All dog shampoos are not created equal, which can make finding the right shampoo for your sensitive-skinned dog particularly tricky. And with hundreds of options available, how do you know which one to choose?
Here are some suggestions on what to look for when perusing the grooming aisle and online shopping sites.
First things first: Talk with your veterinarian
Many factors — allergies, external parasites, poor-quality food, overly dry air, infection or disease, and the wrong shampoo — can cause or intensify skin sensitivity. If your dog’s skin condition hasn’t been evaluated by your veterinarian, your first step should be to schedule an appointment. Your veterinarian can determine if there’s a medical reason for your dog’s skin issue, prescribe an appropriate treatment, including medicated shampoo therapy, and provide guidance on how to best bathe your canine companion.
The right shampoo can soothe sensitive canine skin
When your dog has sensitive skin, you want to be especially careful when choosing a shampoo because the wrong product can make existing skin conditions worse or cause new problems. Here are some key words, phrases and ingredients to look for on the label of a good dog shampoo for sensitive, easily irritated skin.
- The shampoo is labeled for use on dogs. That sounds like a no-brainer, right? But you’d be surprised by how frequently pet owners ask their veterinarians and groomers if it’s really necessary to use a pet-specific shampoo.
What’s the answer?
Yes, you want a shampoo, and possibly a conditioner, that’s specifically formulated for dogs (or dogs and cats). In fact, some products will say that they’re pH-balanced for dogs or that they “help maintain skin barrier integrity” as part of the label.
The reason for pet-specific shampoo has to do with the differences in skin thickness, pH, glands and hair follicles that exist between dog and human skin. (You can learn more about canine skin here.)
The average pH of canine skin ranges between 7.0 and 7.5 on the standard pH scale of 0 to 14, although an even broader range has been reported. In contrast, the pH of human skin runs around 5.2 to 5.5. A shampoo designed for human skin and hair may be too acidic for dog skin, which may disrupt the pH balance and dry out your pet’s skin.
In an emergency — your dog is covered in mud and you’re completely out of pet shampoo — you can use your own shampoo to clean up your pup. Typical human shampoos aren’t toxic to dogs but they can be irritating or drying to sensitive dog skin, so you don’t want to use them routinely to bathe your furry friend.
- The shampoo contains moisturizing ingredients to help keep skin hydrated. Some of these products will be labeled with descriptors such as “hydrating,” “moisturizing,” “restoring” and “essential fatty acids.”
The two main types of moisturizing ingredients used in shampoos are humectants and emollients.
Humectants work by pulling moisture up from the deeper skin layers to rehydrate the surface. Examples of humectants include natural moisturizing factors (e.g., carboxylic acid, lactic acid and urea), sodium lactate, propylene glycol, glycerin and polyvinylpyrrolidone.
Emollients moisturize skin by providing oil to coat the surface and fill the spaces between cells of the outer skin layer. Examples of emollients are oils (e.g., almond, corn, cottonseed, coconut, olive, peanut, Persia [avocado], safflower and sesame), animal fats (e.g., lanolin) and hydrocarbons (e.g., mineral oil, paraffin and petrolatum).
- The shampoo includes skin-soothing ingredients to help reduce irritation and itching. Oatmeal (colloidal oatmeal), aloe vera and pramoxine are added to shampoos designed for dogs with sensitive skin specifically for their anti-itch properties. Often, the labels of these products will highlight that they contain oatmeal and/or aloe vera.
The use of oatmeal evolved out of folk medicine. It’s thought to decrease skin inflammation by inhibiting the production of hormones (i.e., prostaglandins) that play a key role in inflammation. However, the exact way that oatmeal works isn’t known.
Aloe vera contains two compounds known to reduce itching and inflammation. One substance blocks the production of a hormone associated with pain and inflammation. The second chemical interferes with the production of histamine, a chemical released by cells during allergic and inflammatory reactions.
Pramoxine is a topical local anesthetic that numbs the skin by stopping nerves from sending pain signals. If you choose a shampoo that contains pramoxine, you’ll want to consider wearing gloves when bathing your dog.
Sometimes, it’s about what’s not in the shampoo
For some sensitive-skinned dogs, your shampoo choice is as much about what’s not in the product as what is. Dogs with easily irritated, itchy skin can benefit from a soap-, fragrance- and dye-free shampoo. Some shampoo products may contain phrases such as “sulfate and paraben free,” “alcohol free” or “soap-free formula.” They may also be labeled and promoted as hypoallergenic formulas.
Shampoo is just one aspect of a successful bath time
The shampoo you choose for bathing your dog with sensitive skin is just one “bath factor” that can affect your dog’s skin. Frequency of baths, water temperature, thoroughness of rinsing and the drying process can either improve or worsen your dog’s skin condition.
If you have any questions or concerns about your dog’s skin or appropriate grooming products, be sure to discuss them with your veterinarian. Your veterinarian can provide recommendations specific to your dog and his or her skin condition.
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