Has your cat suddenly started shaking or tilting their head frequently? Does this head shaking seem to come and go? If your cat is shaking their head a lot but doesn’t have ear mites, you may be wondering what’s causing this irritation.
Head shaking or head tilting in cats can have many causes. While ear mites are a common culprit, there are various other reasons your cat may be displaying this behavior when no mites are present.
In this article, we’ll explore the top reasons your cat may be shaking their head without having mites. We’ll also provide tips on how to find the underlying cause and give your cat relief from discomfort.
Common Causes of Head Shaking in Cats Without Mites
Here are some of the most likely reasons your cat is shaking their head when they don’t have mites:
Allergies are one of the most common causes of head shaking and ear irritation in cats. Just like humans, cats can develop allergies to things like:
- Food ingredients (e.g. beef, dairy, wheat, etc)
- Flea saliva
- Environmental allergens (e.g. pollen, mold, dust mites, etc)
The allergen triggers an itchy inflammatory response affecting the ears and skin. Your cat shakes their head trying to relieve the irritating sensation.
Seasonal allergies that flare up at certain times of year are most suspicious. But year-round allergies can also cause chronic head shaking and ear problems.
Bacterial and fungal ear infections are another prevalent cause of head shaking in cats.
The dark, warm, and moist environment inside a cat’s ear canal provides the perfect breeding ground for infection-causing microbes. Once an infection takes hold, it creates inflammation and irritation.
Common signs your cat may have an ear infection include:
- Head shaking or tilting
- Scratching at ears
- Redness and swelling in ears
- Ear discharge or odor
- Sensitivity and pain around ears
Yeast and bacteria like Staphylococcus are frequent infection culprits.
Foreign Objects Lodged in the Ear
It’s not uncommon for cats to get foreign objects like grass seeds, foam, or other debris stuck in their ears.
As they try to scratch out the irritant, it gets lodged farther into the ear canal. This leads to pain and head shaking.
make sure you carefully examine your cat’s ears for any foreign material. Using an otoscope allows you to peer into the ear canal.
Never try to remove a foreign object yourself, as you could inadvertently push it in farther. See your vet for safe removal.
Excessive or Hardened Ear Wax
Ear wax is normal, but excessive buildup can cause irritation. As wax accumulates, it presses on the sensitive ear canal lining. Thick, dry wax can also harden into a solid plaque.
As your cat shakes their head trying to dislodge the irritating wax, it gets compacted farther into the canal. This sets up a vicious cycle of more irritation and head shaking.
Regular ear cleanings are important to prevent excessive wax buildup. But never try digging out compacted wax yourself, as this risks injury. See your vet for safe removal.
Microscopic Ear Mites
Sometimes ear mites can evade detection during a regular visual exam. The mites could be:
- Burrowed deep in the ear canal lining
- Present in very low numbers
- Still in immature microscopic stages
But even a few mites can cause enough irritation to induce head shaking. It’s possible they are there but difficult to see.
A trial treatment with prescription ear mite medication may help determine if mites are the culprit. If head shaking resolves with treatment, unseen mites were likely present.
Idiopathic Vestibular Disease
Also known as “old dog disease,” idiopathic vestibular disease can cause sudden loss of balance, head tilt, circling, vomiting, and abnormal eye movements.
While it’s more common in senior dogs, cats can also develop this condition. The underlying cause involves inflammation of the inner ear’s vestibular system.
Medication to reduce dizziness and nausea is often prescribed. Most cats fully recover, but some have permanent residual balance deficits.
Trauma or Neurological Problems
Injury to the head through an accident or trauma can definitely make a cat shake their head or act abnormally.
But neurological issues like a stroke, tumor, or nerve disorder can also lead to strange head motions and behaviors. Usually other neurological symptoms will also be present.
A full veterinary workup is needed to determine if neurological problems are at the root of your cat’s head shaking.
How to Determine the Cause of Head Shaking
Since there are so many potential reasons for head shaking, how do you get to the bottom of the cause in your cat?
Here are some steps your vet will take to diagnose the issue:
- Medical history – Let your vet know when the head shaking started, what symptoms you’ve observed, and if it’s seasonal. Any history of ear problems?
- Physical exam – Your vet will thoroughly examine your cat’s ears, mouth, skin, joints, and neurologic function. Areas of pain, infection, or injury identified.
- Ear exam – Using an otoscope, your vet will carefully inspect down into your cat’s ear canals looking for signs of infection, foreign material, or mites. Samples may be taken.
- Allergy testing – Allergy skin or blood tests can identify specific allergies causing chronic ear irritation. This helps guide changes to diet or environment.
- Microscopic analysis – Extracted earwax or debris may be examined under a microscope for evidence of bacteria, yeast, or mites.
- Imaging tests – X-rays or CT scans of the skull/inner ear may be needed if vestibular disease or middle ear problems are suspected.
- Medication trials – Treating empirically with allergy or anti-microbial medication may be done to see if it resolves the head shaking.
Tips to Relieve Head Shaking in Cats
While identifying the root cause is important, you also want to relieve your cat’s discomfort until the issue can be treated. Here are some tips:
Keep ears clean and dry – Gently clean out your cat’s ears at least once a week using a vet-recommended cleanser to prevent buildup. Thoroughly dry ears after baths or swimming.
Apply warm compresses – Placing a warm, damp washcloth over your cat’s ears can help relax the muscles and provide soothing relief from irritation. Do this 2-3 times daily.
Massage ears gently – Lightly massaging the base of the ears can increase blood flow and drainage from the ear canal to ease discomfort. But avoid touching inside the ears.
Use calming pheromone sprays/plugins – Products like Feliway contain synthetic feline pheromones that can reduce anxiety and calm irritated behavior like head shaking.
Give anti-inflammatories – Your vet may prescribe corticosteroids or other OTC anti-inflammatory drugs to reduce swelling and itchiness. Always follow dosage directions.
Limit ear irritants – Until the cause is found, avoid exposing your cat to things that may further irritate their ears like grooming sprays, perfumes/cleaners, and cigarette smoke.
Try antihistamines – For suspected allergies, antihistamines like diphenhydramine may help control inflammation and itching. Ask your vet first.
Rule out collar irritation – Make sure your cat’s collar isn’t too tight or leaving sores that make them shake their head. Consider a break from wearing a collar.
Get parasite preventatives – Keep your cat on monthly flea/tick and heartworm preventatives to rule out parasites as a cause of irritation or infestation.
Consider allergy shots – For chronic allergies not controlled with medication, immunotherapy or desensitization allergy shots can retrain your cat’s immune system.
Treat ear infections – Use the full course of antibiotic or antifungal drops as prescribed by your vet to clear up stubborn infections causing head shaking.
When to See the Veterinarian
Make an appointment with your vet if your cat’s head shaking:
- Is excessive, chronic, or worsening
- Happens together with other symptoms like discharge, odor, swelling, or redness
- Is causing self-trauma due to obsessive scratching
- Persists despite home treatment efforts
Sudden, severe head tilting or shaking also warrants immediate vet attention to rule out vestibular disease or neurological issues.
While mild intermittent head shaking may resolve on its own, it’s important to get professional help for ongoing irritation and discomfort. Proper treatment will provide definitive relief and prevent more serious complications. Don’t let your cat continue to suffer!
The Takeaway: No Mites Doesn’t Mean No Issues
Head shaking and ear scratching in your cat isn’t always due to visible ear mites. Allergies, infections, foreign material, and excessive wax are common culprits.
Have your vet thoroughly examine your cat’s ears and perform diagnostic testing to pinpoint the exact cause. Treating the underlying problem will stop the head shaking and discomfort so your cat can get back to their happy, carefree self.
With some detective work and TLC, you can solve the mystery of why your cat is shaking their head and help them feel better! Just be sure to schedule that vet appointment right away at the first signs of irritation.