Four reasons dogs keep shaking their heads

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Persistent head shaking could point to a medical issue.

Head shaking is normal dog behaviour. Without fingers and thumbs, dogs instinctively shake their heads to relieve discomfort, itchiness or irritation; it’s an effective way to clear the ear canal of water, dirt, or insects. But while the occasional head shake isn’t cause for concern, regular and persistent head shaking is abnormal and could signal a possible medical issue. It’s important to understand why dogs shake their heads and to look for the signs that indicate a medical problem. If your dog’s head shaking is frequent and lasts for more than a day, or if your dog has red, swollen and smelly ears, consult your veterinarian right away.

Learn more about four common medical reasons your dog might be shaking their head frequently.

1. Otitis externa in dogs

Canine otitis externa occurs when a dog’s outer ear canal is inflamed. This is the leading cause of visits to the vet and comes with a range of symptoms:

  • Red and swollen ears
  • Ear scratching
  • Head shaking
  • Discharge
  • Odour

Common causes of otitis externa include allergies, ear mites, trapped water and floppy ears. In most cases, ear inflammation requires medical treatment and will not go away on its own. Dogs that have suffered from otitis externa once may be at risk of experiencing it again. If left untreated, ear inflammation can worsen and lead to permanent changes to the structures of the ear, possibly affecting hearing as well. Ask your veterinarian about treatments for otitis externa.

2. Ear damage or trauma

While dogs are usually sturdy animals, they can sometimes injure themselves — while going for a run, playing at the dog park or adventuring along a wooded trail. If you notice a change in your dog’s behaviour (suddenly lethargic, subdued or showing signs of ear pain and sensitivity), the cause could be a severe disease. Consult your veterinarian right away.

3. Ear vasculitis

Ear vasculitis, or inflammation of the walls of the blood vessels in the ear flaps, results in a possibly severe skin condition on the flap of your dog’s ears. Common symptoms of ear vasculitis include:

  • Red or purple spots on the ears
  • Crusting of the skin
  • Fluid-filled cysts
  • Hair loss
  • Itchiness and pain at the affected site

The cause of ear vasculitis is unknown in almost half of all reported cases. In other cases, however, an abnormal immune system response causes this painful skin condition. If you notice the signs of ear vasculitis in your dog, consult your veterinarian right away for diagnosis and treatment.

4. Ear haematomas

An ear haematoma occurs when a pool of blood collects between the skin and cartilage of a dog’s ear flap, resulting in discoloured skin, swelling, bleeding and pain. Haematomas are typically caused by some kind of self-trauma, such as overly aggressive scratching or head shaking resulting from an underlying medical condition, such as an ear infection or skin condition. Treatments range from draining the haematoma with a needle to surgical correction. It’s important to treat the haematoma immediately to avoid infection and further damage, and to determine what underlying condition caused the scratching and head shaking in the first place. In most cases, a bacterial infection or itchy skin condition is also present. That said, while ear haematomas aren’t easily preventable, preventing or successfully treating the underlying issues that cause head shaking will reduce the risk of this complication. Chronic head shaking is just one indicator of a potentially serious health issue. If you notice your dog shaking their head frequently, or exhibiting additional symptoms like inflamed ears, scratching, ear sensitivity or an unpleasant odour coming from the ears, consult your vet right away.

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