Timmy the dog tilting his head Timmy the dog tilting his head

Why Do Dogs Tilt Their Heads?

Read time: 4 mins

06 Sep 2023

Ah, the adorable head tilt of our furry companions. At Butternut Box, we know that this endearing behaviour often leaves dog owners wondering about its meaning. From the perspective of fresh dog food enthusiasts, it's essential to understand our four-legged friends better. So, let's delve into the intriguing world of why dogs tilt their heads, shall we?

What Does it Mean When Dogs Tilt Their Head to One Side?

Picture this: you're talking to your pup, discussing the day's adventures, and suddenly, they tilt their head to one side, their eyes locked onto yours. It's an utterly heart-melting moment, isn't it? But what's going on in that furry noggin of theirs?

Sound localisation

One of the primary reasons dogs tilt their heads is to improve their hearing. Our canine companions have incredibly sensitive ears, and that head tilt might be their way of fine-tuning their auditory perception. By tilting their head, they can better pinpoint the source of a sound. This behaviour is particularly noticeable when they hear an unfamiliar or intriguing noise.

Expressing curiosity

Dogs are naturally curious creatures, and their head tilting can be a sign of their interest in something. It's as if they're saying, "I'm paying attention; tell me more!" This curiosity often surfaces when you're talking to them, especially if your tone of voice is engaging or unusual.

Communicating with humans

As humans, we tend to communicate a lot through body language and facial expressions. Dogs are incredibly attuned to our non-verbal cues, and they might be trying to mimic this behaviour by tilting their heads. It's their way of showing that they're tuned into your emotions and are trying to connect with you on a deeper level.

Trying to see better

While dogs have an incredible sense of smell and hearing, their vision isn't as sharp as ours. When they tilt their heads, it might be their way of trying to see something more clearly, especially if it's at a distance or in low light conditions. This head movement allows them to adjust their perspective and get a better look at what's catching their attention.

Social bonding

Tilting their heads can also be a way for dogs to strengthen their social bonds with humans. It's a behaviour that often elicits positive reactions from us, such as smiles, laughter, and affectionate responses. This positive reinforcement can encourage dogs to repeat the head tilt, further strengthening the bond between pet and owner.

What are the Signs of Vestibular Head Tilt in Dogs?

Sometimes, head tilting in dogs can be more than just an adorable quirk—it can be a sign of an underlying health issue. Let's explore a condition known as vestibular head tilt and learn how to recognise its signs.

The vestibular system in dogs plays a crucial role in maintaining balance and coordination. When this system malfunctions, it can lead to a condition known as vestibular disease or syndrome. One of the primary symptoms of vestibular issues is a distinct head tilt, which can be concerning for dog owners.

Sudden and severe head tilt

A classic sign of vestibular head tilt is a sudden and severe tilt of the head to one side. This tilt is often accompanied by a loss of balance, making it challenging for the dog to walk or stand upright. It can be quite alarming to witness, and immediate veterinary attention is essential.


Nystagmus is a rapid and involuntary movement of the dog's eyes, often observed when the head is tilted. The eyes may appear to dart back and forth or rotate in a circular motion. This is a clear indicator of vestibular dysfunction.

Loss of coordination

Dogs with vestibular issues may display a loss of coordination and stumble or fall while trying to walk. Their gait may be unsteady, and they may have difficulty getting up from a lying position.

Nausea and vomiting

Vestibular problems can make dogs feel nauseous, leading to vomiting or dry heaving. If your dog is experiencing these symptoms along with a head tilt, it's essential to consult your veterinarian promptly.

Involuntary eye movements

Aside from nystagmus, dogs with vestibular head tilt may also exhibit other involuntary eye movements, such as a drooping eyelid or a noticeable difference in pupil size.

Ear infections

In some cases, vestibular issues can be related to ear infections, particularly inner ear infections. If your dog has a history of ear problems and develops a head tilt, it's crucial to have their ears examined by a veterinarian.

Seeking veterinary care

If you notice any of these signs of vestibular head tilt in your dog, don't delay seeking veterinary care. Vestibular issues can have various underlying causes, including infections, tumours, or idiopathic vestibular disease, which has no known cause. A thorough examination by a veterinarian will help determine the cause of the head tilt and the appropriate treatment.

The next time your dog tilts their head in that endearing way, remember that it's likely a combination of their curiosity, their attempt to connect with you, and their keen senses at work. However, if you ever observe a sudden and severe head tilt accompanied by other concerning symptoms, don't hesitate to reach out to your veterinarian.