By Jennifer Coates, DVM
Some dog behaviors are normal as long as they are infrequent, but become a problem when you begin to see them with some regularity. Head shaking falls into this category. So, when should you start to worry about your pet’s head shaking?
Why Do Dogs Shake Their Heads?
First, it’s important to understand why dogs shake their heads. Head shaking is a brilliant way for dogs to get something out of their ears that shouldn’t be there. The forces generated by a vigorous shake are impressive, as anyone who has been whacked by a dog’s flailing ear can tell you. When dogs feel itchiness or irritation in their ears, they instinctively shake their heads. While this can solve the problem if the dog has some water, a piece of grass, or an insect in his ear, continued head shaking indicates that the irritation is ongoing and needs to be addressed.
If your dog is shaking his head repeatedly and the behavior does not stop over the course of a day or so, it’s time to make an appointment with your veterinarian.
Bacterial and Yeast Infections in the Ear
The most frequently diagnosed health problem that causes excessive head shaking dogs is an ear infection. Ear infections tend to be itchy and produce a lot of discharge and inflammation, all of which make dogs want to shake their heads. If you lift up the flap of your dog’s ear(s) and see redness, swelling, or discharge, an infection is likely. Ear mite infestations can cause similar symptoms, but they are not as common as yeast or bacterial infections in dogs (particularly adult dogs).
Keep in mind that infections may occur deep within a dog’s ear, so an infection may be present even if you don’t see obvious signs of one.
Itchiness in the Ear Due to Allergies
Allergies are another common problem that leads to head shaking in dogs. Individuals can be allergic to ingredients in their food or triggers in their environment (pollen, mold spores, dust or storage mites, etc.). Symptoms of allergies in dogs typically include some combination of itchy skin, hair loss, recurrent skin and ear infections, scratching at the ears, head shaking, chewing on the feet, and rubbing at the face.
Diagnosing a food allergy involves putting a dog on a diet that contains a single carbohydrate (e.g., rice or potato) and single source of protein that has never been fed to the dog before (e.g., duck or venison) or that has been hydrolyzed (broken down into tiny, non-allergenic pieces). The dog must eat only this food for a month or two. If the symptoms disappear or at least significantly improve, a food allergy is likely.
Environmental allergies are best diagnosed through intradermal skin testing, but blood testing is a reasonable option for some dogs.
Water in the Ears
Head shaking that occurs because of water getting into the ears is easily prevented by placing cotton balls (or half a cotton ball for small breeds) in the dog’s ears prior to bathing or swimming. Avoid spraying or dumping water directly on your dog’s head during a bath. Instead, bathe his body from the neck down and wipe down his face and ears with a damp washcloth. If your dog won’t stand for cotton balls in his ears while swimming, consider using an ear band or cleaning his ears with a drying solution post-swim. Your veterinarian can recommend a safe and effective product based on your dog’s particular needs.
Serious Conditions Related to Head Shaking
Other health conditions that can make dogs excessively shake their heads include foreign objects that become lodged in the ear canal, inflammatory diseases, or even neurologic disorders causing head tremors that are easily confused with head shaking.
If your dog has recurrent ear infections, you and your veterinarian need to go on a search for an underlying cause, such as allergies, anatomical abnormalities, or hypothyroidism.
Diagnosing and treating the reason behind a dog’s head shaking is important not only because it is a symptom of a potentially serious problem but also because continued or especially vigorous headshaking can lead to ruptured blood vessels within a dog’s ear flap. The aural hematomas that result often require surgery to repair, which is why, whenever possible, we should be preventing excessive head shaking and not just treating it when it develops.