A bobbing head dog (the toy) is fascinating, but when your pooch keeps shaking her head, either voluntarily or involuntarily and for reasons other than shaking off water after a bath or a swim, it becomes a point of concern. So, why do dogs shake their heads? We explore the common causes of dog head shaking along with ways to alleviate each of the offending problems below.
Dog Head Shaking Causes
Some dogs shake their head simply because they enjoy the sound made by the ears while flapping against the head, but when the shaking occurs at such high a frequency, it may be indicative of an underlying problem. It is advisable to take your dog to the vet if it keeps shaking its head but for informational purposes, here are some common causes of the problem:
Dog Head Tremors
The condition is known as idiopathic head tremors or “tremor syndrome” may also be the reason why your dog is shaking her head uncontrollably. This is notable for involuntary, repetitive muscle movements on any part of the body even though the head and back legs are the most common trouble spots.
When the head is involved it either bobs back and forth or from side to side, like Parkinson’s disease in humans. Tremor syndrome in dogs is not associated with other symptoms other than the uncontrollable muscle movements that vary in their manifestation from slow to fast and gentle to vigorous or violent. When very violent, tremor syndrome may make it appear as though a dog is having seizures (some dog owners even talk of “dog shaking head after seizures”).
Note: Unlike seizures, a dog suffering from idiopathic head tremor syndrome is responsive when touched, waved at, etc.
Doghead tremors are seen more in young to middle-aged pets. Although any dog breed can be affected, some dog breeds are more susceptible to tremors than others including Bulldogs, Pit bulls, Dalmatians, Labrador Retrievers Doberman pinschers, Samoyeds, chow chows, Weimaraners, and springer spaniels. Collectively, these dogs are known as “shaker dogs”.
According to PetMD, dogs with a white colored coat also show a higher predisposition to tremor syndrome. The actual cause of the condition – and the associated dog head shaking – is not yet known but it can be triggered by one or more of the following factors:
- Genetics – Some dogs have a hereditary predisposition to idiopathic head tremors or tremor syndrome.
- Trauma or injury
- Certain medications
- Severe pain
- Kidney disease
- Hypoglycemia (low levels of blood glucose)
- Low calcium levels
- Toxic effect of certain chemicals or plants
- Nervous system disorders
- Inflammation (swelling)
Tremor Syndrome Diagnosis and Treatment
If dog head shaking is suspected to be the result of tremor syndrome, your vet will perform physical tests along with take the medical history of your dog and possibly have some laboratory tests done (to check blood sugar levels, kidney function, etc.). If necessary other tests such as X-rays, CT scan, MRI, etc. may be performed.
Treatment of head tremors in dogs revolve around addressing any underlying diseases or problems that are identified and may include:
- Change of medication prescriptions – if dog head shaking is deemed to be a side-effect of a given medication.
- Administration of an antidote to a toxin
- Removal of the offending toxin from the dog’s environment
- Surgery to address nervous system disorders
- Medications to control muscle movement
Is your dog shaking head and scratching ears constantly? An ear infection could be to blame. Canine ear infections are typically caused by yeast or bacteria. Ear mites is often a contributing factor for ear infections especially in puppies. Other contributing factors are increase earwax production, foreign bodies in the ear (e.g. grass seeds, foxtail, insects, etc.), excessive moisture, and hypothyroidism. Dogs with allergies and those with drooping ears or excessive hair in the ear canal are also more susceptible to ear infections.
Unlike humans’ ear, dog’s ear is vertical (L-shaped) which makes it more susceptible to collecting debris and moisture and accumulate the same in the ear canal. Dog ear infection is characterized by the following signs and symptoms:
- Head shaking
- Tilting the head to one side
- Scratching at the ears or the area around the ears
- Offensive smell from the affected ear(s)
- Yellow, bloody, or brown ear discharge
- Redness and swelling of the ear canal or the ear flaps
- Hair loss around the ear
- Moving around in circles
- Crusty or scabby scales inside the ear
- Unusual eye movements, or Nystagmus
- Hearing loss
- Lack of balance
Treatment of Dog Ear Infections
For dog head shaking that is thought to be due to ear infection, treatment begins with an examination of the affected ears with an otoscope. Sedation may be necessary for very painful cases of ear infection.
A sample of the ear discharge may also be taken to the lab for examination to identify the type of microorganism (bacteria or yeast) responsible for the infection. Thyroid function may also be tested to rule out hypothyroidism as a potential cause of ear infection and thus head shaking in dogs.
Once the diagnosis is made and the underlying cause of the infection and along with any contributing factors determined, your veterinarian will then determine the course of action. This typically involves a mix of ear cleaning and medications (oral, topical or both). The medications used range from antibiotics to anti-inflammatory and antifungal.
Canine ear infections may be recurrent in nature. It is thus important to keep checking your dog for signs and symptoms of infections. You will especially want to look out for abnormal ear discharge, scratching, redness, and unusual ear smell. It is also advisable to clean your dog’s ears with a cotton ball and a professional cleaning solution – ask your veterinarian for a recommendation – when necessary.
Lastly, dry your dog’s ears after swimming or bathing. This is especially important for dogs with excessive hair growth in their ear canal. Removing this hair as part of the grooming routine will suffice in preventing ear infection and dog head shaking.
Note: Avoid using Q-Tips swabs to clean a dog’s ears. These may push the solid debris further inside and possibly damage the ear drum. Rubbing alcohol is also not recommended for dog ear cleaning as they can irritate and inflame the inside of the ear canal.