to be a condition brought on by an immune disorder but environmental factors such as frostbite, fly bites might contribute. Signs include thickening, ulcerating, and crusting.

This condition typically comes with thickening of the ear margins, which eventually ulcerate and crust over.

Other causes

Dogs with balance issues, be it from trauma, stroke, inner ear infection, or vestibular syndrome, might shake their heads in an attempt to relieve their symptoms.

Some forms of head tremors brought on by neurological disorders might look like head shaking.

Further information: Head Shaking in Dogs: When to Worry

Ear hematomas

Ear hematomas are a double-whammy. They can both result from excessive head shaking and make your dog shake their head even more.

If your dog shakes their head too vigorously, or if they happen to hit a hard edge such as a corner of a coffee table, the blood vessels rupture and blood spills in the space within the ear flap. The affected ear will become swollen and painful.

Further information: A Primer On Ear Hematomas

In closing

It is human nature to ignore things that are the norm. Chances are good that when you notice your dog’s head shaking, it has become excessive because otherwise your brain would ignore it.

Some potential causes of head shaking are easy to fix but most require a visit to a veterinarian. The degree of urgency depends on the severity of your dog’s discomfort.

Related articles:
Head Tilt in Dogs: Why Is My Dog Walking Strange?
Angry Vet On Ear Infections: Deciphering Ear Problems in Dogs

Further reading:
Head Shaking in Dogs: When to Worry

Categories: Excessive head shaking

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Jana Rade edited by Dr. Joanna Paul BSc BVSc

I am a graphic designer, dog health advocate, writer, and author. Jasmine, the Rottweiler of my life, was the largest female from her litter. We thought we were getting a healthy dog. Getting a puppy from a backyard breeder was our first mistake. Countless veterinary visits without a diagnosis or useful treatment later, I realized that I had to take Jasmine's health care in my own hands. I learned the hard way that merely seeing a vet is not always enough. There is more to finding a good vet than finding the closest clinic down the street. And, sadly, there is more to advocating for your dog's health than visiting a veterinarian. It should be enough, but it often is not. With Jasmine, it took five years to get a diagnosis. Unfortunately, other problems had snowballed for that in the meantime. Jasmine's health challenges became a crash course in understanding dog health issues and how to go about getting a proper diagnosis and treatment. I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. Helping others through my challenges and experience has become my mission and Jasmine's legacy. I now try to help people how to recognize and understand signs of illness in their dogs, how to work with their veterinarian, and when to seek a second opinion. My goal is to save others the steep curve of having to learn things the hard way as I did. That is the mission behind my blog and behind my writing. That is why I wrote Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog, which has turned out being an award-winning guide to dog owners. What I'm trying to share encompasses 20 years of experience. Dr. Joanna Paul BSc BVSc is our wonderful sponsor and has been kind to edit and fact-check my important articles.

11 Comments
  1. I really like the last point you make, that if we notice our pets doing something, chances are it isn’t normal for them.

  2. One of our cats started this shaking and it turned out to be a yeast infection that required drops.

    I agree 100% that we don’t notice things that may be wrong until the go outside our perception of what is ‘normal ‘for our pet. A vet once said to a group of us “know what normal is for your cat” and this is SO true!!

  3. Foxtails are scary things. Definitely don’t want to mess around with those. Shaking hard enough for them to get hematomas is hard to imagine but I’ve seen it happen.

    • There are a lot of fine blood vessels which are more likely to rupture with vigorous movement though I imagine that most of the time it might be from the ear hitting something.

  4. Great advice! Dav girl has environmental allergies, so we see her shaking her head this time of year far more often than usual. Watching when she starts to shake her head more is the first indicator that her allergies are kicking in and it’s time to start using her ear medication again.

  5. We once had an English Springer Spaniel. She had very long ears that swept the ground when she was following a scent. She too was prone to ears problems. Whenever she started to shake her head we knew it was time to clean her ears. She loved getting her ears cleaned.

  6. Very informative. Growing up my family had a cocker spaniel who was prone to ear infections. Often times her shaking her head excessively was our first clue that her ears were starting to bother her. Because of her, it’s something I’ve always paid close attention to in my current dogs.

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