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Dr. Kara
Dr. Kara, Veterinarian
Category: Dog Veterinary
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Experience:  Over 20 years of experience as a veterinarian.
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What would cause a dogs head to shake uncontrollably?

Customer Question

What would cause a dogs head to shake uncontrollably?
Submitted: 6 months ago.
Category: Dog Veterinary
Expert:  Dr. Kara replied 6 months ago.
Hello, my name is***** and I have over 20 years of experience as a veterinarian. I understand your concern for your fellow Newton because you are noticing him shaking his head uncontrollably.Are these episodes of his head bobbing, or are they small groups of muscles twitching on his face/head?Can he control and stop these episodes if you distract him (talk to him, offer him a treat)?Do these seem to happen more when he is trying to do something (intention tremors) or more when he is at rest and relaxing (resting tremor)? If these tremors seem to be muscle spasms of a group of muscles that he cannot control or stop it is certainly possible that your fellow is having petit mal seizures. These seizures affect a small group of muscles in a particular area of the body. They are not of the same significance as grand mal seizures (loss of consciousness, whole body, rhythmic, uncontrollable muscle contractions with possible loss of urine and stool continence) because the chance of body temperature increasing and subsequent brain damage is much less. We cannot distract a dog and get these muscle twitches to stop, they seem to stop and start of their own accord. There are several things that can cause muscle contractions other than petite mal seizures. Infections, nerve damage or inflammation, kidney disease and mineral (especially calcium) or electrolyte disturbances can all cause muscle fasiculations (spasms) as well. None of these can be consciously stopped by your pup. There are also benign head tremors which we can see in some breeds of dogs, Bulldogs being one of those breeds. These are poorly understood but tend to occur when the dog is awake but relaxed. They can involve up and down "nodding" type movements or side to side "saying no" type movements rather than muscle spasms like we see with petit mal seizures. They will stop if the dog is distracted by something else. Very rarely these can signify brain disease, but in most instances they are benign and do not bother the dog. I need to ask if you recently applied any topical flea medications or could he have been exposed to an insecticide? If so this can be a reaction to a toxin and you want to bathe him thoroughly to remove as much of the toxin as possible with something like Dawn dishwashing soap and cool water. Do not use hot water or scrub his skin as that will increase toxin absorption. Some flea control products, especially the over the counter products with high amounts of pyrethrin type insecticides can cause muscle twitches in sensitive dogs. If he seems itchy or he has increased amounts of debris in his ears, a foul odor, and his ears are red and swollen then head shaking can be caused by an ear infection.An allergic reaction to an insect bite or sting can also lead to shaking his head, but then I would expect to see redness, facial swelling and/or hives. Another possible, but unlikely, cause of his symptoms is intervertebral disc disease. This is when the spongy discs between the vertebrae in his spine either prolapse or leak and put pressure on his spinal cord. This is quite painful and can lead to painful muscle spasms or if there is enough pressure then even paralysis can result. Keeping him very quiet, no running, jumping or bending over (elevate his food and water bowls to head height) is best. This is more commonly a cause of muscle twitches along the back or neck rather than head tremors, but I mention it to be complete. If he seems to be progressing in symptoms and has a grand mal seizure (unconscious, unaware of surroundings, repetitive, uncontrollable whole body muscle movements with or without loss of urine or stool) then he should be seen by a veterinarian on an emergency basis today. If his color is good and he is eating, drinking and behaving normally otherwise I suspect that he is stable but I do recommend that your veterinarian examine him and run some tests to determine why he is repeatedly shaking his head.I wouldn't wait too long to have him seen as some of the things that can cause muscle spasms (like toxins, electrolyte or mineral imbalances) can cause long term problems for your fellow and may be indicative of serious diseases. If this is intervertebral disc disease it is very important to relieve the inflammation so it does not progress to paralysis. If this is secondary to high blood calcium levels then addressing that promptly so there is no organ damage and tissue calcification is best.And if this is related to an ear infection repeatedly shaking his head can lead to an ear hematoma (him breaking a blood vessel in his ear and the flap filling with blood) which may require surgery to correct. If he cannot seem to stop shaking even with distraction then it will be very helpful for your veterinarian to see one of these episodes. If you can tape one of these episodes on your cell phone then that would be very helpful.Please let me know if you have any further questions.
Expert:  Dr. Kara replied 6 months ago.
Hello, I wanted to make sure that you didn't have any further questions for me, and I'd like to know how things turned out for your pup. If you found my response helpful please don't forget to rate it so I may receive credit for it, thank you, ***** *****
Expert:  Dr. Kara replied 6 months ago.
Hi Sherry,

I'm just following up on our conversation about Newton. How is everything going?

Dr. Kara

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