Shaking Head Symptoms in Cats

By Elle Di Jensen

When a cat shakes her head frequently, it's a symptom of a medical issue that could be caused by a number of health conditions ranging from minor to serious. Whether your cat is shaking her head because she has ear mites, an infection or is dealing with a critical issue such as infectious peritonitis, it's vital to seek veterinary treatment.

Ear Infections and Parasites

Cats may not have as many ear problems as dogs do, but some kitties occasionally suffer from ear infections or ear mites. The trouble with determining which is causing your cat to shake her head is that the symptoms of both are similar. With either condition your cat's head shaking will be accompanied by dark, waxy discharge from the ear, redness and inflammation inside the ear, rubbing and scratching the ear and a strong odor from the affected ear. The discharge from your cat's ear will look grainy, similar to fine coffee grounds.

Oral Problems

Because the ears and nose are closely connected, a problem in your cat's mouth can cause her to shake her head. In her article for, feline behavior consultant, author and Cornell University graduate Helen Jablonski says if you suspect your kitty's head shaking is due to an oral problem, there are other signs to look for. These include:

  • Drooling
  • Pawing at the mouth
  • Bad breath
  • Difficulty eating
  • Loss of appetite
  • Decreased or neglected grooming
  • Sensitivity around her jaw and mouth

Tumors on the Pancreas

Part of the pancreas's job is to secrete insulin, but when a tumor interferes with the normal function of the pancreas, the resulting condition is called insulinoma. The condition causes the pancreas to overproduce insulin that results in hypoglycemia, with head shaking being one of the typical symptoms, according to the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center. In her article for Veterinary Partner, Dr. Wendy Brooks of the Mar Vista Animal Medical Center in Los Angeles, California says that other symptoms of hypoglycemia caused by insulinoma can be:

  • Listlessness
  • Twitching
  • An unsteady walk
  • Decreased mental awareness
  • Seizures

Feline Infectious Peritonitis

Typically the cause of a cat shaking her head is minor and easy for the vet to treat. One of the more serious diseases that cause head shaking and bobbing in cats is feline infectious peritonitis. The Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine says it's rare for a cat who is an only "child" to get feline infectious peritonitis, but that it can spread throughout multiple cat environments such as kennels and catteries. Deadly and incurable, the signs that indicate feline infectious peritonitis include loss of appetite and weight loss, yellowed eyelids and a dull coat. The disease causes neurological problems in approximately 15 percent of cats it affects, and causes the head to shake, and can cause seizures, too.

Devon Rex Myopathy

If your kitty is a Devon rex, she may be genetically predisposed to a condition known as Devon rex myopathy, more commonly called spasticity. The Lyons Feline and Comparative Genetics at the University of Missouri explains the condition as being similar to muscular dystrophy in humans. The symptoms of the disorder typically start showing in Devon rex kittens as early as 6 weeks old. The main characteristic of spasticity is muscle weakness making it difficult for your cat to hold his head up normally. This results in head bobbing and causes your cat's neck and head to bend down unnaturally and her shoulder blades to protrude. The condition also makes it difficult for your cat to swallow, putting her at risk for choking on food.