By David F. Kramer
If your dog had the wherewithal to make out a list of his least favorite things to do, getting a bath would probably be close to the top. Since dog baths tend to be messy, time-consuming and not a whole lot of fun for everyone involved, it’s natural to wonder, “How often should I bathe my dog?”
As is often the case, the answer is “It depends.”
“Dogs groom themselves to help facilitate the growth of hair follicles and to support skin health,” says Dr. Adam Denish of Rhawnhurst Animal Hospital in Elkins Park, Penn. “However, bathing is needed for most dogs to supplement the process. But bathing too often can be detrimental to your pet as well. It can irritate the skin, damage hair follicles, and increase the risk of bacterial or fungal infections.”
Dr. Jennifer Coates, veterinary advisor with petMD, adds, “the best bath frequency depends on the reason behind the bath. Healthy dogs who spend most of their time inside may only need to be bathed a few times a year to control natural ‘doggy odors.’ On the other hand, frequent bathing is a critical part of managing some medical conditions, like allergic skin disease.”
Whether your dog willingly hops in the tub for a scrubbing, or fights you tooth and nail every bath day – here are a few things to know that can make bath time easier.
How Often Should You Bathe Your Dog?
How often you should wash your dog depends on a number of factors, including his health, breed, coat, and activity level, as well as where these activities are taking place. Dogs who spend the day outside rolling around in things they shouldn’t are going to need a bath far more often than ones who spend most of their time on the couch. Or, as Mari Rozanski, of Plush Pups Boutique in Huntingdon Valley, Penn., puts it, just use your nose.
“If your dog comes into the room and you can smell him, he needs a bath,” says Rozanski. If your dog is covered in dirt or dried mud, a thorough brushing (outside if possible!) followed by a bath is usually your best option.
“I always bathe the body first and head last, as dogs tend to shake once their head is wet” says Rozanski. “Just because a shampoo says tearless or tear-free, do not put it directly in the eyes, rather wash around the eyes and rinse right away.”
Coates adds that if baths are part of a dog’s medical treatment plan, “your veterinarian should give you guidance on how often to bathe and what product to use.”
When to Call the Professionals
Rozanski has bathed barkers of all stripes, from Chihuahuas to Great Danes. She’s seen pet bathing fads come and go and says that keeping your dog clean is more than simply lather, rinse and repeat.
“Bathing dogs is not as simple as it seems. There are so many different types of dogs and coats which each need to be addressed separately, because of varying textures and lengths. In a salon, the groomer can address these distinctions, but at home, a pet owner may not realize the difference.”
For example, she says, a Shetland Sheepdog is a double-coated dog with thick, shedding hair. This breed requires a good soaking and moisturizing with lots of water and a lot of brushing and combing before, during, and after the bath, then a dog-specific conditioner, rinse and high velocity blow dry.
If you simply don’t have the time, space or desire to wash your dog at home, there is no shame in calling in an expert.
Finding the Right Bathing Products
Some differences between human and canine skin are obvious, but one that isn’t, skin pH, is arguably the most important when it comes to picking out the right bathing product.
“Human skin is very acidic, coming in at a pH of under 5 in most cases,” says Coates. “But dog skin is much closer to a pH of 7, meaning that it is essentially neutral – not strongly acidic or strongly alkaline.”
Therefore, some products that are specifically designed for human skin could be quite irritating to canine skin. For routine baths, Coates recommends using a mild, moisturizing dog shampoo. “Oatmeal-based shampoos are a good choice for many healthy dogs,” she says.
According to Denish, dogs can have negative reactions to shampoos and other products, even if they’re specifically made for dogs. “I have seen many pets that have had reactions to topical shampoos, rinses and conditioners. Reactions typically are either skin-mediated or from actual ingestion of the shampoo.”
Clinical signs of a skin reaction can include red, itchy skin and hives. Ingestion of pet shampoo can cause symptoms like vomiting, drooling and decreased appetite, Denish says. If you notice these symptoms, he recommends re-washing your dog with warm water only and reaching out to your veterinarian for next steps.
If you’re unsure of which type of shampoo to buy, talk to your veterinarian, who knows your pets and their medical history and is in the best position to provide individualized recommendations. This is especially true if your dog suffers from a skin condition.
“I separate shampoos into two types-basic grooming and medicated shampoos. As a veterinarian, I believe that real medicated shampoos should be recommended and dispensed by your pet's doctor,” Denish says.
Learn more about the most common bath-time mistakes pet owners make.