Head tilts.  Some pets do it more than others, and most people find it charming.  Subjectively, a head tilt is so often adorable and just perfect for a sweet photo.  But what does it actually mean?  Is it something that you should worry about?  There’s a lot to understand about this trait in your furry household members.  Take a look.

Are there different reasons for a pet to have a head tilt?

Despite popular belief, there are many different reasons for pets to have a head tilt.  Below are the most common ones for you to look at.

  • Hearing: Pets have exceptional senses of hearing, so they can hear a lot of sounds humans can’t.  However, they also have a strong directional sense to their hearing.  When they tilt their head and/or swivel their ears around, they may be trying to figure out where the sound is coming from.  The change in their head direction (especially if they go right and then left) helps them to better determine where the sound is coming from.
  • Vision: Your pets can sometimes do a head tilt in order to adjust their vision.  Their nose will get in the way, so they adjust their angle in order to see better.  Tilting their head is helpful for giving them a wider angle of view.   It’s pretty cute but also logical when you think about their snouts.
  • Paying attention: Another reason for head tilting is that they’re showing how much they’re paying attention to you!  Yes, seriously.  Pets obviously can’t understand everything we’re saying, but tilting their head back and forth and attentively watching you is a sign of that attention.

    Another way that they’re paying attention to you is that they’re watching your body language.  To do that, much like when we talked about vision above, they’re doing the head tilt to get a better view of your body language.

    The other main reason for them to do the head tilt, as far as paying attention, is to signal to you that they are concentrating on you.  You know how humans nod and say “mhmm” to show their conversation partner they’re paying attention?  Head tilting, and ear flicking (as well as tail movements and panting) are all dog equivalents.
  • Looking for your attention: Pets are smart creatures, there’s no question.  So it probably won’t surprise you when you learn that pets will sometimes do the head tilt just to get your attention.  They learn that you love to see the head tilt (by showing them more attention, etc.) when they do it.  If they’re feeling lonely or bored, they may come up to you and do a head tilt just to get your attention!  

Do all pets do a head tilt?

Not all pets will do a head tilt, no.  You may notice that flat-faced pets (such as pugs or siamese cats) won’t do a tilt as often.  They don’t need to adjust the angle for their vision the same way.  However, all of the other reasons would be the same.

Some pets don’t do a head tilt simply because they don’t feel the need.  Some either don’t want to do it, or they may have arthritis or another condition that makes this movement painful or irritating.  It isn’t a bad sign if your pet doesn’t do a head tilt!

When is a head tilt bad?

Unfortunately, there are some other negative reasons for pets to do a head tilt.  You’ll most likely notice these if your pets are doing a head tilt out of the ordinary.  Or if the head tilt behaviour is happening a lot more than normal without any clear cause.  

Most pet parents will notice this because they know their pet’s behaviour and what’s normal for them.  That’s why pet parents are the first to notice an issue in their pets!

Abnormal reasons for a head tilt

Some health issues can cause your pet to show unusual or strange head tilting, and these are reason to have your pet checked by your vet. Some of the most common reasons for a pet to have an unusual or strange head tilt include the following:

  • Ear infections: If pets have ear infections, they will tilt their heads as well as scratch and shake their heads back and forth.  If your pet has started to do this out of the ordinary, it’s a sign that they’re dealing with an ear infection.  If your pet has a persistent head tilt, it could be that they’ve got a middle-ear infection.  The more frequent the head tilt, the more severe the ear infection.
  • Stroke: This is rare, but a head tilt that is out of the ordinary and paired with confusion or disorientation (and physical body changes like pupil dilation) can be a sign that your pet has had a stroke.  Again, this is rare, but if you can’t see another reason for your pet’s sudden change in head tilt behavior, it’s something to consider.
  • Vestibular disease: This is a common health condition for older dogs.  It’s one of those things that sounds terrifying but doesn’t necessarily have to be if you know what it means for your pet.  We’ll talk about that more in the next section.

What is vestibular disease?

Vestibular disease refers to a sudden disturbance of balance that is non-progressive (not gradually starting and getting worse). Symptoms can include dizziness, loss of balance, head tilt, jerking eye movements, reluctance or difficulty with standing or walking. This is a common health issue that causes some temporary symptoms in your dog as they struggle.  It is similar to humans having vertigo.  It can be severe or mild in different cases, and can result from various causes including ear infection, injury, ingestion of something toxic, tumours, but sometimes no specific cause can be found. It’s important to consult your vet to see if the cause can be identified and needs treatment. With treatment for the causes and the symptoms, vestibular disease usually goes away after 1-2 weeks. Some dogs are left with a permanent head tilt even after the symptoms clear up.

When should you consult your vet?

Most pet parents can tell if their pet is dealing with an illness or infection if they notice that their pet has started to head tilt besides the normal interactions.  If they are suddenly doing it at random or very frequently, you should consider a trip to the vet for a professional opinion.

Usually, pet owners don’t need to worry about a head tilt in their pets.  It’s typically a part of their communication with us, and it’s also part of their charm.  If you’re ever concerned about your pet’s head tilts, you can never go wrong with documenting their behaviour and any other changes that you’re noticing (such as a change in appetite or sleeping habits), so you have more information to provide your veterinarian.


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