A dog’s ears are a major part of their senses and an important feature to keep in top condition. Seeing your dog shaking his head can be a common event, but there is often a good reason why your dog is shaking their head.
Dogs commonly shake their heads to relieve irritation in their ear canal. This can often be due to water ingress, especially amongst water-loving breeds. The ear canal can also become filled with wax over time and you should aim to clean your dog’s ears out routinely, this can be done by yourself or professionally.
Water and wax are most likely going to be the cause of any irritation, but there are some other things you should be looking out for. In this article, I will explore other possibilities that could be causing your dogs to shake their head, helping you to both understand and tackle any causes.
Why Do Dogs Shake Their Heads
It’s not unusual to see a dog shaking their head, the real issues begin when the shaking becomes common and begins to look like an irritation.
As you would expect dogs cannot use their paws to investigate an irritation in their ear and will often shake their heads and scratch profusely in the irritated area. Below is a list of possible causes for your dog’s irritated ear and a possible reason for their head shaking.
- Water Ingress – If you have a water-loving dog or you have just given them a bath, then you may find your dog is suffering from water within their ear canal. Small hairs sense foreign substances within the ear or what we would experience as a tickle. Your dog will continue shaking their head until the water has seeped out and is no longer irritating them.
What To Do – Water will slowly seep out of your dog’s ears over time. If your dog has floppy ears, try to dry underneath them, this will help soak up some of the water leaking out. You may also notice your dog starts to smell a bit more than usual. This is because the wax from inside the ear is being partially washed out onto your dog’s fur. You can usually see an area underneath your dog’s ear that looks like it’s oily. Try maintaining your dog’s ears at the groomers or learn to do it yourself with care.
- Ear Mites – Ear mites are extremely common in dogs and something that will cause lots of head shaking. These creatures are invisible to the naked eye and require a host animal to live on. Because ear mites need to live off an animal to survive they do not have much time to live during the transition from one dog to another. This is why they can be quite common in the dog world with many owners having more than one dog and those dogs being happy to socialize at close distances. If you suspect that ear mites could be a possibility then consult your qualified veterinarian so that they can have a proper look inside your dog’s ear.
What To Do – Ear mites are invisible to the naked eye and you won’t be able to see them without some special equipment. If your dog has had prolonged irritation then you should take them to the vet to get them properly assessed. You can find some home remedies on many sites online, however, I would still consult your vet before sticking anything into your dog’s ears. For more information on ear mites and how they are caused and diagnosed, check out “Purina’s” article on ear mites in dogs.
- Dirt/Sand – Dogs love to play around in the mud and roll about on the golden sand. Sometimes this rolling around can cause your dog to pick up the dirt inside his ears. Because dirt and sand are usually very fine, the hairs inside the ear will sense it moving about and initiate a tickling sensation. Unfortunately, foreign bodies such as sand and dirt can be quite hard to remove.
Have a look at our article on walking your dog on the beach. we go through some great tips on etiquette, what to pack and how to deal with different events that come up.
What To Do – If you have an active dog, dirt and sand can be common causes of ear irritation. Inspecting your dog’s ear with a torch can help identify if there is dirt or sand inside. Your dog will normally have dirt and sand near the entrance to the ear canal, viewable without any special equipment. The best thing at this point is to clean your dog’s ears gently, without going into the ear canal itself. Get some warm water, cotton buds, a kitchen roll, and a towel. Clean around the entrance of the ear, removing as much dirt and sand as possible, “Do Not Go Deep Into The Ear”. Your dog will shake his head lots more, whilst you clean it, this is because you are disturbing the hairs inside the ear causing it to tickle, this is most likely a two-person job if you have a wriggly pooch.
- Ticks – Ticks are a well-known creature in the dog world and most dogs will get one crawling on them at some point in their life. If you walk your dog around horses, deer, or sheep you may be more familiar with this beastie. Double-coated breeds tend to be more protected against ticks than short-coated breeds. However because the tick is not able to access the skin easily on a double-coated breed, it will journey to your dog’s head as the fur is thinner at this point. Whilst up in this region the tick may decide that your dog’s ear is the best home, warm and moist just how they like it.
What To Do – Ticks are a common enemy to dogs and carry diseases such as Lyme disease. If your suspect your dog has a tick inside its ear then you will need to remove it. Depending on its location you can do this yourself or have a qualified vet extract the tick. The tick will most likely have bitten into your dog and made a nice home for itself. If it is located near the entrance to the ear then you can remove it, preferably using some tick removal tools. As you remove the tick be aware not to leave any of the head in your dog’s skin as this can become infected. If the tick is further inside your dog’s ear then you will need to consult a vet to remove it. We have a great article on “How To Prevent Ticks While Hiking”.
- Excess Wax – This is another very common reason for your dog to shake his head. Dogs can get very waxy ears, especially if they are water lovers. Wax forms all over the inside of your dog’s ear and if you have noticed they are not listening to you as much anymore, you may want to find out if their ears are filled with wax. Was can gain a tickle on the inside of your dog’s ear canal and also cause discomfort and confusion in serious cases.
What To Do – Waxy ears are common and the most likely solution is to clean them out yourself. Most dog groomers will offer a service involving cleaning your dog’s ears, so if you would prefer someone else do this then you can. If you clean your dog’s ears regularly then you will prevent a build-up of wax. Simply using some warm water, cotton buds for getting into the crevices, and something to dry the area will help maintain your dog’s ears. Make sure you don’t get too much water into your dog’s ears and get ready for a wriggly dog. You may want to consider having a second person there to hold/calm the dog down. “Do Not Go Deep Into The Ear Canal”.
- Bites/Stings – Not such a common occurrence in dogs with floppy ears, although dogs that have the inside of their ears exposed are more susceptible. If the inside of your dog’s ear has been bitten or stung then they will be having some irritating feelings inside their ear causing them to shake their heads. Also watch out for small burrs or thorns from plants, as these can cause discomfort when they dig into the skin.
What To Do – Firstly you will need to check inside your dog’s ear for any sore areas or even a thorn/burr. If you find any foreign material such as thorns, gently remove these with tweezers and dab the area with some warm water. Stings or bites can happen and the best course of action is the clean the area and monitor your dog’s progress. Be aware of allergic reactions or swelling around the area. If you find your dog is having an allergic reaction or just want to be on the safe side, take them to the vet. There are creams that you can purchase, specifically for dogs. These can be bought from your vet and they should also tell you how to apply them. For more information check out this article on treating insect bites or stings, it really helpful for that extra bit of reassurance.
- Illness – Not something that is nice to talk about but you should also be aware of it. Illness can come in many forms and if you find that your dog is shaking their head in an unnatural way, almost vibrating, then you should get them checked by a vet as soon as possible. If it looks like your dog cannot control its head-shaking then illness could be to blame.
What To Do – As mentioned above the only real option here is to take your dog to the vet, in order to get a full assessment of your dog’s head shaking. They will most likely check the ears for any irritation. This will confirm whether they need to run additional tests for illnesses.
- Infection – Dogs’ ears can become infected if they are not cleaned out properly. Wax builds up and bacteria start to form causing infections to manifest.
What To Do – Infection can actually happen as a result of many of the reasons above. If your dog does get an infected ear you will often see discharge seeping out. The best course of action is to consult your vet who will prescribe something to help fight it. An ear infection is not usually something to be concerned about but does require a better assessment and if left can lead to further problems. You should clean your dog’s ears regularly to prevent any infections from happening. Have a look at Pet MD’s article on how to spot and treat your dog’s infected ear.
Once you establish that your dog’s head shaking is not a one-off event, you should investigate further to find out the real issue. Finding out why your dog is shaking their head will take some simple analysis including the retracing of your dog’s steps. The first thing you should do is look inside your dog’s ears and see if there are foreign bodies inside.
The next part of your investigation should include thinking about where you have taken your dog during the day. Try to figure out whether it could be a thorn from a plant or the water they played in, with crashing waves water can easily enter the ears. Check the cleanliness of your dog’s ears, taking note of the smell and any discharge dispersing from them. We have a great video further down explaining how to clean your dog’s ears which can sometimes help stop irritation and subsequently stop your dog from shaking its head.
If you are unable to come to any reasonable conclusion then veterinary advice we are seeking. Vets can use special equipment to look inside your dog’s ears and determine anything that may be irritating them.
How To Clean A Dogs Ears Out At Home
We do this with our Golden Retriever all the time. That is because good ear maintenance can prevent many problems from occurring including some bad odors you would rather be without. As part of this article, I wanted to provide a brief guide on cleaning your dog’s ears at home as it can be essential in treating some of the most common reasons for head shaking.
What You Will Need
- A second person to help restrain your dog, comfort them, and prevent any head shaking.
- Absorbent towels, preferably old ones you don’t mind getting wax on.
- Kitchen roll or cotton pads for damping and wiping waxy areas
- Breed-specific ear cleaner, consult your vet for advice if needed.
- Cotton buds or cue tips can be used with care. They should only be used around easily accessible parts of the ear. Do not go into the ear canal! If you are unsure consult your vet.
- A bowl of warm water will help clean up waxy discharge from your dog’s ears.
- Lift your dog’s ear up so the inner ear is exposed
- Using the instructions on the ear cleaning solution, insert the solution into the ear canal
- Gently massage the underneath of your dog’s ear, hopefully dislodging some wax
- At this point allow your dog to shake their head, as it will be desperate to do so.
- Dampen the kitchen roll or cotton pad in the warm water and wipe any waxy discharge from the ears entrance
- Using a cue tip carefully clean out any waxy deposits from the crevices of your dog’s ears.
- Once you are satisfied that no more waxy discharge is coming out dry the remaining area with a towel
- At this point, your dog will have some oily discharge under his ear and you may want to consider bathing him.
If your dog’s ears are extremely waxy you may want to consider getting advice from your vet before sticking anything in there. Veterinarians are qualified to go further into your dog’s ear and help release some of the wax. Just be careful when using cue tips, as the ends can easily come off and get stuck, your dog will also wriggle a lot so be careful when cleaning close to the canal. The video below shows the process of cleaning your dog’s ears.
Head shaking is a common occurrence and often not something to be worried about. It’s always best to be on the safe side and so if your dog persistently shakes their head then consider going to see a vet. If you enjoyed this post check out some of our other articles on our homepage. Also for a fun fact article check out our one on “6 Dogs With Big Ears”.