Dogs shaking their noggins is more than a cute waggle. Usually, it serves a purpose—and if it happens a lot, something could be amiss.
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dog shaking his head
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Because they lack opposable thumbs, our furry pals have to rely on other ways to scratch an itch or remove something in their ears. Is this why dogs shake their heads? Georgina Ushi Phillips, DVM, says most of the time, yes. 

"A head shake could be triggered by a bug landing on their head, a little water in the ear after a swim, and everything in between," she says, adding that while dogs can scratch their face or rub their ears with a paw, it's not as efficient as a quick and powerful head shake. However, there might also be some medical reasons for the flipping and flopping.

What If Your Dog Is Shaking Their Head A Lot?

"Head shaking is usually pretty effective, so if you notice your dog shaking their head over and over with only short pauses in between, there's likely an issue and an exam with your veterinarian is a good idea," Phillips says. Here are some possible medical conditions that cause dogs to shake their heads a lot.

Ear infection

Ear infections are pretty common ailments for dogs. Typical causes include moist ears, yeast and bacteria, ear mites, and allergies. Other signs of an infection you might notice:

  • Your pup is constantly scratching their ears and shaking their head.
  • Inflammation and redness inside their ears.
  • A smelly discharge coming from the ears that's usually brown, green, or yellow. 

If you notice any of these signs, get prompt treatment to spare your pooch further distress and prevent the issue from escalating. After an exam, your vet will probably recommend some prescription medication. 

Earwax buildup

Another reason why dogs shake their heads is because there's too much earwax, which can be uncomfortable, block air flow, and be another precursor of infection. If you sniff your pup's ears and notice an odor and brown gunk but no skin irritation or discharge, it's time to clean your dog's ears.

Healthy ears shouldn't be cleaned at home, though. So if you suspect there might be other debris inside your dog's ears, let your vet take care of it. 

Allergies

Some of our canine friends suffer from similar allergies as we do, including environmental factors and uncontrolled parasites such as fleas and ticks. Dogs can also develop food allergies, although these are more rare.  

If your dog keeps shaking his head and displays a range of other symptoms, too, including excessive paw licking, scratching at hot spots, diarrhea, and rashes, it's probably time to schedule allergy testing

Neurological disorders

Sometimes dogs shake or tilt their head involuntarily, which might be an indication of neurological disorders. Other symptoms that hint to a more serious health condition include abnormal gait or limping, facial distortion, loss of balance, and crying out in pain.

Is a Head Shake Different From a "Shake Off"?

Aside from a quick head shake, another thing some dogs do is shake off. "If dogs are shaking their full body, along with their head, then it could be related to something called a 'shake off', which is a technique that dogs use to reset after any kind of tense or stressful situation," Phillips says. This is how they calm themselves and is a normal reaction.

You'll see this often after two canines meet for the first time. Phillips says this initial encounter can make dogs a little anxious, so after the obligatory sniffing, both dogs shake off. You might also notice a vigorous head-to-tail body shake from your pup while playing with other dogs (a form of body language that says, "Hey, let's take a break here!"), after long car rides, or when surrounded by new people.

Additional reporting by Jennifer Nelson.