By Randy Kidd, DVM, PhD
The best natural grooming aid for pets is a hairbrush. A daily brushing that removes hairy tangles and much of the dirty accumulations that come from living naturally can also activate the healthy and healing functions of the skin cells and oil-producing glands of the skin. It can also enhance an animal's important inner and skin-based immune systems. Finally, brushing helps to promote the vital functions of the human-animal bond. That makes a simple daily brushing the most natural, the easiest, and the very best grooming aid for the health of your pet, not to mention it being the cheapest.
Now, let's move on to another popular grooming activity -- shampooing. When it comes to shampooing, sometimes too much of a good thing isn't always healthy. In fact, it can even be harmful. Shampoos dry the skin, and the harsher the shampoo, the more drying effect it will have.
Healthy skin is well oiled by the natural secretions of the skin glands. This oil-based coating is protective and it provides a healthy environment where beneficial bacteria are able to thrive and prevent the growth of disease-causing bacteria. In addition, skin oils react with vitamin D from the sun, which helps with calcium metabolism needed to make strong bones.
While it's true that some pet shampoos contain moisturizers to give the hair coat an oily sheen, I am personally not convinced that artificial moisturizers are actually beneficial for the long-term health of the skin. Also, some shampoos contain antibiotics. When the antibiotic-laden shampoos are used, they not only attack the potential pathogenic, or bad, bacteria, they also eliminate all the good bacteria, too.
While the drying and the bacteria-killing effects of shampoos are of concern, perhaps of even greater concern is the long-term harmful potential of some of the chemicals found in many of our pet shampoos.
Healthy skin cells, or keratinocytes, have the capability of "uploading" whenever they need to do so. A prime example of healthy uploading is when the skin cells respond to a laceration by increasing their production, so the wound can close over and heal more quickly.
The opposite of skin "uploading" is skin "downloading". When skin cells "download", they move into an abnormal growth phase producing cells that age faster and that are more susceptible to skin disease and tumors. "Downloading" can be caused by a variety of things, including excessive sun tanning (in humans), oxidizing agents (such as those contained in many anti flea and tick shampoos), persistently dry skin, and the presence of certain microorganisms.
Now that I've described the negative effects of shampooing, I hope you can see that the pet primped up with a fresh coiffure every week and smelling like a perfume factory, while outwardly attractive, may not have the healthiest skin.
Tips on healthy shampooing:
Make shampooing a rare event. Most animals keep themselves clean, most of the time. Depending on your dog's daily activities and his skin and hair coat's natural texture, you may only need to shampoo once a month or even less often. Cats take care of their own cleanliness, naturally, and some of them can go a lifetime without a shampoo.
Use the mildest shampoo that will get the job done for your pet. I personally like oatmeal-based shampoos, perhaps with some skin-enhancing herbals added, and there are dozens of these on the market. (I'll talk more about herbs for skin in Grooming Tips Part III.) Oatmeal is easy on the skin, it soothes inflammation, and it helps calm a pet's mental state.
Avoid harsh shampoos and those that contain antibiotics and/or anti-parasite medicines.
If your pet has infected or irritated skin, or if parasites are present, check with your holistic vet for more natural cures.
Appreciate the fact that dogs smell like dogs and cats smell like cats-at least they should. If you feel you must do something about doggie or kitty odor, before you resort to another shampooing, try a spritz with an aromatic herbal such as lavender, chamomile, mint, or citrus.
While shampooing may seem like the best way to keep your pet clean, shampooing too often or with the wrong shampoos can damage healthy skin. Be kind to your pet's skin and shampoo only when you feel it's absolutely necessary. Remember, when it comes to shampooing, sometimes too much of a good thing isn't always healthy, and it can even be harmful.
(Read about the benefits of brushing your pet in Natural Grooming Tips - Brushing)