My cat is shaking her head. Why?

This page lists the causes of cat head shaking. Cardi, a cat with terminal cancer I am looking after for a very old lady who is in hospital, is shaking her head from time to time (she is also called “Cardie”). She has also put her paw into her ear on just one occasion. I have checked her ear briefly and it looks clear. She is passive, thin, eats reasonably, goes to the toilet OK and sleeps a lot. She seems reasonably content but I don’t like to see head shaking.

Cardi a cat who shakes her head and who has cancer. She has a beautiful tabby coat. Photo by Michael.

Cardi a cat who shakes her head and who has cancer. She has a beautiful tabby coat. Is she a torbie? Photo by Michael.

I notice that cats shake their head on a one-off basis when they have discomfort relating to a single, particular event. It could be at any time. Perhaps a cat jumps off something and falls heavily. The cat might briefly shake his head. For me, the reason why they do it is to remove transient pain or discomfort. It is probably a way of distracting themselves from feeling the discomfort or pain. That is my personal theory. There are other direct medical reasons why a cat might shake his or her head persistently, which I list below.

In the case of Cardi, my diagnosis, which has already been indirectly supported by the vet at a previous consultation, is that Cardi has a sore tooth. This is one reason why she eats with a bit of difficulty. Her teeth, in general, are OK. It appears to be one tooth but may be more. My theory is that Cardi has put her paw into her ear because it is a tooth on the upper jaw causing tooth ache.

Doing cat dental work requires a general anesthetic and Cardi is frail with terminal cancer, I am told. However, there is no reason why she shouldn’t receive treatment for her sore tooth. Anesthetics can be dangerous but I feel I have to fix this problem as it will help her put on weight as she will eat better. What I might also try is some pain killers from the vet. I can’t allow her have a persistent tooth ache. Regrettably the consideration is cost. That sounds cruel but ultimately all health issues, human and companion animal hinge around cost.

Causes of Cat Head Shaking (other than what I have said above)

Ears

Ear problems are the single most common reason for cat head shaking.

  • Outer ear problem. Itchy ear. Perhaps the cat has been bitten in a fight and the ear is infected. There may be an abscess.
  • Blood clot under the skin of the ear flap (pinna). This is called a hematoma. Hematomas can be caused by trauma (injury).
  • Irritation and/or infection of the ear canal. This might be a bacterial infection due to a scratch or bite to the ear. Or it might be due to ear mites. An infection of the ear canal is called bacterial otitis externa.
  • Foreign body or a tick in the ear canal.
  • Ear mites. Other signs: head tilt, waxy material in ears, scratching ears.

Nose

Nasal irritation due to a foreign body in the nose can be accompanied by head shaking. It is quite rare for an object to get stuck in the nose because the passages are narrow. Other signs of a nasal foreign body are violent sneezing, pawing at the nose, head tilting, eye squint or the cat might drop her nose to the floor and breathe deeply. The nose can become infected (bacterial) if the object remains in the nose for longer than a day.

Mouth

An inflammed and sore mouth can result in head shaking as well as drooling and difficulty with eating. The medical term for an inflammed mouth is stomatitis.


Comments

My cat is shaking her head. Why? — 9 Comments

  1. I think a vet should be consulted. Could it be the cat is hearing ghost noises caused by a tumor? Only thing I can think of not on the list. As someone who has has trouble with my inner-ear all my life (I had six sets of tubes placed when I was ages 5-8) I know that having wax move in your inner ear can be very distressing. It gets hot and you feel it down the side of your neck. I remember shaking my head trying to clear it out. Didn’t work. :) I was the subject of a Ear, Nose, Throat Medical Journal article. I was the 100th kid to get the surgery in the United States. We were very lucky to have great ENT just 60 miles away from my tiny home town. Anyway, best to get a vet check for something that you can’t figure out.

  2. It’s worrying that Cardi is shaking her head, it could be a sign of an impending mini fit due to the cancer spreading in her body, it may be travelling to her brain.
    I don’t think a vet would anaesthetise a terminally ill cat to take a tooth out.
    Sadly it’s the cancer causing the weight loss, whatever Cardi eats can’t nourish her as it should.
    This is so very sad for you but the vet might recommend she is PTS soon.
    Ultimately though you will know if/when the time is right and do what is best for her.
    Thinking of you.

    • Thanks Ruth, I have been right on the cusp for about 2 weeks about whether to put her to sleep. It is a real balancing act. I agree that removing a tooth at this stage is probably overdoing it.

      There is just the slight possibility that if the tooth was removed and she did eat better she might live for several months if the vets have diagnosed slightly inaccurately. Perhaps I am being overoptimistic and hanging on too long. One has to be as objective as possible.

      • Living longer is good as long as she has quality of life and you who are caring for her will know if she has that better than any vet or anyone else.
        When Bryan had cancer the vet said she could give him steroids which would give him a few more days for our sake, but we saw he was weary of life and we had to let him go, it would have been selfish of us not to.
        You WILL know when the time is right for Cardi.

  3. Michael, I agree with what everyone says, but considering the fact that you are even thinking about the possibility of fixing the tooth and considering how you seem to repeat the same simple fact that she seems to be quite ok all things considered – it sounds like right now is not the time to end things. And if the tooth is the only thing causing her bother then maybe she will be quite happy for another few peaceful months with you. You don’t bring accross the idea of a cat who is in any pain or major discomfort at all – just a bit now with the head shaking. On an intuitive level it would be hard to put her to sleep now because very little, outwardly, is telling you to, and she is not telling you to. It would be sad if she lost a few months to a tooth. She looks like a sweet little lady. Hard for you, much more so than it is for her for the moment. I’d find out what effect better eating would have on her. Was she ever outdoors? Wouldn’t it be nice if she got to sit on the grass on a warm spring day and smell the earth and grass. It won’t matter if she goes now or in a year in the end though, you have been so kind and probably she feels very secure having you around most of the time to look after her. I think you have given her a wonderful gift of peace and warm company at a time when anyone would most want it.

    I am hopeful, like you – I hope you are right and having her tooth pain dealth with will give her a new lease on life.

    • You are almost psychic, Marc. I can understand why you are such a good cat caretaker. You really are a smart person. Everything you have said is true. I am not convinced she is ready to go. And I am convinced she has a right to live a bit longer if possible. She might pick up after an operation on her teeth and eat better and live for 5 months or more (diagnosis on cancer is not very accurate as to life expectancy) but as Ruth sensibly says would a vet recommend this? The operation and the expense are factors.

      I am going to take her to the vet again to check out her ears and get further advice. I am currently being reimbursed my vet expenses by a person who I believe has power of attorney or who is the executor of the lady owner’s will. If she approves dental work up to £500 we’ll give it a try if the vet thinks it is worth it.

      I don’t want to put Cardi through the upset of vet work unless it is recommended by a good vet. I am struggling to do what is right for Cardi divorced from all other considerations.

  4. Unfortunately a cat with cancer hasn’t got months left and no matter how much care,the disease always wins in the end.The one thing we can do for our pets that we can’t do for humans is to spare them the wasting away and the last agonising pain.

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