Why Do Labradors Shake Their Heads? (8 Reasons Unveiled)

By Benjamin Tash

Ever pondered why your Labrador keeps shaking its head? Curious about potential medical reasons or just their natural behaviors?

We’ve got you covered.

Here’s Briefly Why Labradors Shake Their Heads:

Labradors shake their heads for a variety of reasons. Ear mites, those tiny parasites can create itching and discomfort that can lead to persistent shaking. Excessive ear wax accumulation which is more prevalent in Labradors than other breeds can also cause discomfort. Also, foreign bodies from stray grass seeds to bits of toys can get lodged in their ears and create an urgent need to shake them out.

Skin conditions around the ear area can also result in irritation and make Labs shake their heads in an attempt to alleviate the itch. Moreover, Labradors that are known for their playful nature might occasionally shake their heads as an expression of their inherent playfulness.

In our comprehensive guide, we’ll dive deep into the 8 core reasons behind your Labrador’s head-shaking tendencies.

Beyond just observing, we’ll equip you with insights to distinguish between a playful shake and one that could hint at health concerns.

But, knowledge isn’t our only gift. If your Lab’s behavior signals alarm, our 10-action plan stands ready to guide you through every critical step. Let’s dive in!

Labrador shaking head

8 Reasons Why Labradors Shake Their Heads

1) Ear Structure

Labradors have a distinctive ear structure that inherently contributes to their tendency to shake their heads. Unlike humans, who have a relatively straight ear canal, Labradors have an ‘L’-shaped canal.

This unique shape, while evolutionarily advantageous for protection against debris and water entry also has its downsides.

The design can trap moisture, dirt and foreign bodies which makes Labradors more susceptible to ear infections and irritation.

Consider, for instance, a Labrador’s love for water. While swimming or playing fetch in a lake, water can get trapped in those intricate ear canals.

This trapped moisture can become a breeding ground for bacteria and yeast if not properly drained or cleaned. The dog’s natural response to such discomfort is to shake its head while attempting to dislodge any trapped water or debris.

Moreover, this ‘L’-shaped ear canal, coupled with their floppy ears can limit air circulation. Limited airflow can exacerbate the growth of microbes which can cause itchiness and discomfort.

The dog’s instinct, when feeling this discomfort is to shake its head hoping to alleviate the sensation.

Also, Labradors are notably more predisposed to produce higher levels of earwax. This can sometimes accumulate and harden that can cause an obstruction in the ear canal. Imagine having a piece of earplug wedged in your ear; it’s uncomfortable, right?

For a Labrador, head shaking becomes a means to try and dislodge or shift this wax buildup.

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Beyond mere discomfort, the anatomy of a Labrador’s ear makes them more prone to certain conditions like otitis externa, a common ear inflammation. When your pooch experiences this, the ear canal swells, becomes red and can produce a foul-smelling discharge.

As with many of the aforementioned reasons, a Labrador’s primary reflex in these scenarios is to shake its head, both as a means of alleviating pain and as a response to the strange sensation.

Read more about how a Labrador’s ear structure also makes them have top-notch hearing capabilities here: Do Labradors Have Good Hearing? (A Comprehensive Explanation)

2) Swimmer’s Ear

A prevalent reason behind Labradors shaking their heads is a condition known as Swimmer’s Ear, medically termed Otitis Externa. Swimmer’s Ear is an inflammation of the outer ear canal which is typically caused by trapped moisture.

Labradors with their endearing love for water and aquatic antics often find themselves at a heightened risk for this ailment.

The moniker “Swimmer’s Ear” is not a mere coincidence. The condition is named for its frequent occurrence among individuals (or in this case, dogs) who spend considerable time in water.

When Labradors indulge in their favorite water-based activities, water often gets trapped in their uniquely shaped, ‘L’-configured ear canals as explained earlier.

This retained moisture creates an optimal environment for bacterial growth that can lead to infection.

Now, let’s delve deeper into the ‘why’. When a Labrador’s ear canal is inflamed due to Swimmer’s Ear, it can lead to discomfort, itching and sometimes even pain.

The natural instinct for a dog, much like a human would scratch an itch is to shake its head vigorously in an attempt to dislodge the trapped water or alleviate the itching sensation.

Picture those moments when water gets stuck in your ear after a swim; our instinct is to tilt our heads or hop on one foot. For Labradors, this vigorous head shake serves a similar purpose.

To provide a more tangible example, think of the last time you saw a dog emerging from water, be it a pond, lake, or even a bathtub.

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One of the first reactions, almost reflexive in nature is a powerful and spirited shake — starting from the head and reverberating down to the tail. This isn’t just a quirky dog behavior but a practical attempt to rid the ears of water.

Moreover, symptoms of Swimmer’s Ear in Labradors can sometimes be subtle but discernible for an observant owner.

Beyond the frequent head shaking, they might paw at their affected ear or it might emit a slightly off-putting odor. In severe cases, there may even be a discharge.

On a different note, also check out Why Does My Lab Stretch So Much? (Reasons + Signs To Look Out For)

3) Allergies

Just as humans can be plagued by allergenic reactions, our canine companions are susceptible to a spectrum of allergens.

These allergens, when they come into contact with or are ingested by the dog can lead to symptoms that range from mild discomfort to severe distress.

At the root of the ‘why’ is the body’s immune response. Allergies occur when the dog’s immune system identifies a usually harmless substance as a threat and subsequently overreacts.

This overreaction can lead to inflammation, particularly in areas like the ears. Labradors with their floppy ears can be particularly susceptible as the ear’s shape can trap allergens, thus intensifying the reaction within the confined space of the ear canal.

Consider pollen, for instance. During certain times of the year, when pollen count soars, a Labrador playing outdoors might be exposed to these minute particles. As these pollen grains come in contact with the inner ear, they can instigate an allergic reaction.

The resultant inflammation and itchiness become the primary culprits for the Labrador’s incessant head shaking. They’re essentially trying to find relief from an itch they can’t scratch or to expel the bothersome allergens causing the irritation

Beyond pollen, Labradors can be allergic to a variety of substances such as certain foods, mold spores, dust mites and even some grooming products.

The manifestation of these allergies in the ear is particularly concerning. The warm and moist environment of a dog’s ear is a breeding ground for yeast and bacteria.

When allergens cause inflammation, these microbes can multiply and lead to secondary infections which further intensify the dog’s urge to shake its head.

All in all, the seemingly simple act of a Labrador shaking its head can be a telltale sign of underlying allergies. This head shaking is not just a random behavioral quirk but a poignant response to discomfort.

It’s the dog’s natural way of signaling distress and trying to alleviate the itching or discomfort that allergies can cause, particularly within the confines of their unique ear structure.

4) Ear Mites

One prominent reason that can trigger a Labrador to persistently shake its head is the presence of ear mites. These minute parasitic creatures, often invisible to the naked eye can create a world of discomfort for our pooch.

Ear mites, primarily the Otodectes cynotis species, are incredibly contagious and can pass easily between animals.

While cats are frequent carriers, dogs, especially those in multi-pet households or those that socialize extensively are vulnerable. When these mites infest the ears of Labradors, they feed on the earwax and oils which can lead to significant irritation.

Now, let’s examine the ear’s structure and environment. A Labrador’s ear, particularly its floppy design provides a warm, dark and moist haven for mites to thrive.

As these mites multiply and move around, they induce a relentless itchiness and discomfort. Consequently, the Labrador shakes its head and tries to get relief from this internal tickling sensation which  unfortunately is far from reach.

Beyond the sheer discomfort, there’s another layer to the problem. The mites’ presence and the subsequent scratching or head shaking can lead to inflammations or abrasions in the ear canal.

This in turn, can become a breeding ground for secondary bacterial or fungal infections which can further complicate the issue and amplify the dog’s distress.

A telltale sign of ear mite infestation, apart from the head shaking, is the production of a dark and coffee-ground-like discharge in the ear. This is essentially a combination of earwax, blood and mite feces.

For the unsuspecting owner, this might be dismissed as mere dirt but understanding its implication is pivotal to the dog’s health.

5) Excessive Ear Wax

Ear wax or cerumen, is naturally produced by the glands in the ear canal. Its primary purpose is to protect the inner ear from dirt, foreign particles and infections.

However, for breeds like Labradors, whose ears don’t stand upright, the external ear structure tends to trap more heat and moisture. This enclosed environment, coupled with a narrower ear canal that can lead to an overproduction of wax.

While wax production is a natural and necessary process for all dogs, Labradors, given their unique ear anatomy, often have an overdrive in this department.

The trapped warmth and humidity in their ears stimulate the ceruminous glands to secrete wax more profusely as a defense mechanism.

Now, while a certain amount of ear wax is beneficial, excessive accumulation becomes problematic. It can cause blockages and hampering the free flow of air which is vital for a healthy ear environment.

This trapped wax becomes a source of discomfort and itchiness for the dog. It’s this discomfort that propels a Labrador to shake its head which is an instinctual response to dislodge what feels like an irritant within the ear.

Moreover, the head shaking is not just an attempt to relieve the itching but also an intuitive effort to restore auditory clarity.

Imagine the muffled sounds one might hear when water is trapped in our ears; for Labradors, excessive wax can produce a similar effect.

Also, the narrower ear canal of Labradors compared to some other breeds means there’s less space for this wax to disperse which can lead to quicker accumulation. This heightened wax production is a double-edged sword.

While it offers better protection from foreign particles, it also increases the risk of blockages, infections and associated discomfort.

Ear wax in Labradors can sometimes have a more viscous consistency due to the humidity trapped in their floppy ears.

This thickened wax is harder for the dog to naturally get rid of and might even trap other particles or microorganisms and escalate the discomfort.

The implication here isn’t merely about a dog’s momentary distress. Over time, constant head shaking and scratching can lead to secondary complications like hematomas or infections.

It’s important to understand that when a Labrador consistently shakes its head, it’s communicating discomfort and in cases like these, excessive ear wax might be the underlying issue.

6) Foreign Bodies

Labradors, with their exuberant personalities and insatiable curiosity are often found frolicking in grassy meadows, digging in the earth or playing by water bodies.

Their adventurous spirit, while commendable also makes them prone to a particular concern: foreign bodies in the ear.

The very anatomy of a Labrador’s ear predisposes it to this issue. Their ears are pendulous which means they fold over and create a sort of pocket. This design can easily trap foreign objects like grass seeds, dirt or even tiny insects.

For instance, imagine a Labrador enthusiastically running through a grassy field, the chances of a rogue grass seed or thistle finding its way into the ear are considerably high. Once inside, these foreign bodies can become lodged within the ear canal.

The sensation of having an object in the ear is quite uncomfortable for the Labrador. The ear canal is sensitive and when something foreign settles in, it’s akin to having a pebble in your shoe; every movement magnifies the discomfort.

This sensation triggers an instinctive reaction in the Labrador to shake its head vigorously. The shaking is an attempt to dislodge the irritant and bring relief.

Moreover, Labradors are water-loving dogs. Whether it’s a pond, lake or just a kiddie pool in the backyard, these dogs relish in aquatic play.

However, this also means they’re more susceptible to getting water trapped in their ears which can mimic the sensation of a foreign body.

The trapped water can lead to head shaking and even pave the way for infections if not addressed.

7) Skin Conditions

Beneath that shiny coat, many Labradors suffer from skin conditions that can directly influence their behavior, including the notable act of shaking their heads.

Labrador skin, particularly around the ear region is prone to a variety of conditions. One prevalent issue is canine atopic dermatitis. This chronic inflammatory skin condition often manifests as itching around the ears, paws and belly.

The sensation can be so intense that Labradors frequently shake their heads in a desperate attempt to find relief.

But why is this breed more susceptible? Labradors due to their genetic makeup have a higher predisposition to allergic reactions which can exacerbate skin conditions.

The environment they’re exposed to, like pollen or household allergens can further irritate their skin which can lead to constant head-shaking.

Another concerning skin ailment for Labradors is yeast infections. The warm, moist environment of a Lab’s floppy ear provides a perfect breeding ground for yeast.

Once it takes hold, a yeast infection can be particularly irksome, causing inflammation and a foul odor. The head shaking? It’s a Labrador’s reflexive response to the intense itching and discomfort.

Furthermore, Labradors with their double coat have a unique skin pH and oil composition. This can sometimes make them vulnerable to specific bacterial infections that other breeds might ward off more effectively.

These bacterial infections when localized in or around the ear region can be another trigger for the frequent head movement.

You might also be interested in Why Do Labradors Have Sensitive Stomachs? (6 Reasons + 10 Tips You Must Know)

8) Inherent Playfulness

Have you also ever noticed how they often shake their heads, not in irritation or due to a health issue but as a sheer expression of their joy and enthusiasm?

Labradors which were historically bred as working dogs in Newfoundland have a natural vigor.

This energy which was initially harnessed for tasks like helping fishermen with their nets or retrieving game has evolved in domestic Labradors into a whirlwind of playful antics.

One such behavior is the animated shake of their head that is often seen when they’re engaging in spirited play or even when they’re simply gearing up for an adventure. But why the head shake?

One theory points to communication. In the canine world, body language is paramount. A Labrador shaking its head during play can be a signal to their human or fellow canine companion that they are in a jovial mood and ready for action.

It’s akin to a child’s excited hop when presented with a new toy. This specific head shake originating from their inherent playfulness is their way of saying, “I’m ready for some fun!”

Moreover, consider the Labrador’s build. With a strong, muscular neck and a balanced head, they’re perfectly equipped to give a hearty shake — much more so than some other breeds.

This physical ability combined with their lively temperament means that head shaking becomes a natural and frequent gesture in their playbook of expressions.

Labradors also possess an infectious zest for life. Anyone who’s thrown a ball for a Labrador knows the routine: a quick dash, a triumphant retrieval, followed often by a proud head shake and displaying their “catch” before they’re ready to go again.

Speaking of playfulness, you might also want to check out How Do Labradors Play With Other Dogs? (All You Should Know)

When Should You Worry About A Lab’s Headshaking Behavior? And How To Differentiate Between a Playful Headshaking and The One That Is Medically Related?

1) Frequency and Context

Playful headshakes are sporadic and are usually interspersed with other playful gestures like wagging tails or wiggles, playful growls or darting movements. It’s a part of their energetic expression.

However, if your Labrador is shaking its head incessantly, even when not engaged in play, it might be a signal to delve deeper. Continuous or frequent shaking devoid of a playful context often indicates discomfort.

Consider the occasions when your Lab plays with its favorite squeaky toy. You might notice a sporadic, joy-filled shake of the head, akin to how children might jump in excitement with a new toy.

This is the exuberance of play. Conversely, if you’re simply reading a book on your couch and you notice your Labrador consistently shaking its head without any playful stimuli around, it’s an indication to pay attention.

This repetitive, out-of-context shaking suggests something might be amiss.

2) Physical Signs

Observe the ears closely. Are they red? Is there a foul smell, discharge, or swelling? Playful headshaking doesn’t accompany these symptoms.

On the other hand, signs like these could be indicative of an infection, allergies or the presence of foreign bodies.

A playful headshake leaves no traces. It’s like watching someone dance with joy and then return to a neutral state.

But suppose you notice redness, an unusual odor or discharge in the ears after a shaking episode.

In that case, it’s similar to someone repeatedly rubbing their eyes and then displaying redness – a sign that there’s an underlying issue causing discomfort.

Reflecting on the possible health conditions of Labradors, you might also want to check out why certain Labradors tend to die young compared to other dog breeds here: Why Do Labradors Die Young? (7 Reasons You Should Know + Tips For Longevity)

3) Behavioral Clues

A Labrador shaking its head playfully is still in high spirits when they’re ready to fetch that ball or pounce on their toy.

But if the shaking is paired with signs of distress like whining, scratching at the ears or seeming disoriented, it’s cause for concern.

This behavior demonstrates discomfort and potentially indicates issues like ear mites, excessive ear wax or deeper medical conditions.

4) Timing

Playful shakes tend to occur during moments of heightened excitement – perhaps when you’re about to go for a walk or during a game of fetch.

Medically-related shakes however, can happen at random which can often catch you off guard – maybe when your Lab is resting or during a quiet evening.

Think about how we humans might jump up during an exciting movie scene or shout during a thrilling game — It’s momentary and linked to our environment. A Lab’s playful headshake is similar; it’s situational, often during exciting playtimes.

On the other hand, a medically-related shake can be likened to someone scratching at a persistent itch at all times, whether they’re eating, resting or walking. Such consistent and out-of-place behaviors are a call for deeper observation.

All in all, while Labradors are known for their spirited headshakes during play, it’s crucial to remain observant. Subtle differences in behavior, physical signs and timing can be the keys to differentiating between a joyful shake and one stemming from discomfort.

Always trust your instincts and when in doubt, seek the advice of a veterinarian. Being vigilant ensures your Labrador remains not just lively but also healthy.

What Should You Do When It’s Serious? (10-Action Plan)

When you notice your Labrador’s persistent head shaking, it’s natural for concern to set in. Recognizing a problem is the first step but actionable steps are crucial to ensure the health and comfort of your pet.

1) Immediate Observation

Your initial step should be keen observation. Just as a parent would closely monitor a child’s unusual behavior, the same applies here.

Watch for patterns — does the head shaking occur after walks, during a particular time of day or after meals? For instance, if it’s consistently after walks, it might hint at an external irritant, like pollen or dust.

2) Check for External Causes

Beyond behavioral patterns, a physical examination is pivotal. Gently restrain your Labrador to ensure it feels safe and meticulously examine its ears. Look for obvious signs such as redness, swelling or any foreign objects.

A common example is a dog that has been playing outdoors might get a twig or a leaf fragment trapped in its ear that can cause discomfort and prompting the shaking.

3) Gentle Cleaning

Sometimes, the issue can be resolved with a simple cleaning. Using a vet-recommended ear cleaning solution and a soft cloth, gently clean the outer area of the ear.

This can not only remove minor irritants but also give relief from potential itchiness or discomfort.

It’s essential, however, to ensure the solution is appropriate for dogs. Just as we wouldn’t use a harsh chemical on a child’s skin, the same consideration should apply to our furry companions.

4) Limit Exposure

If you’ve identified or even just suspect an external trigger causing the discomfort, it’s wise to limit your Labrador’s exposure to that environment or stimulus.

For example, if the head shaking intensifies after visits to a certain park or during a specific season, it could be an allergic response to particular plants or pollen.

Temporarily altering walk routes or timings might offer your dog relief which illustrates the importance of understanding the environment’s potential role.

5) Maintain Calm

Dogs, like humans, feed off the energy around them. If you’re visibly stressed about the situation, there’s a likelihood your Labrador will sense it and become anxious too.

This heightened stress can exacerbate the head shaking.

Ensuring a calm demeanor and a soothing environment, perhaps with gentle petting or soft background music can help mitigate the symptoms and keep your pet at ease.

6) Avoid Over-the-counter Medications

While the immediate impulse might be to seek relief for your dog, administering OTC medications without veterinary advice can be counterproductive and dangerous.

Not every medication suitable for humans is safe for dogs. For instance, certain common pain relievers can be toxic to them. Always prioritize professional guidance over self-diagnosis and treatment.

The risks of complications from self-administered treatments far outweigh any perceived immediate benefits.

7) Consultation

Seeking professional help is paramount. If your Labrador’s headshaking persists or seems distressing — consulting a veterinarian should be your first step.

They have the expertise to identify potential underlying causes, be it infections, allergies or other medical conditions.

A quick anecdote: A friend once noticed her Labrador shaking its head persistently after a day at the beach. Upon consulting the vet, they discovered a tiny seashell lodged in the dog’s ear canal which underscores the importance of professional evaluation.

8) Document Behavior

This can be an invaluable aid during your consultation. Start noting down when the headshaking began, its frequency and any potential triggers you’ve observed.

Did it start after a day out in the woods? Or perhaps post a change in their diet? Keeping a log or even video recordings can provide the vet with crucial context.

Consider the story of another Labrador owner who documented her dog’s headshaking episodes. By presenting this timeline to her vet, they could pinpoint that the episodes were related to a specific cleaning agent used in the home.

9) Follow Vet’s Recommendations

Once you’ve consulted a vet and received a diagnosis or potential treatments, it’s essential to strictly adhere to the prescribed recommendations.

Whether it’s a dietary change, medication or specific care routines, consistency is the key to recovery.

Just like a person prescribed antibiotics is advised to complete the entire course even if symptoms diminish, similarly, ensuring that your Labrador follows through with the vet’s advice is pivotal for its well-being.

Keep in mind that sporadic or inconsistent follow-through can lead to recurrence or even exacerbation of the issue.

10) Monitor & Re-assess

After you’ve consulted with a vet and started implementing their recommendations, your responsibility doesn’t end there. Continuous monitoring is essential.

Carefully observe your Labrador for signs of improvement or any new symptoms that may arise. Note any changes in the frequency of head shaking or any additional behavior, like scratching or tilting their head.

Think of it in terms of someone recovering from an illness. Just as they’d keep a check on their symptoms, and possibly even maintain a journal to track their progress —  your Labrador requires similar vigilance.

For instance, you might find that the headshaking has decreased in frequency but has become more intense. Such observations are crucial.

Also, re-assessment is fundamental. If, after a prescribed period, there’s no improvement or if the condition worsens, it’s imperative to return to the vet.

They might adjust the treatment or look into other potential causes. For example, imagine you’ve tried a new dietary regimen to counter a suspected allergy causing the headshaking.

If, after weeks, the behavior persists, it might be time to reconsider the diagnosis and explore other potential triggers or causes.


Dailypaws.com — 4 Reasons Why Dogs Shake Their Heads (And When to Call a Vet)

Lab-retriever.net — Lab Shakes Head & Ears Look Droopy

Thelabradorforum.com — Lab Head Shaking