To Shampoo Or Not To Shampoo? That Is the Question

Patty Khuly, DVM
Updated: May 22, 2015
Published: November 11, 2006
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On this Saturday when many of you are gearing up for a weekend love fest with your pets we vets know one of your agenda items often includes washing them. I know this not only from my own dog’s rituals but also from the smell of moist dog that pervades the waiting room on Saturday mornings.

While many of you go out of your way to wash Fido before his annual trek to the vet (should you be lucky enough to care for a healthy dog), we vets (and staff, especially, who must cradle your damp dog 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 (I, at least, can handle that just fine) it’s really more for your pet’s benefit that I implore your restraint in this matter.

Why? you ask. Because it makes searching for signs of skin disease that much more challenging. A wet coat and damp skin obscures signs of dryness of skin, 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 (remember the pet food post?).

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:

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

For most young pets, a simple, soap-based 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 quickly upon 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 these guys. Some terriers and dogs with wiry coats (like my mother’s Jack can go for a couple of months without a bath).

If you are extra-sensitive to Fido-smell, 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 weekly (or more). These are often labeled for sensitive skin. If you don’t know your soaps or have trouble interpreting labels, just ask your vet. We usually carry these. Geriatric dogs and pups should also use these non-detergent based shampoos as the soapy ones can be unkind to their delicate skin. 

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 and 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` distribution. We vets are simply being rewarded by the drug companies for bringing these products into popular use. As a result we enjoy a near-monopoly on the sale of these products. As with patents, this grace period will soon run its course.)

How about eye goo so the soap doesn’t wreak havoc on their corneas and eyelids? (Chemical burns can be devastating.) This is a must if Fido is fractious and lively or should you choose to bathe his face with shampoo (warm water is OK for bathing many dogs` faces). Lubricating, petroleum-based goos are available at most pet stores. But keep this stuff clean and replace it every four months. I often recommend an eyedropper bottle (most vet 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 should suffice.

Beyond these basics, certain skin conditions can be improved by bathing much more frequently—even daily. Others require that you refrain, 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 very specific evaluation I could never begin to provide in this format.

A personal example: My Sophie Sue must be bathed once or twice a week due to her allergic skin disease and resultant yeast growth on her skin—particularly on her feet, her ears and her face. I use a ketoconazole (yeast drug) and chlorhexidine (mild detergent) shampoo. To determine her needs, trial and error was not enough. Cytology, biopsies, allergy testing and various concurrent treatments were employed. All this was necessary before medicated shampooing could be sufficiently effective.

You can’t just skip the basics before you move on to treatment of conditions with shampoo. You’re liable to make your pet’s condition worse. If luster declines or dog smell 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.

So this brings me to the kitties. Most cats don’t really need baths. Frequent brushing is just fine. But if Fluffy now has a dull or matted patch on her back, you should find out why. Perhaps she has arthritis and can’t reach. Maybe she’s simply too fat. She could even have a hormone imbalance or true skin disease. Either way, most of these cats require baths and/or hair cuts to limit matting.

The only other reason for mandatory kitty bathing involves you—and your allergies if you have them. Bathing twice a month is recommended in these cases along with frequent out-of-doors brushing.

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

Image:  / Shutterstock