Is Dog Shampoo Necessary? (Vet explains)

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dog shampoo is necessary

Occasionally in my 12 years of veterinary experience, I’d see a dog with an overpowering odor that troubled the pet parent. After ruling out common issues like abscesses, sores, and flatulence, my focus would turn to pet grooming issues. 

Sometimes I would learn the owner was bathing their pooch either too often, not often enough, or with the wrong kind of shampoo. My grooming education for new pet parents or owners seeking advice included the following:

Dogs shampoos are important, since dogs need routine bathing with a product that’s properly pH balanced for their skin and hair. Water or common household products may be helpful to remove dirt and grease in an emergency, but it’s not as effective as dog shampoo. But human shampoos aren’t formulated for dogs, and they may do more harm than good.

Routine grooming practices should include washing your dog at an appropriate frequency with the right formula for his particular needs. There are types of dog-safe shampoos available, and different categories address different skin and coat needs. Understanding the use indications can help you pick the right product for your four-footed friend.

Let’s look at these topics in greater detail.

What Should I Wash My Dog With If I Don’t Have Dog Shampoo?

What if you went to the dog park, Fido splashed through a stinky mud puddle, and you came home to find no dog shampoo in the house? Or maybe you have a pup with skin sensitivities who can’t tolerate commercial products. Below are some dog-safe alternatives you can use to clean your pooch.

  • Dish Soap Shampoo – You may already know that people who rescue wildlife use Dawn dishwashing detergent to clean birds’ feathers after an oil spill. It works to remove oily, grimy dirt and can help clean your pooch as well. All you need is a few household ingredients. Simply combine ½ cup white vinegar, ¼ cup Dawn, and 2 cups water. Place the mixture in a spray bottle and shake vigorously to mix the ingredients. You can use this to bathe your pooch in a pinch. 

    A word of caution: don’t use this mixture too frequently or for everyday needs. While it’s helpful for emergencies and to take care of stinky, slimy stuff, it can also strip your pooch of his natural oils.
  • Castile Soap With Essential Oils – As an olive-based soap, Castille soap contains natural ingredients that have moisturizing properties. So it’s safe for dogs and gentle on the skin in case your furbaby has sensitivities. You can combine this soap with essential oils to help cut odor and leave your pup smelling fresh and clean.

    Be sure to check with your veterinarian first, because not all essential oils are safe for dogs. In general, most lemon, orange, and lavender oils are dog safe, and lavender oil is a natural flea repellant.
  • Oatmeal Bath – If your pup’s skin is ultra-sensitive and can’t handle dish detergent, you can prepare a soothing oatmeal bath. To make this blend, grind 1 cup of raw oatmeal to a fine powder. Combine with ½ cup baking soda, and dissolve the mixture in water. You can pour the liquid into a spray bottle for easy application. Make sure you completely rinse the oatmeal from Fido’s coat. 
  • Dry Shampoo – If you don’t have time for the bathing process, you can also use some household items to make a dry shampoo that neutralizes odor and grease.  Before applying the agent, brush your furbaby’s coat thoroughly to remove debris, loose fur, and dirt. Then use either baking soda or cornstarch by sprinkling it on the coat and massaging it in. Once the material works into the coat, wipe your pooch down with a wet rag.
  • Wet Wipes – Unscented wet wipes or baby wipes can be used to clean dogs that aren’t terribly dirty. Be careful to choose fragrance-free options to prevent irritating your pooch’s skin. When wiping, also make sure you avoid the eyes.

Bear in mind that these alternatives are not intended to replace your usual dog shampoo. While they’re effective enough to clean your furbaby when you don’t have your regular pet wash on hand, they’re not ideal for regular use. So, as soon as you’re able to replenish your stock, buy some shampoo for your dog.

Is It OK to Wash My Dog With Just Water?

You can use just water for a routine bath to remove dirt and mud, but it won’t help if your furbaby is stinky. So, if your pooch has an unfortunate meeting with a skunk, rolls in something aromatic, or has that doggy odor, you’ll need to use some dog-safe shampoo.

Can Human Shampoos Be Used?

Human shampoo is not safe for dogs because their skin has a different pH balance than ours. In both cases, the skin has a top protective layer known as the acid mantle. This thin covering functions as a barrier that keeps the body surface properly hydrated. It also protects the skin from contamination by viruses, bacteria, and other potential invaders.  

When we bathe, we wash away the acid mantle, and the same thing happens with our four-footed friends. So, shampoos and soaps usually contain moisturizers that can protect the skin until it’s able to replenish the natural barrier in about 12 hours. These moisturizers need to have a pH that matches the skin in order to maintain the right balance between alkalinity and acidity. Without the proper pH balance, the skin will not have effective protection.

The reason that human shampoo is unsafe and potentially dangerous for dogs is that it’s formulated for the pH of human skin, which is about 5.5-5.6. Dog skin, on the other hand, can have a pH anywhere from about 5.5 to 7.5 depending on the animal’s climate, breed, gender, and size. Using a human product may cause an imbalance that disrupts the acid mantle. When this happens, the skin becomes susceptible to invasion from bacteria, viruses, and other harmful microbes. As a result, dogs can develop dry, itchy skin or develop an infection.

How Can Routine Shampooing Support Healthy Skin and Coat?

Routine shampooing has many benefits for you and your dog. For one, a timely bath helps to minimize dog odor by removing drool, sweat, and body odor. This grooming practice also nourishes the skin and coat. 

As the largest body organ, the skin needs attention to stay healthy. Regular shampooing helps to remove dirt, dead skin, and environmental irritants. By using a properly balanced product, you can encourage a healthy acid barrier that protects your pooch from yeast or bacterial infections. If you have a pup with skin allergies, you may need a medicated shampoo. Consult with your veterinarian for product recommendations.

Shampooing also helps to keep the hair clean and well-conditioned. Dog-safe products are formulated to stimulate the production of natural oils. These oils help to keep the skin and hair shiny and supple. Another benefit of bathing is that it helps to remove any loose hairs that are in the coat. It can also give you an opportunity to remove mats and tangles that could be pulling at the skin and may potentially cause sores.

Bear in mind, routine shampooing does not necessarily equal frequent bathing. Dog hygiene needs can vary based on breed, coat length and style, age, living environment, and more. Some pups may require a bath a few times a year or about every three months, while others may need more frequent shampoos. Talk to your veterinarian and research your furbaby’s breed to help you find the right frequency.

Is It Good To Shower Your Dog Every Day?

No. While regular shampooing promotes healthy skin and coat, overbathing can do the opposite. Washing too frequently may remove sebum from the skin and hair. This oily mixture of fatty acids is secreted by the hair follicles to nourish the skin’s surface, keep it healthy, and inhibit bacterial growth. Without the healthy oils, the hair will become dry and brittle and the skin will be more susceptible to infection.

Choosing the Right Dog Shampoo for Your Dog

There are a variety of dog-safe shampoos out there. How do you know which one to pick? When you’re shopping for a formula for your pooch, consider his particular needs, check product reviews, and look at the label for any harsh chemicals or problem ingredients that you should avoid. Combining these steps with an understanding of the different varieties of shampoo should help you with your decision.

Dry vs. Wet Shampoo

Wet shampoos require bathing and rinsing with water. These are the most commonly used products and are best for your regular needs. But sometimes, you may need to spot clean your pup or don’t have the time for a full-scale bath. For those instances, you may select a waterless or dry shampoo option. These products usually come in a spray can and are often powder-based. They can be applied to the coat and massaged in to help dislodge dirt and neutralize odors. In many cases, you’ll need to brush your pup’s coat after working the waterless product into his fur. Both dry and wet products come in a variety of options.

Shampoo for Skin Conditions/Allergies

If your pooch has sensitive skin or an allergic condition, he may require shampoo with soothing ingredients or a medicated product. 

  • Anti-itch shampoos – For some pups, an oatmeal-based product is sufficient to correct dry, itchy skin. Other dogs will need special ingredients like eucalyptus, peppermint, coal tar, or aloe. These substances will vary depending on the particular skin condition such as contact dermatitis, dry skin patches, or rashes. The goal of these types is to reduce inflammation and soothe the skin.
  • Medicated shampoos – When the skin problem is due to an infection, the shampoo may contain ingredients like tea tree oil, chlorhexidine, benzoyl peroxide, or other materials. Again, the substances in the formula are based on your dog’s particular health condition or need. 
  • Allergy Relief Shampoo – In addition to medicated shampoos to help soothe a dog’s itchy skin, there are products that are designed to help human family members. These dog shampoos help to remove or greatly reduce dander, which is usually the underlying trigger for people with pet allergies.

Shampoo for Fleas and Ticks

Another class of medicated shampoo is flea and tick shampoo. These products are designed to eliminate an infestation of these skin parasites. There are a few considerations when choosing this type of product. 

  • First, anti-parasitic medications are safe when applied at an age-appropriate dose or strength. If you have a puppy, do not use adult products. Look for a flea or tick shampoo for puppies. 
  • Second, if your pooch has irritated skin from the fleas or ticks, you may want a formula that includes lanolin. This substance from sheep sebaceous glands can help to hydrate and soften dry, itchy skin.

Shampoo for Puppies

Also known as tearless shampoo, products for puppies are formulated to be gentle on the skin and eyes. These washes have a pH balance that’s carefully titrated for puppy skin. It’s also more gentle on puppy paws which have thinner, more sensitive skin than adult pads. 

Deodorizing Shampoos

Deodorizing shampoos contain ingredients that help to neutralize odor, aid with deep cleaning, and provide a fresh, clean scent. Several organic varieties use extracts from fruit, flowers, or herbs to remove odor. Many claim to have lasting effects for 14 days.

Moisturizing Shampoos 

Some products contain moisturizing ingredients like vitamin E, lanolin, almond oil, or other emollients that help to moisturize and hydrate dry skin and hair. These substances can help promote a healthy, shiny coat. Other products that encourage skin health and coat luster are rich in proteins, minerals, and vitamins that nourish the hair.

Whitening or Color-Enhancing Shampoos

For dogs with white or light-colored coats, there are products that help to whiten or brighten the hair. These products generally require use with water. If you choose a product to make your furbaby’s coat pop, be careful to select a formula that contains as few harsh chemicals as possible and be sure to follow label instructions.

Products For Tangles

While your first answer to tangles and mats should be grooming, some long-haired dogs may benefit from conditioning products. Like human varieties, some options are combined with shampoo as a conditioning shampoo while others are stand-alone formulas. 

The Final Woof

Dog shampoos are specially formulated to clean your dog’s hair and address any skin and coat issues. Although you can use water or a mixture of certain household supplies to remove dirt and mud, it won’t provide the deep-down clean and deodorizing that grooming products offer. Just don’t grab for your shampoo – it’s not made for dogs.

Regular shampooing is a necessary part of your furbaby’s grooming routine because it helps keep your furbaby’s skin and coat healthy. The frequency will vary depending on your pooch, but it won’t be an everyday thing. Choose a product that’s formulated for his particular needs. There’s a wide variety of quality products available.

Photo of author
Dr. Libby Guise earned her DVM from the University of Minnesota in 1994. After working in private practice in Wisconsin for two years, she joined the USDA as a Veterinary Medical Officer. In 2011, Libby came home to focus on raising and teaching her adoptive daughter. She lives in Wisconsin with her daughter, husband, and two furbabies: Charis, a lab-mix rescue pup, and Chesed, a Springer Spaniel.

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