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dog shaking head

Why is my dog shaking his head?

Dogs shake their heads after a bath or a swim. It’s a natural canine behavior and something that you shouldn’t worry about. But headshaking can become a problem when you see your dog doing it frequently. So when should you start to worry about your pet’s behavior?

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Why do dogs shake their heads?

The ears of dogs come in various shapes and sizes, but they all share one unique characteristic - a long ear canal that has vertical and horizontal components. This unique ear anatomy can easily trap debris, which in turn can increase a dog’s risk of ear infections.

As a natural behavior, dogs shake their heads when something is inside their ears and they want to get rid of it. Whether it’s itchiness or irritation in their ears, a dog will instinctively shake his head in response to the sensation. While shaking can solve the problem if it’s just some water or an insect in the ear, continued shaking indicates that there is still something inside the dog’s ear that needs to be addressed, sooner rather than later.

Common Reasons Why Dogs Shake Their Heads

Infections

An ear infection caused by bacteria or yeast is the most common health issue that causes excessive head shaking in dogs. The distinct signs of an ear infection include intense itching, ear discharge, and inflammation. If you look closely inside your dog’s ears, you may see redness, swelling, and/or discharge, which is usually accompanied by a foul odor.

Most ear infections in dogs are predisposed by an underlying problem that affects the normal protective barrier of the ear. This can eventually lead to inflammation. When the ear passages become moist and inflamed, it creates a favorable environment for bacteria or yeast to multiply and cause infection.

Some of the common predisposing factors that can make a dog’s ear canal susceptible to infection include foreign bodies (grass awn or foxtail) that get into the dog’s ears, ear mites, excessive moisture in the ears from bathing or swimming, food allergies, environmental allergies, endocrine issues (hypothyroidism), ear polyps, trauma to the ear, certain types of cancer, or autoimmune conditions (lupus, pemphigus, or vasculitis).

Allergies

Ear itching in dogs is one of the prominent symptoms of allergies. Some dogs are allergic to a specific ingredient in their pet food or allergens in the environment (molds, dust mites, pollen, etc.). For hypersensitive dogs, head shaking is usually accompanied by itchy skin, scratching at the ears, rubbing of the affected ear on surfaces, hair loss, and recurrent skin and ear infections.

If your vet suspects a food allergy, your pet may be started on an elimination diet to identify the allergen culprit. An elimination diet involves putting a dog on a diet regimen that contains a single carbohydrate source and a single protein source that has never been fed to the dog. For environmental allergies, diagnosis is based on blood testing or intradermal skin testing.

Water in the Ears

If it’s just some water in your pet’s ear, a good head shake will get most of it. If your dog has persistent issues with water in the ears after bathing or swimming, place cotton balls in your pet’s ear before bathing or swimming. When bathing your pet, avoid spraying or pouring water directly on your pet’s head or ears. Instead, use a damp washcloth to clean his face and ears and bathe him from the neck down. It is also recommended that you clean your dog’s ears with an ear-drying solution after a swim. Ask your vet for a safe and effective product that you can use on your pet.

However, if headshaking persists for more than 1-2 days, it’s high time to have your pet checked by your veterinarian.

Foreign Objects Lodged in the Ear Canal

The presence of a foreign object inside a dog’s ear can cause swelling and inflammation. There may also be bloody discharge. The dog may shake his head or paw at his ear in an attempt to get rid of the foreign object. When a dog violently shakes his head to try and dislodge the foreign object, a blood vessel may burst and eventually cause swelling of the dog’s ear flap, called an aural hematoma.

Tumors or Growths (Polyps) in the Ear Canal

Head shaking is a common clinical sign exhibited by pets with ear canal tumors. It is often accompanied by persistent strong-smelling ear discharge, an inflamed, itchy, and painful ear, and ear scratching. If the growth occurs in the middle or inner ear, the dog may also experience loss of balance and coordination, circling, head tilting, facial paralysis, loss of hearing, darting of the eyes back and forth (nystagmus), and other neurologic symptoms.

Why Early Diagnosis of Head Shaking in Dogs is Important

Early veterinary intervention and treatment of persistent head shaking in dogs are very important. Most of the conditions listed above can cause pain and discomfort to your dog. Proper veterinary care doesn’t only reduce the pain and irritation but may also prevent more serious medical concerns.

Identifying the reason behind head shaking in dogs should be done immediately so appropriate treatment can be given. Prompt diagnosis and treatment are important because it could be a red flag signifying a potentially serious issue. Also, continuous vigorous headshaking can cause blood vessels in the ear flap to rupture leading to the formation of aural hematomas. Surgery is often required to treat this condition.

If your dog’s head shaking is caused by an infection, take note that most often, ear infections won’t go away on their own. All types of ear infections require veterinary attention and intervention. There is a need to evaluate the cause and severity of the infection as well as assess the integrity of the eardrum.

Ear infections should not be treated at home without the advice of a vet. If there is a large amount of debris in the dog’s ears, your vet should be the one to perform a deep cleansing of the canals while the animal is under sedation. If the eardrum has a tear or is ruptured, certain medications can cause adverse reactions to the middle and inner ear. This can pave the way for more serious and complicated problems that can lead to permanent ear damage and/or loss of hearing.

Read more:

Common Ear Problems in Dogs

How to Clean Your Dog's Ears

Examining and Caring for Your Pet’s Ears

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