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How to Choose the Best Dog Shampoo (For Fleas, Dandruff, & More)

Mrs. Obvious is a mother, wife, and mentor. She used to own her own groom shop called Puppy Love and was self-employed for nine years.

How to choose the shampoo that's best for your dog.

How to choose the shampoo that's best for your dog.

How Do You Select Dog Shampoo?

What types of shampoo are out there, and when, why, and how should you use them? This article is a guide to which shampoo is best for your purposes. You don't have to be too picky about the kind of shampoo you use on your dog—just make sure to get a shampoo that is made for dogs, not humans.

Some people use their own human shampoo with no problems, but this is actually a no-no. I think it's best to use a shampoo formulated for dogs in the first place because they are ph-balanced specifically for pets.

The basic choices for pet shampoos are:

  • oatmeal,
  • medicated,
  • whitening,
  • puppy,
  • super-cleaning,
  • hypoallergenic,
  • flea shampoo,
  • and conditioners.

According to the American Kennel Club, it's always best to look for dog shampoos with naturally derived ingredients that are made in the U.S. Soap-free is best so the shampoos don't dry out your pup's skin.

Varieties of Dog Shampoo

Oatmeal-based shampoo is great to use as your basic go-to. It will help with dry skin (which causes itching), skin allergies, and soothing the skin after a round with fleas.

Medicated shampoo should be used with more severe skin irritations, seborrhea, etc. The ones you can buy at your pet store usually have some combination of coal tar, sulfur, and hydrocortisone in them. They can and do help improve some conditions and hot spots. If your pet has an actual skin infection, yeast, or mites, you need to see a vet for the proper shampoo.

Whitening shampoo is usually used to brighten white-coated animals but can also be used to clarify and brighten other colors too. There are special formulations for brightening black coats as well. These whitening/clarifying shampoos clean really well, but can have the effect of stripping oil from the skin, so you may want to consider using a conditioner along with it if you use it every time you bathe your pet.

Puppy shampoo is really great for very young animals (four months or less) as well as for very old or fragile animals. It is wonderful at any stage of life for use on the face and around the eyes because puppy shampoo is usually tearless. Human baby shampoo is also very good for this.

Hypoallergenic shampoo is tearless also and was made for pets that are super sensitive to dog shampoo. They are also good for owners with sensitive skin. Do not assume that just because your pet has been really itchy after a bath once or twice that they need a hypoallergenic shampoo. There are many factors to add up before insisting on a hypoallergenic shampoo for your pet. The most common reason for itching after a bath is that you may not have rinsed well enough.

Another common cause of itching is that your pet may be suffering from dry skin, and you may not have used a shampoo that addresses that problem. Thirdly, the shampoo you used before may have been too strong for your pet and stripped all the oils out of his fur, causing him to feel like he has dry skin, thus causing the itching. This doesn't mean you freak out and just start using a hypo shampoo out of fear of causing a problem.

Hypoallergenic shampoo is a great product for dogs that actually need it. But it isn't a great cleaning shampoo. It won't help with smells or oily fur, and it won't soothe existing skin conditions. It doesn't lather well, and, being hypo-allergenic, it has no soap in it, so it can't clean as well as any other normal shampoo.

Many pet owners, once they’ve convinced themselves that their pet needs hypoallergenic shampoo, will then fear using any other shampoo that their pet may actually need and benefit from. Make sure you have tried several other shampoos, including oatmeal and a good skin-conditioning shampoo before you make the switch to hypoallergenic shampoo.

Flea shampoo will help you kill fleas, but use may have to be repeated several times. Every year, fleas get more resistant to the available products and manufacturers are constantly trying to keep up. Use an eye protectant in the pet's eyes and apply the flea shampoo to the head first. Fleas will hide on your pet anywhere. In the ears, eyes, nose, and rectum, they don't care, they are running for their lives.

Apply the shampoo to the head and neck first to prevent the fleas from hiding in these areas where you can't see them, and then move on to the rest of the body. Leave the shampoo on for at least 5–10 minutes, according to the label of the particular shampoo you are using. Kill as many fleas as you can with your own hands while you are waiting. You can do this easily by popping the fleas between your nails.

Flea shampoo works by paralyzing the flea's nervous system, so after a few minutes, you will see the fleas stop moving. But they aren't dead yet, it takes a few more minutes to actually kill them. Rinsing the shampoo off too soon will allow the fleas to recover instead of being killed, so leave it on as long as the label says.

If you have followed these directions but are still having problems with live fleas on your pet, you may want to go ahead and use a topical flea product, like Frontline Plus, or take your dog to a groomer for a dip. Not all groomers will use dip these days, most of us prefer the use of topical flea products, so call around and ask if they have dip if that's what you really want.

The important thing to remember is that you don't want to mix too many flea products on your pet because they are poison. Flea shampoo, whether chemical-based or natural-based (neem oil, eucalyptus, pennyroyal, etc.) can be used together with dip or with topical products. But you don't want to use both dip and a topical product together because you could poison your dog. Some pets that are elderly, in fragile health, or nursing are going to be sensitive to flea products too. When in doubt about what to do, ask your vet.

Conditioners are made specifically to target either the skin or the coat. Knowing which kind you need before you buy will save you some money. If your dog is itchy, which usually means dry skin, make sure you buy one that is made to condition the skin. If you are using a conditioner because your dog's hair is dry, brittle, or not shiny, then use one made specifically for the hair itself.

How Can I Protect My Dog's Eyes?

When using any shampoo product that doesn't claim to be tearless, it is a good idea to protect the eyes during the bathing process. There are a few products on the market to protect the eyes, and a couple more to wash irritants from the eyes. Make sure you are buying a protectant for this purpose. An eyewash won't protect; it only serves like human eye drops to help relieve the eye of irritants.

One drop in each eye will usually be fine and is really all you want to use, as this product is very oily, and too much will leave oily streaks down the face. Another natural thing you can use that you might already have at home is mineral oil. Use an eyedropper to apply. Here is the technique I use to get the drops into the eyes: Point the nose only slightly upwards and, coming from behind the pet's skull, pull back the top eyelid towards the tail and drop the eye drops onto the eyeball from above.

Your pet's instinct is to look down, and because of this, the pet won't see the eye drops falling into its eyes and get upset. The pet's own natural tears will dissolve eye protectants within 20–30 minutes, so there is no need to worry about removing them.

Can You Use Human Soaps and Shampoos on Your Dog?

The short answer to this question is no, it's not healthy for your pet to use anything other than dog shampoo.

Human dandruff shampoo like Head & Shoulders is sometimes used on dogs to control flaky dandruff (a sign of dry skin). This is unsafe! Talk to your vet about dandruff-specific pet shampoos.

Dawn dish soap is another product often used on animals that isn't safe for regular use on dogs. People who rescue wildlife have used it for years to strip harmful oils from birds' feathers and assist in the cleaning of other wild animals. It works great to strip out all kinds of oils and even environmental irritants, but it isn't safe to regularly use on your pet.

More Dog Grooming Articles

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.


Melissa on June 23, 2020:

Is it ok to use head and shoulders for my boxer he is about one human year old

Willow Mattox (author) from Northern California on November 29, 2018:

Hi Anna, Yes you can use Equate brand. I have used it, and it works just as well as Head and Shoulders brand.

Willow Mattox (author) from Northern California on February 26, 2018:

Yay! I'm happy this worked for you. Some people will try specialty eye drops from the pet store to protect eyes. But you can also use a drop of mineral oil too. Careful to only use one drop per eye though, or you'll end up with super greasy eye look when she's all done!

Crystal on February 08, 2018:

I have a 8 yr old Lab/Shep mix she hates baths and its a task giving her one. She moves around so much its hard not getting the soap in her eyes. I've used all the shampoos made for dogs possible and they all seem to cause eye irratation. So I tried baby shampoo I dont know about anyone else but it worked great she didnt have any eye issues (even when it got in her eyes) Not only did it work it also gave her a nice clean smell.

Shellie on March 27, 2012:

Dawn CAN be used on a dog, but PLEASE only use it in emergency situations. Like noted, it works for getting grease off of their coats, maybe even skunk smell. But theres a reason they make shampoos specifically for dogs! If you want to use a human "shampoo", use the MILDEST thing you can find, like a baby shampoo. Dawn will strip the natural ESSENTIAL oils out of a dog's coat and may lead to dry skin and dull hair if used regularly.

The chemicals in the soap kill the fleas, but also can cause irritation, conjunctivitis, and other skin issues when used regularly on dogs and puppies.

Enelle Lamb from Canada's 'California' on October 05, 2009:

Great information - thank you for all the tips - will make bathtime a lot easier LOL...