Written by Ella White
When a puppy tilts their head and gazes at us with their loving eyes, it’s hard to think of a more heart-melting moment. But do you know why your dog cocks their head to the side, and what it might mean?
In this article we will look at head tilting in dogs, potential medical causes for puppy head tilts, and whether it’s a sign of a problem that needs to be treated, or just an adorable quirk.
One of the main reasons dogs tilt their heads is linked to communication. Despite having a keener sense of hearing than humans, dogs have the disadvantage of only being able to hear sounds that are directed right at them, unlike us humans who can detect noise from all around us.
So one reason dogs might tilt their head is to hear better – especially if they have floppy ears that block out even more sound. It could also be a sign that they’re interested in something they can hear, and are making extra effort to pick up the sound by turning their ears in that direction.
However, if your dog is tilting their head excessively, or tilting their head alongside other symptoms of illness like vomiting, then it could signal a bigger issue than simply trying to hear better.
As well as being unable to hear in all directions, dogs are also unable to determine how far away a sound is from them. Where humans can calculate the distance of a sound based on how long it takes to reach our ears, dogs can’t. So it’s possible that they tilt their heads to understand where and how far a noise is coming from.
However most scientists agree that the most likely reason they tilt their heads is because this movement reduces the interference of their ear flap, or pinna. This is more common in dogs like Cocker Spaniels with long, flat ears that totally cover their ear canals and can block sound.
Dogs with upright or pointed ears like German Shepherds, on the other hand, only have their sound blocked when it's coming from behind them. So they are less likely to tilt their heads to the side as frequencies from these directions can reach their ear canals more easily.
As well as improving hearing, head tilts are thought to be another avenue of communication between dogs and their owner. In some situations, it’s possible dogs might be tilting their heads in order to see better too.
In particular, dog breeds with longer muzzles may need to move their heads to see something that is blocked from view by their nose. Studies have shown that longer-nosed breeds, like Greyhounds, are more likely to tilt their heads than flat-faced dogs. Particularly when they’re trying to get a better look at their owners.
Because dogs try to understand what we’re saying to them through sound, inflections, and also facial expressions, it stands to reason that they might want a better view of our faces as they communicate with us. Some researchers also believe that cocking the head is also our dog’s way of letting us know that they’re listening, which is why it’s often paired with deliberate eye contact. So consider those adorable head tilts as a bonding moment between you and your pup.
In everyday situations of communication between you and your dog, their head tilting will only be momentary. But if you notice your dog’s head is consistently tilted to one side, it could be a sign that something else is wrong.
Some possible medical causes of extended tilting in dogs include ear infections and vestibular disease. If your dog tilts their head when there is no noise to stimulate this movement, or if their head tilt has lasted longer than 24 hours, contact your vet.
Similarly, if your dog is displaying any of the following symptoms alongside their head tilting, there might be something else wrong.
The vestibular system in the middle ear is most likely to be the cause of any health conditions that lead to excessive head tilting in dogs. So it’s important to be aware of the signs of vestibular disease like an infection, inflammation, cancer, or vestibular damage like a burst ear drum.
Other potential causes of problematic tilting include hypothyroidism and nutritional deficiencies. Ear washes and even some antibiotics can also cause inflammation and infection in the inner ear, so be sure to speak to your vet to diagnose the root cause of their head tilting before trying to treat it yourself.
If your dog’s head tilting is diagnosed as being caused by a medical condition, then the treatment they are prescribed will depend on their illness.