My Dog Keeps Shaking Their Head
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Dogs shake their body to get rid of water from their coat, shiver when they are cold or even from sheer joy. These are momentary episodes which do not continue for long periods. When we see the dog shaking regularly or chronically, it is a sign something is wrong. Persistent tremors in dogs can suggest they have a serious illness or health condition which affects their central nervous system. To determine the underlying cause, we need to look at the context of the shaking.
Observing how their body shakes and which parts of the body are most affected can help a veterinarian diagnose the problem. This is why AnimalWised looks at why my dog keeps shaking their head. We find out the causes of head tremors in dogs, as well as what treatment options may be available.
The cerebellum is part of the hind brain which is located under the cerebrum. Its two main functions are to coordinate movements and to maintain balance. When an injury or alteration to the cerebellum occurs, its functionality is altered which can result in various clinical symptoms. When grouped together, these symptoms are known as cerebellar syndrome.
One of the most characteristic symptoms of cerebellar syndrome is something known as an intention tremor. When the animal makes a voluntary movement, the decisions is made by the brain, but it is the cerebellum that is responsible for directing the action. When there is a problem with the cerebellum, the actions are poorly directed, so a movement that should be fluid is distorted and can result in a characteristic tremor.
Such cerebellar tremors are said to be intentional because they occur during voluntary movement. It should not appear during rest. If your dog's head keeps shaking when they are actively trying to carry out an action, it could point towards this issue.
In addition to intention tremor, dogs with cerebellar syndrome typically exhibit the following clinical signs:
- Hypermetria: animals make exaggerated movements as if they are overstepping.
- Loss of balance: for this reason they usually have a wide base of support, with the extremities more open than usual.
- Ataxia: lack of voluntary muscle incoordination.
It should be clarified that cerebellar syndrome is not a disease in itself. It is a set of symptoms that may appear associated with various cerebellar diseases, the most important being:
- Congenital malformations: such as cerebellar hypoplasia or Chiari malformation.
- Degenerative diseases: such as cerebellar abiotrophy.
- Cerebellar tumors: masses on the cerebellum affecting its function.
- Cerebellar stroke: an infarction of the cerebellum.
- Inflammatory processes: such as idiopathic cerebellitis (also called shaker syndrome in dogs).
Treatment of cerebellar syndrome
As cerebellar syndrome is a set of symptoms, we need to treat its underlying cause. In some cases, there is not specific treatment, so we will need to rely on symptom management.
- Congenital malformations and degenerative diseases do not have specific treatment. In the case of malformations, the symptoms will maintain at the same level and the animals can enjoy a good quality of life. In degenerative diseases, the clinical signs progressively worsen, making it necessary to consider euthanasia for dogs in most cases.
- The treatment of intracranial tumors may be based solely on supportive therapy or definitive treatment. The former aims to alleviate symptoms produced by the tumor and the latter is based on surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiotherapy. In these cases, the prognosis is usually reserved and depends on multiple factors, such as the type of tumor, the location, the size, the neurological status of the animal, etc.
- Cerebellar stroke also does not have any specific treatment, although therapy should be instituted to maintain cerebellar perfusion and treat the possible neurological sequelae of the infarction. The prognosis in these cases is guarded.
- Inflammatory processes such as idiopathic cerebellitis must be treated with corticosteroids which can be combined with benzodiazepines such as diazepam. The prognosis in most cases is good, since the animals usually improve their symptoms a few days after starting treatment.
Idiopathic head tremor
This is a movement disorder in which a the dog keeps shaking their head spontaneously. Unlike cerebellar syndrome, the tremor increases when the dog is at rest and decreases with activity. If your dog shakes their head when sleeping or lying down, this may be the case.
As it is an idiopathic process, its cause is unknown. It most commonly affected breeds which are predisposed to this condition, implying their is a genetic influence. These breeds include the Doberman Pinscher, Boxer, Labrador Retriever and different Bulldog breeds.
A characteristic feature of idiopathic head tremors in dogs is that it appears without any other clinical signs or neurological abnormalities. During head-shaking episodes, dogs are alert and respond to stimuli around them. Head tremors can present horizontally or vertically and usually last an average of 1-3 minutes. The episodes can be repeated several times a day.
Treatment of canine idiopathic head tremors
There is no specific treatment for this disorder, although distracting the dog with something of interest (e.g. a treat, toy, etc.) can help ease the shaking and the tremor to end. As a general rule, idiopathic head tremors in dogs usually resolve spontaneously within a few days or weeks. It is a disorder that does not usually affect the dog' quality of life, so prognosis is generally considered good.
Epilepsy (focal seizures)
Epilepsy is not one single disease, but a group of neurological disorders in dogs that are characterized by recurrent epileptic seizures. Such seizures are often generalized and affect the whole organism. However, focal epileptic seizures can occur where the spasming is limited to a localized area. When a dog keeps shaking their head, it could be due to a focal epileptic seizure which affects the head alone.
Unlike an idiopathic head tremor, focal epileptic seizures of a dog's head are usually accompanied by:
- Loss of consciousness: ranging from the animal appearing absent to a stupor or coma.
- Alteration of the autonomic nervous system: may include drooling, urination and/or involuntary defecation.
When the dog's head shaking is accompanied by one or both of these two alterations, it is is highly suggestive of epilepsy in dogs.
Treatment of focal epilepsy in dogs
Epilepsy in dogs may have a primary cause or it may be of unknown origin. In the event that there is a pathology or injury that causes epilepsy, a specific treatment should be established whenever possible. In addition, regardless of whether or not the cause is known, treatment with anticonvulsants (such as phenobarbital or potassium bromide) should be instituted whenever there is more than one seizure per month, the periods between seizures are shortened, or postictal signs (those that appear after seizures) are long lasting.
Learn more about what to do during the seizure itself with our article on what to do if a dog is having a seizure.
Other reasons a dog keeps shaking their head
Not all of the reasons a dog keeps shaking their head are due to chronic illnesses or degenerative disorders. Some may manifest this symptom due to something acute which can resolve itself with treatment. Below, we look at some pathological reasons a dog may keep shaking their head:
- Ear infection: when a bacterial or fungal infection occurs in the ear, it will lead to swelling known as otitis. There are various types as they can attack different parts of the ear, as can be seen in external otitis in dogs. Since the ear is so sensitive, it can cause a lot of agitation. The shakes their head to relieve frustration and pain. Treatment may require antibiotics, fungicides or even pain management, depending on the cause.
- Parasites: external parasites such as fleas and ticks can latch on to the skin on a dog's head. Their bites cause itching which lead to the dog shaking their head. Ear mites are a common parasite in dogs which can also lead to otitis. Treatment will involve using the right product to kill the specific parasite.
- Foreign bodies: when something enters the ear canal, it can become lodged and lead to irritation. The dog may keep shaking their head to remove the lodged object.
- Allergies: when dogs suffer allergic reactions, it can lead to various symptoms. This can include skin inflammation and redness which causes itchiness. The dog may shake their head to relieve the itch, but you will also likely see them scratching at themselves with their paws. Removal of the allergen and/or antihistamine treatment will be required.
Lastly, your dog may shake their heads because they have water in their ear. After they have run through sprinklers, jumped into a pool or otherwise come in contact with water, said water can enter their ear canal. The dog may keep shaking their head to get rid of the discomfort causes by the water in their ear. While this should be temporary, microorganisms in the water can lead to infections which require treatment.
As there are various reasons why a dog keeps shaking their head, it is imperative we take them to a veterinarian for diagnosis and treatment.
This article is purely informative. AnimalWised does not have the authority to prescribe any veterinary treatment or create a diagnosis. We invite you to take your pet to the veterinarian if they are suffering from any condition or pain.
If you want to read similar articles to My Dog Keeps Shaking Their Head, we recommend you visit our Neurological diseases category.