The Veterinarians Guide on Dog Flea Shampoos

Unfortunately for dogs, there comes a time when they must have a bath. Picking the right type of shampoo for dogs and their specific coat type is one of the first steps, but it's not the only one. Like humans, dogs have natural oils in their skin that keeps their coat healthy, but dead skin, dirt and other gunk can accumulate there and cause the oh too well-known “dog smell”.

The smell isn't the only or even the worst problem to have. What's even worse is that not bathing your dog can result in a variety of skin infections (1, 2). Proper procedure is essential to avoid the problem. But when faced with the task of bathing Fido, many puppy parents are confused by the wide variety of pet bathing products available, and specifically shampoo for dogs. What’s the best, why is it vet recommended and what simply won’t cut it and should be avoided?

I've had many pet owners ask me about which dog shampoo to use for bathing their flea infested canine, which type is better for what situations and what bathing products can be dangerous for dogs. I hope this article will answer these and many other questions you have about bathing a dog and bath supplies. I'll start with the basics of dog bathing and why a specific type of shampoo for dogs may stand out among the rest.

Healthy Shampoo for Dogs
The Veterinarian's Guide

The Vet's Guide on Choosing Shampoo for Dogs

Dog Bathing 101

Bathing basics are very simple for most normal dogs. There's a lot of conflicting information online, but myself and all other veterinarians recommend bathing dogs once every 1-3 months for general maintenance. This schedule changes based on some  variables. Some dogs require bathing more or less frequently, depending on their activity, environment, health status, coat type and the sensitivity of their owner’s nose.

However, the 1-3 month is a good rule of thumb to go by. A typical dog should not have too much of the doggy smell in-between baths as long as he is kept clean and dry. Some people are more sensitive to smells than others and this should be considered every time you think your dog needs a bath.

Bathing frequency

Note that certain dogs always have some sort of “doggy smell” no matter how often you bathe them. In cases like this, have your veterinarian examine your pooch before bathing any more frequently than once every 10 days. Your dog's persistent foul smell could be a sign of a skin infection or other skin disorder like seborrhea.

In most cases, frequent bathing is not recommended, unless you're following your vet's guidance for treating your pet for skin infections or disorders like seborrhea or pyoderma. Bathing your dog more than once every 2 weeks can strip your dog of natural, healthy skin oils – predisposing him to skin disorders and dry, itchy skin.

Bathing for skin disorders

While bathing your pooch often is not recommended in most cases, dogs with skin issues such as atopic dermatitis (allergies), pyoderma, active skin infections, or seborrhea (excessive oily or excessive dry skin) will definitely benefit from specific, very frequent bathing. Research shows that bathing your dog daily or every other day is one of the most effective ways to deal with the problem.

Frequent dog bathing for skin infections is effective because it removes all crust and scaling that contains bacteria. When paired with antimicrobial treatment or medicated shampoo for dogs, frequent bathing also makes all antibiotic treatments more effective.

Remember that when dealing with skin infections, you need to consult with your vet about all topical treatments, or any shampoo for dogs you're about to use. Studies show (3, 4, 5) that combining medicated dog shampoos with antibacterial treatments when bathing a dog is the most effective way to deal with skin disorders in dogs like pyoderma.

That said, not all skin condition permit frequent bathing, in which case only topic treatments can be used. Fortunately, there is conclusive evidence demonstrating that using skin infection treatments alone can be very effective for completely ridding the dog off bacteria and restoring the dog's skin health (6).

OTC Shampoo for Dogs

How to pick the best shampoo for dogsThere are several things to keep an eye out for when shopping for pet bathing products and specifically shampoo for dogs. Most well-rated over the counter bathing supplies are excellent for dogs that infrequently receive baths. They help to restore moisture to the hair and skin, while providing gentle cleansing without damaging the dog's coat.

What to look for

When choosing a dog shampoo for a normal, otherwise healthy dog, look to select a single product with the following:

  • Oatmeal-based
  • Soap-Free
  • Fragrance-Free
  • Hypoallergenic
  • Contains moisturizing sources of oils or fats, such as:
    • Coconut oil
    • Olive oil
    • Vitamin A, E
    • Omega-3 Fatty Acids
  • Contains soothing ingredients, such as:
    • Aloe vera

Not all of these are essential, but if you find a shampoo for dogs that has all of the above on the label, you can easily consider it to be one of the best dog shampoos out there.

What to avoid

Most OTC dog shampoos and all prescription-based productions are safe for dogs and there are very few things you must avoid from what's available to buy. However, there is one thing that you should never see on the label of shampoo for dogs:

  • Fragrances

You may think that fragrances are the way to go because they help “mask” any sort of doggy smell in-between bathing and there are certainly a lot of new brands of shampoo for dogs that contain different type of fragrances. While they do help with making the dog smell better, the problem is that dogs can develop sensitivities to fragrances.

Dogs also have very sensitive noses, as you already know, therefore fragrances that seem fine to us may cause many problems for your pet, in particular respiratory irritation in dogs that can later lead to more serious problems.

Moreover, fragrances, once mixed with the oils of the dog's skin and other stuff your pooch gets into, may not smell so good after several days. It will just smell “off.” Fragrances may also irritate others in the household, including children and cats.

Vet Recommended Dog Shampoo

I generally do not recommend any specific shampoo for dogs because once you know what to look for and what to avoid, it's easy to pick something in your price range and what's available to you.

If you need a specific recommendation, I would guide you to this list of best dog shampoos reviewed by editor Samantha, as most of those choices are very appropriate.

Personally, my favorite shampoo for dogs which is fragrance-free and contains all of those things I've mentioned above is Earthbath Oatmeal Hypoallergenic Shampoo. It's also very affordable, effective and one of the most popular dog shampoos that I know many pet owners use. Earthbath company is know for making all natural products that contain no soap, no fragrances or artificial colors.

If for whatever reason you insist on having your shampoo for dogs with fragrances, I would advise to select something natural and mild. A good example of natural fragrance is the rosemary oil, found in EarthBath’s Deoderizing Shampoo. It has a great formulation and other than natural fragrances, it hits all of the marks for a perfect shampoo for dogs that's healthy and not damaging to their coat.

Flea and Tick Shampoo for Dogs

Flea and tick dog shampoos are a thing of the past (or at least should be). While they still exist and new companies keep manufacturing new and “safer” dog flea shampoos, many of these shampoos contain harsh chemicals or tea tree oil that can dry out your pet’s skin and even cause toxicity. The only way to fight fleas and ticks is with chemicals, so you cannot have a completely safe shampoo that's effective for parasites.

Furthermore, dog flea shampoos are rarely effective. The chemicals may help to temporarily drive away fleas and ticks on your pet’s body, but the effects are not long-lasting enough to prevent the parasites from jumping on your dog the next time he encounters one. This has been demostrated in several studies (7, 8) all of which clearly show the lack of effectiveness of any type of flea shampoo for dogs.

From one of the studies:

“Regular weekly shampooing of dogs did reduce the number of fleas compared to the controls, but it was not sufficient to eliminate flea burdens as shown by the fact that only one dog in the shampoo group was free of fleas…”

Most of these studies share the same sentiment where flea shampoos are either barely effective or not effective at all. The above and other studies also demonstrated that dog groups treatment with actual flea and tick treatments responded much better and proper flea/tick treatments such as flea drops had a 99.5% efficacy.

The bottom line here is that if you are concerned about fleas and ticks, skip the flea shampoo for dogs and talk to your veterinarian about a trusted, long-lasting oral or topical flea/tick product, or flea collars. If your dog receives frequent baths, you may want to consider using an oral product; however, there is evidence that bathing your dog does not reduce the efficacy of flea and tick treatments (9, 10).

ALSO READ THIS: The Veterinarian’s Guide on Flea Collars for Dogs

Tea Tree Oil Shampoo

Why tea trea oil shampoo for dogs is dangerousTea tree oils, including essential tea tree oils, is another popular trend among new brands of shampoo for dogs. However, those shampoos with high concentration of these oils should be avoided if possible. Many studies done on the use of tea tree oil with pets (both cats and dogs) show that it's toxic to pets (11).

Therefore, 100% pure tea tree oil or products that contain a high amount of tea tree oil should never be used on dogs. While tea tree oil for dogs can have many benefits when used correctly, it is also toxic to dogs even when applied topically to the skin in full concentration. Tea tree oil is often used in a pure form by well-meaning pet parents attempting to control fleas. Such applications often leads to weakness, muscle tremors, hypothermia and other nervous system symptoms.

Note that there are many pet shampoos and hot-spot treatments out there that contain tea tree oil, and many of them are safe for bathing your dog. The reason is because tea tree oil is often so diluted in the product that it does not pose a toxicity issue.

How to pick tea tree oil shampoo: If you simply must try a product with tea tree oil, make sure that it is one of the last ingredients listed on the label – as most labeling lists the highest concentration ingredient first and least concentration last.

Frequent Bathing Guidelines

Dog Grooming Step by StepNow that you know more about picking the right type of shampoo for dogs, let's go back to bathing and frequency. I've mentioned above that frequent bathing is not recommended but if your dog is a messy, outdoors-y type, frequent bathing might be a necessity sometimes. There are a few things you can do.

If you must bathe your dog frequently:

First, try to brush off as much mud and gunk as possible and then rinse, rinse, and rinse some more just with water until the water and coat runs clean. No shampoo is used here. Dry him off with a pet towel and re-evaluate. This may be sufficient for keeping your dog clean enough to go into your home.

However, if you find that your dog needs a bath after every training session in order to bring him back into the house, consider using the least harsh dog shampoo possible. The ones I've mentioned above are much less likely to dry out the skin and will add in vital moisture to the protective oily layer of the dog's coat and skin.

Here are a few choices you can consider for frequent bathing:

Dogs with Skin Problems

Dog with severe skin disorderLike I've mentioned above, if your dog suffers from any type of skin problem or skin condition, always talk to your veterinarian before setting off on a bathing regimen or picking out a specific shampoo for dogs.

For active skin infections, specific medicated baths should be given per veterinary instruction, often 1-2 times a week and sometimes even daily (depending on the infection and skin condition). Once the infection is clearing or resolved, normal bathing can often resume.

Specific medicated baths exist to treat a variety of skin ailments, from yeast and bacterial infections to more severe seborrhea. There are special dog shampoos that help to prevent the need for oral antibiotics, but it depends on the situation.

As an example, here are some products you should know about that are recommended by vets as prescription-only. Do not try to purchase them yourself and they should only be used on the dog under the direction of your veterinarian. Many name-brand and generics are available, and they will often include ingredients like:

  • Ketoconazole (anti-fungal, for yeast infections)
  • Chlorhexidine (anti-microbial, for bacterial infections)
  • Sulfur (anti-itch, drying, anti-microbial, used for seborrhea)
  • Salicylic acid (lowers the pH of the skin, thus moisturizing keratin in the skin)
  • Benzoyl peroxide (helps to de-grease oily seborrhea, anti-microbial, helps treat mange and ringworm in dogs)

Many studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of these ingredients on majority of skin infections in dogs, and the same was replicated with the use of shampoo for dogs that contain them. However, they can also be damaging if used improperly, therefore consult with a vet and get a prescription for one of these products if your pooch is suffering from a serious skin disorder.

Solutions for Itchy Dogs

Some dogs just seem to be excessively itchy, be it due to dry skin, an underlying allergy or sometimes because of the above mentioned skin condition. If your Fido hasn’t scratched himself into needing veterinary attention, it may be worthwhile to try a soothing bath to help with the itch, or try one of these other itch relief methods.

Some dogs that are prone to getting skin infections or dry, itchy skin can also benefit from having baths using products specific bathing products that are formulated at relieving itching in dogs. The two shampoos for dogs that I recommend for itching are:

Virbac’s shampoo for dogs is a step above most other over-the-counter pet shampoos that I've mentioned (and are also more expensive). They contain patented moisturizing technology called spherulites. These spherulites act almost like a “time release” of moisturizer on your pet’s skin and hair, and help to relieve itching among other things.

You can read more about these products on the linked page, and I can also confirm that the website Doctors Foster and Smith accurately describes these dog shampoos:

Soap-free Epi-Soothe Shampoo helps soothe, cleanse, and control mild itch. Epi-Soothe contains colloidal oatmeal, chitosan, and Spherulites microcapsules. It employs glycotechnology that helps reduce bacterial and yeast adhesion to the surface of the skin. This action physically disrupts colonization of microorganisms on the skin surface and may delay onset of irritation due to topical bacteria or yeast. Chitosan is a natural biopolymer that creates a protective film on the skin and hair coat. Exclusive Spherulites microcapsules ensure a slow release of the ingredients long after product application”

Many itchy dogs also benefit from an after-bathing post-shampoo application of a crème rinse or conditioner. There are several dog conditioners available for purchase, but I cannot vouch for most of them. However, the one that I do often recommend to pet owners comes from Virbac with their patented formula:

The Vets Guide on Buying Shampoo for DogsIf you are using a Virbac shampoo for dogs that I've mentioned above, this Vicbac dog conditioner/creme rinse pairs nicely to help keep your pet protected and moisturized between bathing, and it's very effective for itchy dogs.

As a final resort, there are a few other dog itch relief remedies you can try, but most of them are rarely effective unless your pet only has a very mild itching problem.

Overall, this is everything you should know about picking shampoo for dogs and properly bathing your pooch. As always, if you have concerns regarding your dog’s skin or hair – contact your veterinarian and/or grooming professional for further guidance.

READ NEXT: How to Feed Dogs With Sensitive Skin


  1. I have yet to understand why anyone recommends use of oatmeal anything for regular bathing for dogs. If you think about it the use of oatmeal in humans it is used to “soothe and dry out” conditions such as chicken pox, psoriasis, eczema, and skin issues like this. The point being if you use oatmeal on your dog you will dry out the dog’s skin and coat. Newer and more effective studies are now showing that bathing your dog once a month is recommended and using a mild shampoo combined with a conditioner allows to soak into the skin is improving dog’s skin and hair health and curing a lot of these skin issues. I have been to several skin classes and this is the common theme. I’ve been a groomer for over 15 years now and in the last 2 years that I have started using the conditioning technique and removing ALL medicated (unless prescribed by a vet) and oatmeal shampoos from my salon, I have improved ALL my client’s skin and coat conditions. Those that have really bad skin, we have combined this with working with the vet to treat infections, etc and these dogs are leading very healthy lives with little to no itching.
    I do agree that flea shampoos are only effective for the short term and I explain this to every client that comes in with dogs that have fleas. I also reccomend usuing all natural flea shampoos (not tea tree based and NEVER EVER Dawn) combined with a conditioner to put the moisture back in the skin that these dogs need. It’s no different than us conditioning our hair and putting lotion on our skin. The skin needs the moisture and we humans are stripping away protective oils and replenishing them. Please do more research into the health of these dogs and their skin before writing a shampoo article. I would highly recommend talking to vets who specialize in skin (Dr Faver perhaps) that have done extensive research into what works on dogs that have skin issues. This is a severely overlooked issue that is so easily resolved with proper grooming and bathing techniques.


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