To Shampoo or Not to Shampoo Your Dog? That Is the Question

By Patty Khuly, DVM on Sep. 29, 2009

I know it's only Wednesday, but I happen to know that most of you are gearing up for a weekend love fest with your pets. I also happen to know that one of your agenda items includes washing your pets. I know this not only from my own pets' rituals, but also from the smell of moist dog that pervades my waiting room on Saturday mornings. 

While many of you go out of your way to wash Fido before his annual trek to the vet, we veterinarians (and our staff, especially, who must cradle your damp dogs in their arms as I examine them) kindly ask that you refrain from doing so at this exact moment. Not only for the aroma they impart; it’s really more for your pet’s benefit that I implore your restraint in this matter.

Why, you ask? Because a recent bath makes searching for signs of skin disease that much more challenging. A wet coat and damp skin will obscure signs of skin dryness, dullness of coat, and general clues to your pet’s overall well-being.

Having imparted this piece of wisdom, shampooing itself may seem like a silly little post topic but I get so many questions on washing dogs (and let’s not forget our kitties––some need baths, too), that I felt it sufficiently post-worthy. Who knows? Shampooing may well turn out to be one of those sleeper issues we converse about for weeks.

Whether or not to shampoo is not really the question, though I've made a catchy title of it. It’s really more about how often, when, and with what that I feel we should focus on.

Several issues should inform these decisions:

  1. What breed type is your dog? (i.e., what kind of hair does he have?)
  2. Does she truly smell bad after a certain length of time between baths, or are you just olfactorily sensitive? (solicit other dog people for their opinions, just in case)
  3. Has he ever been diagnosed with a skin condition of any type? Allergies, seborrhea (dryness), parasitism, alopecia (hair loss)?
  4. Does her lifestyle (puppy park, dirt-bath backyard, etc.) affect her cleanliness?
  5. Does his coat lose its sheen within a few days of bathing?

For most young pets, a simple, soap-based pet shampoo is just fine. The only advice you should adhere to is to stick to the high quality brands––most supermarket brands are harsh and degrade in quality soon after opening. Some dogs and cats may even have severe skin reactions after bathing with months-old shampoo, so replenish your stash every four months, just in case. Once or twice a month bathing can be sufficient for most dogs. Some terriers and dogs with wiry coats (like my mother’s Jack Russell) can go for a couple of months or more without a bath.

If you are extra-sensitive to Fido's smell or appearance; i.e., he gets dirty from frolicking in the puppy park, or his coat loses its luster quickly, more frequent bathing is acceptable. Using a non-soap shampoo is a wise choice if you choose to bathe once or more times a week. These shampoos are often labeled "for sensitive skin."  Non-detergent based shampoos are best for geriatric dogs and pups too, as the soapy ones can be unkind to their delicate skin. If you don’t know your soaps or have trouble interpreting labels, just ask your vet. We usually carry them.

How about flea and tick shampoos? Like flea and tick collars, they’re strong up front and their effects always short-lived. Definitely a no-no for pups and geriatrics, and poorly effective or downright unsafe compared to the milder effects of flea and tick products available at your vet’s office. (BTW, this is not a plug for our products, just the current reality of these products.) 

How about eye goo so the soap doesn’t wreak havoc on the corneas and eyelids? (Chemical burns can be devastating.) This is a must if Fido is fractious and lively, or if you choose to bathe his face with shampoo (warm water is OK for bathing many dogs' faces). Lubricating, petroleum-based eye goos are available at most pet stores. Keep this stuff clean and replace it every four months. I often recommend an eyedropper bottle (most vets will supply you with one if you ask nicely) filled with a fresh, non-rancid extra virgin olive oil (no spices or particulates, please!). One drop in each eye before bathing should suffice.

Beyond these basics, certain skin conditions can be improved by bathing much more frequently––even daily. Other conditions require that you refrain from bathing, unless a specific product is used. And here is where things get dicey. There is no substitute for a vet’s recommendation when it comes to true dermatologic conditions. And dermatology requires a very specific evaluation I could never begin to provide in this format.

A personal example: My Vincent must be bathed once or twice a week due to her allergic skin disease and resultant yeast growth on his skin––particularly on his feet, ears and face. I use a ketoconazole (yeast killing) and chlorhexidine (mild disinfectant) shampoo. To determine his needs, trial and error was not enough. Cytology, biopsies, allergy testing and various concurrent treatments were employed. 

You can’t just skip the basics before you move on to treatment of conditions with shampoo. That's because you’re liable to make your pet’s condition worse. If skin or hair luster declines, or your dog's odor seems to be increasing in potency, even these simple symptoms might be a reason to talk to your vet. Consider that your pet’s coat can be a symptom of internal issues you might otherwise miss.

And finally, a nod to the question I always seem to get: Why can't I use human shampoo on my animals? OK, so in a pinch it's no big deal. But on a regular basis, especially for pets that require frequent shampooing, suffer skin conditions or skin sensitivity, the differences in pH between pet and human shampoos can lead to skin irritation. It's just not ideal. 

So now I’m going to be barraged with questions and comments––I hope. Fire away!

Dr. Patty Khuly

Image: 135pixels / Shutterstock

Last reviewed on August 3, 2015



Patty Khuly, DVM


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