Rabbit Head Shaking

There could be any number of reasons for rabbit head shaking, some are harmless but if left may develop in to something more serious.

This page will clear up any confusion about the many reason why a rabbit may shake their head, with details about causes, symptoms and possible treatments.

Here are the main and most common reasons for head shaking, taking the more serious case scenario first:

Rabbit Head Shaking

1. Vestibular Disease

Vestibular Disease (Or Head Tilt) causes can be divided into peripheral (not involving the brain) and central (involving the brain). Signs of true vestibular disease in a rabbit are a persistent head tilt and a loss of balance.

Disease of the Inner Ear (The inner ear includes the cochlea, vestibule and semi-circular canals and is supplied by the vestibulocochlear nerve which originates in the brain).  The inner ear controls balance and hearing. Signs of disease of the inner ear include deafness, head tilt and loss of balance and flipping or rolling.

Head tilt, loss of balance, circling towards the affected side, rolling, having no sense of where the feet or legs are and not being able to right itself are all conditions associated with brain stem and nerve damage.

2. External Ear Disease

Rabbit's ears are very sensitive

The external ear canal is visible at the base of the ear and is called the pinna. The opening is quite long and ends at the ear drum. Sometimes external ear disease can extend to the middle or inner ear and can cause head shaking, drooping ear and pain but doesn't result in any constant head tilt or loss of balance.

3. Middle Ear Disease

One ear up, one ear down

This includes the ear drum, the Eustachian tube, three small bones called the auditory ossicles and the tympanic (facial) nerve. And although these are all protected by a bony shell attached to the skull, infectious organisms can still enter either through the external ear canal, through the pharynx and up the Eustachian tube, or through the blood. disease in this area can cause head shaking, drooping ear and pain as well as deafness but doesn't cause any constant head tilt or loss of balance.

4. Abscess

Abscesses are caused by obstruction of oil (sebaceous) glands or sweat glands, inflammation of hair follicles, or minor breaks and punctures of the skin. Germs or even something innocuous such as a hair follicle can get under the skin or into these glands, which causes an inflammatory response as the body's defences try to kill these germs.

You can find out more by reading this article sent in by another worried Just Rabbits reader and my response…

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5. Ear Infection

Unfortunately infections can occur in any of the three parts of the rabbit’s ear canal: external, middle an inner ear. Middle and inner ear infections are more common and more often start in the sinuses and proceed through the to the middle ear.

Causes include:

  • Infectious disease – Bacteria and other micro-organisms can enter the inner ear from the respiratory tract or from the external ear or middle ear downward into the inner ear. Organisms - both bacteria and fungi - can also enter through the blood stream.
  • Trauma – includes overly aggressive ear flushes in the presence of a ruptured ear drum, or fractures to bony structures in the middle or inner ear.
  • Foreign bodies – foreign objects can sometimes enter the ear canal and perforate the ear drum, accessing the inner ear.
  • Cancer – rare, but could occur
  • Toxins – toxins could enter via the bloodstream (inhaled or ingested toxins) or through the ear canal itself in the presence of a ruptured ear drum. Ear medications can cause damage to the inner ear if the ear drum has ruptured.

The most accurate way to diagnose is with CT scan or MRI. External ear exams, X-rays and bloodwork are usually negative. If the middle ear is affected it may be possible to get a culture via a surgical procedure, which can assist in determining the best course of treatment.

Rabbit head shaking treatments

Treatment depends on the cause, but since the majority of infections are caused by bacteria, a long term course (one month to several months) of antibiotics may be prescribed.  In some instances, the infection never completely clears, but can be suppressed enough to ease symptoms. If pain medication is needed, one with anti-inflammatory properties should be used. Rabbits may develop immunosuppression with corticosteroid therapies, so these are usually not prescribed, or only prescribed for a day or two.

6. Ear Mites

These are caused by the parasite Psoroptes cuniculiis. They are responsible for the condition also known as an ear canker, where a severe crusting and thick scale build-up on the inside of the ear flap develops. They may be found in only one ear, or in both, and in some cases may spread to the surrounding areas – the head, neck, abdomen, and genital regions.

If left untreated, the lesions can become infected, putting the inner ear at risk of infection and subsequent hearing loss. This mite-induced ear crust causes the rabbit's ear to become intensely itchy, such that the rabbit often develops secondary sores and scabs and infections of the ear as a result of the animal's scratching and head shaking.

Psoroptes cuniculiis - The ear mite parasitePsoroptes cuniculiis - The ear mite parasite

Ear mites are very contagious and can be spread from rabbit to rabbit by direct skin contact between infected and non-infected rabbits (non-infested rabbits can also contract the mites through contact with the environment and burrows of ear-mite-infested rabbits).

It is also important to note that ear mites initially invade the deeper regions of the rabbit's external ear canal (deep down the canal where they are not visible), rather than the clearly-visible outer pinna (ear flap) of the rabbit. Because of this, early infestations of ear mites are often missed and the only give-away is occasional ear-scratching and head-shaking.

Treatment for ear mites is fairly simple. There are several over the counter treatments such as Rabbit RX or even a cat ear mite treatment will do the job. There are also many oils such as mineral oil, baby oil, or even vegetable oil that will suffocate the mites and kill them. If you add a few drops of Tea Tree oil to any of those oils I just mentioned it will help its antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and antiseptic qualities too that all add to the healing process.

7. Wax Build Up

If wax is allowed to build up, a rabbit's ears can become a breeding ground for mites. Normal rabbit ear wax is soft and yellowish in colour.

Lops generally have more ear wax than rabbits with "up ears". On a regular up ear rabbit use a syringe with warm water then swab it out and let them shake their head to get it out the rest of the way. Otherwise ear wax can be lifted out with a cotton swab, being careful not to push on wax in the canal, or you can try a mild ear cleaner containing Chlorhexadine, such as Nolvasan Otic.

Remember that while ear wax in itself is not actually harmless if it is allowed to build up then it can lead to more serious problems. To diagnose otitis externa and media your veterinarian will want to diagnose the underlying condition that is contributing to the problems and symptoms causing the condition. For example, bacteria often contribute to problems of the ear, including the accumulation of excessive ear wax.


Rabbits are well known for their hypersensitivity to ear cleaning solutions and may develop a reaction to the cleaning solution itself.

Rabbits will also hurt themselves even further if they are allowed to continue with overly vigorous cleaning.

Both these situations are ironic really as they build upon the very solutions to the initial problem, but if carefully monitored your rabbit should recover in a fairly short time, if their immune system is functioning properly.

Prevention is Better Than Cure!

Natural Antibiotics for Rabbit Head Shaking

Solutions for infections – Everything natural you need to know is right here on this page.
A very detailed look at natural antibiotics…

Additional Advice

Changes in Routine
Check your rabbit for signs of illness or injury every day. (Make sure this is done by someone who understands rabbits, especially if you are away).

Rabbit Hiding

Symptom Checker
Here's a quick symptom check chart to help you decide the best course of action if you think you may have sick bunny on your hands.

Rabbit Vet Advice

Domestic Rabbits
Some breeds are more susceptible than others and are particularly prone to inherited disorders and diseases. Show rabbits and some meat and fur rabbits have been bred with exaggerated physical features which can cause them to suffer and reduce their quality of life. 

Wild Rabbits
Prevent your rabbits from having contact with wild rabbits or areas where wild rabbits have been. Domestic rabbits can easily catch deadly infectious diseases from wild rabbits, even if they are housed indoors.


Only use medicines that have been specifically recommended for your individual rabbit by a vet. Some medicines that are used for other animals can be very dangerous to a rabbits health. Consult a vet immediately if you suspect that your rabbit is in pain, ill or injured.

However prevention is better than cure and a good diet and even rabbit supplements may increase your rabbits health and prevent many of the above problems.

Stress Effects

Stress Effects on Rabbits Health

Rabbits that are stressed are much more likely to become ill. Check their environment, make sure they are not being bullied by other rabbits or chased, or stressed out for any reason, such as being chased by visiting teenagers while you make the dinner.

Over enthusiastic children can stress rabbits too by constantly chasing them or trying to pick them up incorrectly.

Learn more about the impact of stress on rabbit health here...

Rabbits tend to hide outward signs of pain so they may be suffering a great deal before you notice anything is wrong. A change in the way your rabbit normally behaves can be an early sign that they are ill or in pain.

Rabbit Grooming

Grooming on a regular basis will ensure your rabbits health and that they are free from infections developing.

For more tips on grooming you can get a fantastic, complete grooming guide FREE with the New iRabbit READY System.  Click here to find out more!
rabbit grooming

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