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Maltese Head Shaking Issues

It's not uncommon for a puppy or dog to start shaking their head; though the reasons for doing so can vary from very minor issues to quite serious health conditions.  A Maltese may have a gradual development of shaking his head, this may come and go or it may be persistent.

This section will discuss the most commonly seen scenarios of head shaking and the most probable causes.

Shaking the head after being at the groomers - This is not uncommon with the Maltese breed or for any dog for that matter.  Often while at the dog groomers an ear cleaning and/or an ear plucking (removal of long hairs in the ear canal) is performed.  This can lead to temporary irritation and some itchiness that causes a Maltese to shake his head. 

If hairs were plucked first, with cleanser added later, this can cause a temporary hot burning feeling that causes a Maltese to shake the head as well.  In most cases, this will go away later that same day. 

You'll want to keep a careful eye on the ears for any discharge or odor as this may point to infection that has settled in.  If the Maltese continues to shake his head for longer than 2 days or it worsens it will be time to have the veterinarian take a look.

Shaking while pawing at or rubbing the head - One of the most common reasons that a Maltese puppy or dog will continually shake his head is due to an issue with the ears.  If so, there is often some pawing at the ears and/or the dog may rub his head against surfaces such as the carpeting or the walls. 

Maltese informaiton This is usually done to relieve either itching or irritation. 

The following are the most typical ear problems:

Wax buildup - Some wax is normal and works to protect the sensitive ear canal from debris including dead skin cells by trapping tiny particles.  However, some dogs are prone to excessive buildup and this can lead to issues.  When there is too much wax you can often see this as a yellow-brown substance with or without an odor.
It can cause pain, hearing loss, dizziness and lead to infection.  In some cases there is also an issue with long hairs as well.  You can have the vet or groomer clear the canal and do any necessary plucking or use an at-home cleaner and pluck if needed.

If there is no infection, removal of the excess wax should clear up the issue and the Maltese should stop shaking his head.

Mites  - Ear mites are common with dogs (and cats) because can very easily spread from one animal to the other.  While there are several types, the most common is called Otodectes cynotis. These are very tiny and barely noticeable to the human eye.  However, they can cause a dog to feel an array of symptoms that causes a dog to shake his head. This includes itching, irritation and inflammation.  There are classic signs such as the above mentioned head shaking along with rubbing the head, a black or brown waxy discharge, a strong odor and in some cases, a discharge that resembles coffee grounds.

Without treatment, head shaking can become much worse due to the mites causing blood vessels inside the ear flap to rupture.  In addition, there can be a secondary infection.

Since symptoms can mimic bacterial infections, it is important to have a veterinarian diagnose this. A sample of the discharge will be examined. If mites are found to be the cause of head shaking several treatment steps will be done. This includes a professional cleaning, parasite medications and possibly antibiotics and/or anti-inflammatory medication.

Infection -
The most common signs of this are shaking the head and rubbing or pawing at the ears.  Though as an infection develops there is typically a bad odor. If you lift the ear flap you may notice that the leather is red and/or swollen.  There are several types of infection including yeast, fungal and bacterial.  While cleaning the ears at home may clear up the issue, if symptoms persist this will need to be diagnosed and treated by the veterinarian. Severe infections can damage the inner tissue and structures of the canal, so prompt treatment is recommended.

A swab will be taken and this is usually followed by a professional flushing of the canals and then appropriate prescribed mediation depending on the type of infection.

Foreign body - When playing outside, many small foreign objects can enter the ear canal, though the most typical culprits include a blade of grass, an insect and tiny pebbles.  This can happen if a Maltese is rolling around in the yard or has popped his head into shrubbery to inspect things.  If the problem has recently occurred the only sign will be head shaking as the dog works feverishly to loosen offending object.  If it is left there, it can cause quite a bit of irritation, swelling and increasing itching and/or discomfort.  

In some cases, an owner will be able to lift the flap and see the item.  If so, it can sometimes be carefully removed via fingertips or the very careful use of tweezers or grooming forceps.  If not, a vet will need to remove the debris and check for any additional damage to the sensitive tissue.

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Keeping ears clean - Some - but not all- infections can be kept at bay by routinely cleaning the ears.  Every 4 weeks, the ears can be cleaned with a quality canine ear cleaning solution that works to breakup wax and gather debris without being over drying.  The outer flap is wiped down, then 3 to 4 drops are placed into the canal, the base of the ear massaged and then swiped out with clean gauze.  It is important to use the right solution - alcohol and peroxide have strong drying properties that should not be used.  In addition, only sterilized gauze or cotton balls should be used; Q-tips can cause damage.
You may also want to periodically check for any long, stray hairs. These can cause blockage of healthy air flow and collect too much wax. Long hairs can easily be removed by using an ear powder and quality forceps, to help you quickly grasp the hairs and pluck them out.  Each Maltese is different, with some never needing to have this done and others needing this grooming task performed every 8 weeks or so.

Shaking the head and panting -
Whenever a Maltese has both head shaking and heavy panting this points to the dog being in distress.  Aside from some light panting during exercise, breathing heavy is not normal and often means that the dog is experiencing severe pain or is overwhelmed with a health issue.  This can include a mounting ear infection, a mite infestation that has grown worse or even ruptured vessels within the ear.  If your Maltese is panting and shaking this is a red flag for immediate medical care.

Repetitive head bobbing -
Head bobbing refers to a Maltese making repetitive motions of the head in a rhythmic motion.  This may be vertical as if the dog is nodding 'yes' or horizontal as if the dog is gesturing 'no'.  
There are several causes for this including:

Hypoglycemia - This is most common with very young Maltese puppies age 2 to 4 months, though it can occur with older pups.  It is a rapid drop in blood sugar levels due to many causes including stress and not eating on a regular basis.  The Maltese may appear to be very sleepy, nodding his head as if in a sleepy trance, may have trouble walking and appear to be dizzy.  Minor cases can be treated at home by rubbing a dab of honey into the gums.  If this does not resolve the issue, professional veterinary treatment will be needed.  IV treatment to balance out sugar levels may be needed.  Severe cases can lead to coma and even death.

Toxic poisoning -
The dog may have shaking limited to the head or trembling all over the body.  Other signs very greatly including: panicked behavior, weakness, drooling, dry heaving, vomiting, bloated stomach, and/or other unusual behavior. If poisoning is suspected, owners should contact the vet ASAP for instructions.

Idiopathic head tremors - These are involuntary muscle contractions of the head and neck that causes a dog to bob his head, with the typical episode lasting only 2 to 3 minutes.  Once it passes, the Maltese may act as if nothing happened at all. The cause of these is still unknown and it is not thought to have any lasting negative effects.  If a Maltese has ongoing episodes of this type of head bobbing, it can help to video an episode that can be shown to the vet, since the odds of it happening during a visit are slim.

This is diagnosed by ruling out all other possible health issues and by the above mentioned video-witnessing of exactly how the head is shaking and bobbing.  While episodes are short, owners are often instructed to support the dog's head with a soft pillow.  In addition, offering a bit of a sugary treat such as honey or peanut butter can often 'snap' a Maltese out of an episode.

Could it Be White Shaker Dog Syndrome?

Many owners are aware of White Shaker Dog Syndrome since it got its name by affecting only pure while dogs including the Maltese.  However, now it has been seen in dogs of other coat colors as well.  While this is always something to keep in mind, with this condition there usually full body tremors as opposed to just head shaking.

Undiagnosed Head Shaking

Though the above mentioned conditions are most typically the reasons for why a Maltese puppy or dog will shake his head, there are some cases when all tests come back negative and a vet cannot pinpoint the cause.

In these cases, owners have found that switching foods to change the main protein of the dog's diet - chicken to fish or vice versa- or changing to a grain free formula has brought about results.   If food intolerance or allergy is indeed the trigger for head shaking, it usually takes 2 to 3 weeks of being on a new diet to see results. 

Also, keep in mind that the culprit may be snacks and if you are changing the main meals you may also want to think about the treats that are being given.  Dog treats that are brightly colored often contain high levels of artificial coloring and other ingredients that can cause problems.  We always recommended wholesome 'real' foods such as fruits (pears, mango, blueberries, raspberries) and vegetables (baby carrots - raw or steamed, green beans) or white/cream colored manufactured treats.

Head Shaking as a Behavioral Matter

While we're on the subject, it should be noted that some dogs will shake and bob their head simply as a way to gain attention.  A Maltese may bop his head along to music or lean his head back and forth to make you look at him.  It's almost always clear when this is just a matter of trying to gain your attention and nothing to be concerned with. There will not be any other symptoms and once your dog does have your attention, he will look pleased as if to say, 'made you look!" In these cases, it's just a matter of our canine family members finding another venue to communicate with us.

Red Flags Symptoms

You'll want to bring your Maltese if he or she has any of the following signs:

•    Head shaking that lasts more than 2 days
•    Ear discharge
•    A bad odor coming from the ears
•    Any signs of illness including vomiting, dry heaving, diarrhea, fever, weakness

While we'd all love to be able to treat ailments from home, in most cases of head shaking this will be due to issues in the ear which more often than not require professional evaluation and treatment.  Since chronic problems can lead to lasting damage (and even the need for surgery) it is always best to have your Maltese examined sooner than later.


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