Grooming: Part le deux: skin health and shampoo

Before I go any further, please realize that a TON of what I have learned is due to the genius of Barbara Bird, groomer extraordinaire. BBird basically taught herself everything there is to know about shampoos and conditioners and skin conditions and how to solve them. She’s given herself a PhD in this stuff, and I don’t exaggerate even a tiny bit. Having spent a lot of years in grad school myself, I can tell you that she’s better at this than most new doctoral graduates. 

BBird teaches a class called “Beyond Suds and Scent,” which I have a great desire to take and hope to someday. Meanwhile, I have read everything she’s ever written online and in discussion groups and every single bit of it is gold. So don’t think that I am even a little bit smart about this; I’m definitely just a student.

So anyway: The first step to a groom is to evaluate the condition of the dog’s skin. I’m not going to turn this into a vet course, but the basic idea is that scratching is not normal, flaking is not normal, any blackening or discoloration is not normal, any thickening of the skin and the tissue below it is not normal. A dog’s skin should be as smooth, thin, and pale as possible, even in thickness and pliable. 

Hauling Clue up beside me, I am going to demonstrate on her cute little self. 

I noticed her scratch her side this afternoon, so I am now watching her like a hawk. Dogs should virtually never scratch, and especially if it’s accompanied by wolf-biting their own skin I suspect fleas or ticks. I haven’t seen either one, but if the dogs are feeling them it’s time to start the spring Frontline schedule. 

Parting her hair, I see nothing flaking, red, black, or scabby. Rolling her skin between my fingers, I can feel the increased thickness of the skin where the worst of her chemical burn was last year. The hair has come in well, but I can feel that the skin is still too thick. I am checking every couple of weeks to make sure nothing changes, or (best case) it gradually goes back to normal. 

Bronte, poor lamb, has scars on her face from the house fire, but Clue doesn’t. I also check Clue’s back legs to make sure the scars from her car hit are healing and continuing to fill in. They are. I take a pinch of her hair from several points on her body and try to pull the hair out – the only thing I get is some grey undercoat. YAY. Diet is finally working. 

So I don’t see anything that needs a medical treatment or a different shampoo approach than I normally use. 

Some of the different issues I’ve seen over the years: Skin staph infections (very common and harmless in puppies; more worrisome in adults), pyodermas of all kinds (the skin is either darker or redder or seeping slightly), folliculitis, mange, SLO (an autoimmune disease that is thankfully very treatable), ringworm and other fungal infections, allergies, flaking, etc. I haven’t personally seen but know to watch for alopecia of various types (including color-related, which is SUPER common in dobermans and their mixes), Addisonian hair changes (Addisons disease causes odd growth and shedding patterns), Cushings-related hair changes, etc. The coat and skin are the early-warning system for half a hundred different diseases, so keeping track of how it looks and feels is a very big deal. 

Basically, if there’s anything on the skin or coat that looks gross or you don’t want to touch, it’s not just “doggy.” Something is likely wrong. 

I then flip Clue over and look at her belly skin (for darkness or redness) and to make sure her belly hair is growing well. I know it sounds insane, but in my experience a completely naked belly after puppyhood means something is missing in the diet. When I bring in a new rescue, one of the signs that the dog is getting healthy again is that the belly hair starts to grow. I have no medical basis for saying this, but it’s been very consistent in my own dogs. Belly hair is always going to be thin and see-through, but it should be soft and healthy looking. 

Flip her back over, check her ears. Chide myself because there’s a little black in there, but there’s no redness or irritation. Use a baby wipe to get the black out. The rest of her ear skin is good and pale and cool.

I’ve been wiping her little yaya daily because she’s still dripping a little, so I don’t need to check that. Ordinarily I’d make sure there was no redness or swelling that might indicate either a little vaginitis or an anal gland issue. And yes, I do empty anal glands myself, if needed. After you’ve done it once you realize that it’s totally doable and not even that icky. 

Today, Clue’s skin looks great. So she just needs a normal bath. Which brings us to SHAMPOO.

The supreme thing you need to know when you’re looking at shampoo is that SHAMPOO IS A LIE, MADE BY LYING LIARS THAT LIE. When you buy shampoo, you’re getting about a teaspoon of actual cleaning power inside a $10 bottle of water, salt, thickeners, pearlizers, texture enhancers (and by this I mean the texture of the shampoo, not the texture of the hair), foamers, defoamers, fragrance, water softeners, emulsifiers, and a bunch of completely useless herbs and botanical ingredients. 

The function of shampoo is to remove the skin oil (sebum) that is sitting on the skin and coat, and to lift dirt so it can be carried away in the rinse. That’s it.

The vast majority of what is in that bottle is made for YOU, not the dog. People tend to like products that feel thick, silky, have a pearly sheen, smell good, and create a thick and firm lather. None of those aspects mean SQUAT when it comes to cleaning, but they make you feel like it’s a higher-quality product than one that is thin and watery and smells like soap. 

The other set of ingredients, herbs and other botanicals, is all about making the shampoo seem “natural” or to raise the price of the shampoo because botanicals are perceived to be expensive. I’m not knocking botanicals or herbs, because many of them have very powerful and positive effects on skin and hair. I just think they’re stupid in shampoo, because (hello!) YOU RINSE THEM OUT. The whole purpose of shampoo is to LEAVE. There’s no way applying a minute amount of aloe for five minutes to a shampooed dog does a thing; in fact, since the surfactants (the cleaners) in the shampoo hold anything oily or greasy away from the hair, the aloe doesn’t even touch the hair or skin. 

For most dogs, whatever feels good to you is going to be fine. If you feel more loving toward your dog because you use a $40 bottle of shampoo, go for it. I, personally, like a certain scent and I’m willing to pay for it. So I fall in this trap as well. But don’t fall for the idea that the actual shampoo is “better” because it smells good. 

Here are the differences in shampoo that actually matter:

1) Concentration and harshness of the cleaning agents used. I don’t know how to not write like sixteen paragraphs on this, and it would get REALLY boring and use a lot of organic chemistry terms and I would get a headache, so (making a long story short) Kelco’s Filthy Animal shampoo is super strong and super concentrated and needs to be diluted like you would not believe, whereas Chris Christensen shampoo is more like a human daily-use shampoo, comparatively weak and dilute and packed with “feel-good” ingredients. Most of the pet shampoos you can buy in pet supply stores are both weak and cheaply made, with lower-quality surfactants. They’re very dilute because the manufacturers know that people like to dump shampoo on their dogs in huge glurgs and that owners rarely rinse well enough, and if they made them as strong as professional products you’d burn the heck out of your dogs. 

Pay attention to the recommended dilution on the bottle, and use whatever shampoo you need to get your dog clean. 

2) Dyes. Specifically, green and purple and blue and red. Dyes in shampoos DO work. You can get a dramatically better appearance when a yellowed coat has had some purple dye deposited on it. Green shampoos really do blacken a reddish coat. There are also non-dye colorizers called optical brighteners; they’re common in clothes detergents because they make whites look brighter. I use dye in shampoos all the time, mainly to brighten whites. However, dyes make the shampoo less mild and in some sensitive dogs they can cause allergies or reactions. So use them carefully and consider a test patch on the belly before you go over the whole dog. 

3) Humectants. These are products that attract moisture to the hair and make it feel softer than it did before. Humectants are the reason you don’t use Palmolive on your hair; it’s actually a lot like shampoo but it doesn’t put any moisture back in and so your hair feels fried after using it. You don’t need a lot of humectant if you’re going to be using a conditioner, because the conditioner actually means something (conditioners lie less), but for a shampoo alone it’s good to have some. The most common humectant is glycerine or one of its cousins.

I’m going to list a whole bunch of brands in some post sometime, but it’s like 3 am and so this is not the time :). What I WILL do is give you a great secret: A fabulous, very effective, about as hypoallergenic shampoo as you can find, and it costs pennies.

Barbara Bird’s Bichon Bubbles:

22 oz Ivory Liquid Dish Detergent 
2 oz. glycerine (available at drug store; this is the humectant)
2 cups plain white vinegar 
Put in a gallon container and full with water

Now I can just hear people saying “Ivory liquid! Horrible!” So I am stealing (again from BBird) the following comparison:

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (detergent surfactant)
Sodium Laureth Sulfate (detergent co-surfactant, milder than SLS)
Cocamidopropyl Betaine (foam builder, thickener, anti-irritant)
Lauramide DEA (foam builder, foam stabilizer, thickener)
Sodium Sulfate (thickener)
Sodium Chloride (thickener)
Citric Acid (pH adjuster)
Tetrasodium EDTA (chelating agent, preservative)
DMDM Hydantoin (preservative)

TOP PERFORMANCE PROCLEAN 35 (a professional dog grooming shampoo)
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate,
Sodium Laureth Sulfate
Cocamidopropyl Betaine
Glycol Stearate (emollient/pearlizing agent)
Methylchloroisothiasolinone/Methylisothiazolinone (preservatives)
Sodium Chloride (thickener)
Cirtric Acid (pH adjuster)
FD & C Yellow No. 5; FD&C Blue #1 

The only difference between Ivory and the pet shampoo is that Ivory is thicker and the pet shampoo has a pearly sheen to it, and they use different preservative methods.

Bichon Bubbles makes a thin solution that is very “unsexy.” But it works beautifully and it’s extremely gentle on skin and hair.  It rinses very easily and is low-foaming, which is actually an advantage in shampoo even though it feels unfamiliar to your hands. And it’s SO CHEAP. 

Tomorrow: Conditioners (which DO mean something) and the various after bath products and finishing sprays and silicones and so on. Onward!


6 thoughts on “Grooming: Part le deux: skin health and shampoo

  1. I love the Bichon Bubbles recipe, but I’m lazy and don’t make it up myself most of the time. (Also, I like shampoo that smells good. 😛 I keep meaning to experiment with using rosemary vinegar in that recipe, though.) I’ve had GREAT luck with cheap old Suave from the drug store- it’s a little different but basically the same stuff. It doesn’t have any -cones in it (sworn by my hair community that I’m on to cause breakage ;P) and comes in a gazillion different scents so I can use whatever I feel like smelling that week (this is particularly important for Lizzie, who has just begun being allowed to sleep in the bed with me and prefers to curl up on top of my head….. weird little dog.)

  2. I also use Suave or baby shampoo. Works just fine, though a lot of people are leery of using ‘people stuff’ on their dogs. Is the whole line about ‘incompatible pH’ between dog and human shampoo pretty much baloney, then? I’ve never had any bad reaction to using it.

  3. Good questions, all.

    Yes, the pH bit is total hooey.

    I think Suave is fine, though it’s actually substantially more expensive than using a good concentrated dog shampoo.

    I wouldn’t use Johnsons baby shampoo; it’s harsher than you think. The word on the street (could be urban legend) is that it is designed to dissolve cradle cap and therefore has a lot of harsh detergent. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that it strips hair pretty well. Mustela baby shampoo is great for puppies and faces, though.

    Silicons (the -cones) will be addressed in the next post. Hint: they do not cause breakage.

  4. Everyone says different stuff about the -cones. 😛 I just know I get more split ends with ’em then without. This isn’t so much a worry with dogs.

    I love your posts – I’m constantly amazed with your ability to get lots of USEFUL words out every day.

  5. Joanna, question: Is this (BBBB) good for a double-coated dog? (I’m guessing yes, since your Cardis have one, right?) I’m really watching you closely about grooming double coats right now, since it is coat-blowing time, and our house is now fur-lined….

  6. I have a question for you. Burner, my basenji, was known for his amazing coat in his show days. It was dark, shiny, and gorgeous, almost a reverse brindle. When he came to live with me, he had a strip of the dark shiny hair down his spine, but everywhere else was covered with downy, washed-out looking hair, almost a puppy coat, if I had to describe it. He also had a wicked rash on his belly, from his hocks to his ribs, that was crusty and bleeding. I switched him immediately to a grain free kibble, and the rash went away, as did his incessant licking, but his coat hasn’t improved any. He’s a good weight, but his muscle tone could be better too. He’s very sedentary, rather middle aged, you know?

    Do you think this is diet related? He has no gloss to his coat at all, just on that one strip on his spine. I was thinking about having a thyroid panel run on him.

    Also, I’m thinking about switching both dogs to raw when we have the space (sometime this summer) and I would love a primer on raw! And while I’m forced to continue to feed kibble, what would you recommend, brand wise, for supplements? They are eating Canidae Grain Free right now.

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