Pet Bathing: Technique And Frequency

“Dr. Randolph, how often should I bathe my dog?”

The answer, I explained, is really simple. “When he’s dirty.”

Pet owners spend a lot of time worrying about underbathing or overbathing their pets, when, in fact, it is difficult to do either.

In fact, for those pets, cats and dogs alike, with no dermatologic complaints, if they never got a bath they would be fine, as long as they are not dirty.

Pets with skin problems that require a medicated shampoo for treating the skin, hair or both should follow their pets’ doctor’s schedule and instructions.

In addition to “when he’s dirty” we could add “when he smells bad.” Breeds of dogs with a tendency to have active or overactive sebaceous glands tend to get a “doggy” smell and special, antiseborrheic, shampoos can help. Use the following steps:

  1. Wet your dog thoroughly. The ingredients require significant moisture to activate and function properly.
  2. Next comes a step we often leave out, just because we veterinarians think, “Shampooing with medicated shampoo on a frequent schedule is hard enough without adding another step!”  Still, we know that medicated shampoos work much, much better if the pet is cleaned first.  So, before each medicated shampoo, clean your pet with any good grooming shampoo first, removing dirt and excess oils that interfere with medicated shampoo action.
  3. Use small amounts of shampoo in lots of places. In other words, use plenty, but don’t “gob” it up all in one place because these shampoos don’t spread well.  This is a good time to mention that medicated shampoos don’t lather, either.
  4.  Keeping your pet wet, work the shampoo into the skin and hair. It will not foam up like dishwashing liquid, so don’t look for that.  Sebum, or skin oil, comes from the skin, so it’s not enough to simply shampoo the hair, you must get the medicated shampoo all the way to the skin.
  5. Total contact time needs to be 15 minutes. I know, I know, that’s a long time to hold a wet dog or cat, but if you’re going to do this you need to do it right.
  6.  Keep your pet wet throughout the process. Use a plant mister if you need one, to touch up areas that might dry out during the 15-minute soak.
  7. Lastly, rinse thoroughly. During the 15-minute soaking time some areas may have begun to dry. Be careful not to leave any shampoo behind because, just as with our scalps, dried shampoo will be irritating.
  8. If your pet’s doctor has recommended a humectant, or moisture trap, spray or pour it on after you have towel-dried your pet, but while he is still a little bit damp. The dampness will help the humectant to penetrate to the skin, where it can’t “trap” or “hold” the moisture that the medicated shampoo has instilled into the skin.

You are unlikely to overbathe your pet if you are using medicated shampoo followed by a humectant.  However, if you are using a regular cleaning or grooming shampoo and you see your pet’s skin begin to flake and dry, you have overdone it.  Decrease your bathing frequency by one half.

As always, if you have questions about your pet’s skin or hair, call your veterinarian. He is the expert.


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