If you see your cat shaking their head more than usual, they could be reacting to a number of conditions ranging from minor to serious. Whether your cat's head shaking is caused by ear mites, ear infection, or a critical issue, such as infectious peritonitis, it's vital to seek veterinary treatment.
Infection in a cat’s ears and parasites
Ear infections in cats can occur due to bacteria, foreign bodies, or fungus in the inner ear, leading to inflammation in the ear canal. Cats respond to the pain and itchiness of ear infections by shaking their head and scratching their ears. There may be debris or fluid in the cat's ears that they want to remove.
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Can ear mites cause head shaking in a cat?
While not very common, particularly with indoor cats, cats can also get outer ear infections due to an ear mite infestation. Ear mites are common in outdoor cats. Ear mites can lead to scratching, head shaking, and a black discharge. Ear mites can also create an environment in the cat's ear canal that causes bacteria growth. The resulting infection can last even once the parasites are gone.
Cat shaking their head from polyps
A polyp is a benign growth that develops in the middle ear just behind the eardrum. Polyps can grow down the cat's Eustachian tube or through the eardrum into the ear canal. This can lead to a cat pawing at their ears and shaking or tilting their head.
Cat shaking their head due to oral problems
An issue in your cat's mouth can also cause head shaking. Problems from dental disease in cats are often hidden until an X-ray is taken. However, symptoms could include head shaking or twitching, drooling, jaw chattering, bad breath, or pawing at the mouth. Your cat may avoid food, or they might drop food out of their mouth.
Cat shaking their head from insect bites
Any area on a cat's face, including their ears, makes an easy target for insect bites, from fleas to bees to spiders. Depending on the insect, bites can range from barely noticeable to life-threatening. Itchiness or pain from a bite could cause pawing at the cat's ears or head shaking.
While you can ease your cat's itching with a paste of baking soda and water and possibly prevent an allergic reaction with an antihistamine, you should seek veterinary attention if you can tell your cat has been bitten. The baking soda and water paste should not be placed anywhere around the eye. Also, since cats like to groom topical products off of themselves — which means they'll ingest it — too much baking soda can be toxic.
Cat shaking their head from allergies
Cats can suffer from allergies just like humans. Environmental elements, like pollen, or certain foods could be the culprit. Cats can even be allergic to the saliva of fleas. Seasonal or environmental allergens are most likely to cause itchiness and discomfort, often in the ears, and some cats may shake their head as a result of that itchiness.
Consult your veterinarian if you suspect your cat is suffering from allergies. Treatment may include avoiding the trigger or administering antihistamines.
Cat shaking their head causes aural hematoma
An aural hematoma is a mass of blood, either fresh or clotted, in the cat's ear flap. The hematoma will cause the ear flap to swell. Hematomas are usually caused by an initial irritant in the ear canal that leads to head shaking. Excessive head shaking can cause blood vessels to break, leading to the blood clot. So, in the case of aural hematomas, the head shaking is actually the cause and not the result.
Head shaking vs. head tremors in a cat
When a cat shakes their head, they're doing so voluntarily, usually as a response to discomfort or foreign objects in their ears. Head tremors, however, are involuntary. If your cat is suddenly moving or twitching their head and can't control it, seek emergency veterinary care. They could have sustained a head injury, ingested something toxic, or developed another severe medical condition.
Cat head shaking caused by 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 and results in hypoglycemia, with head tremors being one of the typical symptoms. Neurological signs such as seizures are common along with general weakness, which may lead a cat to simply collapse.
Feline infectious peritonitis
One of the more serious diseases that can cause head tremors in cats is feline infectious peritonitis, or FIP. It's rare for a cat who is an "only child" to get FIP, but this viral infection can spread throughout multiple-cat environments.
The signs that indicate FIP include mild upper respiratory symptoms and mild gastrointestinal issues, such as diarrhea. Other symptoms can include loss of appetite, weight loss, depression, fever, and difficulty breathing caused by fluid accumulating in the chest and abdomen.
The disease causes neurological problems, including head tremors and seizures, in approximately 10 percent of the cats it affects.
Devon Rex myopathy can cause head shaking
The cat breed Devon rex can be genetically predisposed to Devon rex myopathy, sometimes called spasticity. This hereditary condition causes general muscle weakness, head bobbing, and carrying the head low. There is no treatment for this condition. Because of the head bobbing, putting your cat's food in a raised dish, thus allowing them to keep their head up, can help prevent choking, which is an unfortunate side effect.
The condition usually appears when a cat is about 5 to 6 months of age. Progression is typically slow, and while some cats can go on with a comfortable life, other cats are highly affected.
Cats may shake their head for a variety of reasons, from minor irritations to more serious conditions. If head shaking persists, take your cat to the veterinarian for a diagnosis. It's important to understand that head tremors are distinct from head shaking. Tremors are uncontrollable movements, and it's advised to seek emergency veterinary care if your cat is experiencing head tremors or seizures of any kind.
- VCA Animal Hospitals: Dental Disease in Cats
- Cornell Feline Health Center: Feline Infectious Peritonitis
- VCA Animal Hospitals: Ear Infections in Cats (Otitis Externa)
- VCA Animal Hospitals: Nasopharyngeal Polyps in Cats
- VCA Animal Hospitals: Hematoma of the Ear in Cats
- Merck Manual Veterinary Manual: Disorders of the Pancreas in Cats