October 28, 2021

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How to groom your dog safely at home, according to experts

Many services across the country were put on temporary hold during the coronavirus pandemic, forcing people to find quick and often DIY alternatives — one of these was dog grooming, causing owners to take matters into their own hands. After all, dogs need frequent baths and personal maintenance to keep them looking, smelling and feeling good.

While in-person dog groomers are mostly open for business, some may still feel wary returning to a potentially crowded dog spa as Covid cases spike or they may be unwilling to make the pricey investment: Depending on the breed and the size of your dog, you can expect to spend anywhere between $30 and $90 for a standard grooming package, usually consisting ofeverything from a bath and a haircut to ear cleaning and nail trimming.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) recommends bathing your dog at least once every three months, but many breeds may require more frequent baths depending on how much time they spend outdoors or any skin or coat problems they might have. Your dog’s temperament and size may also encourage you to skip out on the dog groomer for a few weeks or months at a time by providing your own at-home grooming routine.

Experts agree that certain grooming activities like haircuts, anal gland expression and ear cleanings are best left to professionals, but they do suggest other essential, less intensive grooming needs, including bathing, nail trimming and brushing. We spoke to veterinarians, trainers and groomers on their specific product recommendations for grooming at home — and how to safely use them.

SKIP AHEAD At-home dog grooming products | Keeping your dog calm while grooming

Dog grooming: What you should and shouldn’t do

There are plenty of obvious benefits to brushing and bathing your dog regularly: It “can remove built up dirt, dead skin cells and even allergens like pollen from a dog’s skin and coat.” It can also strengthen the bond between a dog and its owner, said Zay Satchu, DVM, co-founder and chief veterinary officer of Bond Vet.

Trimming

As temperatures rise during the summer, many dog owners believe it’s necessary to shave their dogs to help them cool off. However, long hair doesn’t cause dogs to overheat in hot temperatures, but can rather “help keep a dog cool by acting as an insulator, similar to how insulation in your home keeps the AC inside,” Satchu previously told us about keeping dogs cool. In fact, experts don’t recommend shaving dogs sporting long or double coats in the summer since it can increase their chance of overheating and getting sunburnt.

“Long haired breeds such as golden retrievers can be trimmed without much effect to their temperature regulating mechanisms,” said Satchu. She noted that many pet owners will elect to give their long-haired breeds a “puppy cut.” However, she added, “northern breeds like huskies and malamutes should not be trimmed or shaven — trimming their hind end for sanitary purposes is fine.”

Bathing

Most dogs can benefit from a daily brush and a bath about once a month — and there is such a thing as too much. Frequent baths “may result in drying out of the skin and coat, or even in the skin becoming irritated,” said Satchu.

As a general rule of thumb, dogs shouldn’t be bathed more than twice a month to avoid “stripping their coat of their natural protective oils,” said Stephanie Austin, DVM, the medical director at Bond Vet.

Ensure there’s no water in the nose or shampoo in the eyes (if this feels unavoidable, you may want to use a tearless shampoo) and thoroughly rinse your pet to avoid any leftover shampoo. You should always use pet shampoos — never use human products because they can be toxic or dangerous to dogs, cause allergies or irritate their skin. According to Austin, oatmeal or aloe vera based shampoos are a great place to start due to their skin soothing properties, and Satchu added that fragrance-free shampoos are least likely to cause skin irritation or allergic reactions.

Brushing and blow drying

Always ensure you’re brushing your dog before and after giving them a bath, especially for long-haired breeds.

“Matting in your dog’s coat will trap shampoo and hold moisture at the skin that can cause rashes and sores,” said Alison Chamberland, the owner of Best in Coat Grooming Salon in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. She suggested using a long pin slicker brush paired with a brushing spray to help with detangling longer haired dogs.

Proper brushing after a bath is a must, no matter the breed. “If a dog is not properly brushed out afterwards, it’ll result in mats that pull skin and make your pet feel uncomfortable,” noted Allie Akhmarova, the owner of house call grooming business Allie’s Pet Grooming NYC.

It’s important to get your dog’s coat as dry as possible after their bath since “there’s a risk of hot spots if the coat is not blow dried well enough,” said Akhmarova. Chamberland suggested “lots of fluffy towels or a blow dryer with a cool [or] low heat setting,” but noted “a more powerful dog dryer may be a good option” for fluffier dogs. You should gradually get your dog used to the sound of the dryer and be sure to have some treats handy.

As for brushing outside of bath time, Robert Haussmann, a certified dog trainer and co-founder of Dogboy NYC, noted you can feel free to brush as often as you like. “Dogs with longer coats can easily get matted which can be very uncomfortable and irritate their skin,” he said. Regular brushing can be a good way to avoid these mats “while keeping your dog’s coat shiny, healthy and mat free.”

He added that short-haired dogs also benefit from regular brushing to keep the coat healthy and reduce shedding. “It’s also a great way to check for fleas and ticks,” he said.

Nail-trimming

If you notice your dog’s nails are making a clicking sound on hardwood floors, if they’re having trouble moving around on non-carpeted surfaces or if their nails are getting caught or tearing often, “these are all signs that they’re overdue for a nail trim,” said Austin. If your dog lives in a city and walks often on cement, however, they typically get a natural trim.

Be mindful that there’s a vein in the nail called the quick — the blood supply and nerve located in the core of the nail — that, if cut, can be painful and bleed considerably. It’s not unusual for this to happen, especially since some dogs have longer quicks than others and it can be difficult (if not impossible) to note where the quick is when trimming black nails on certain dogs.

What should you leave to the professionals?

Most experts recommended leaving certain regular grooming activities like cutting your pet’s hair, expressing anal glands or cleaning ears to professional dog groomers for safety. A trim or shave, for instance, can result in serious injury if there’s an accidental slip of the scissor or razor.

“The occasional bath is okay, but it’s not recommended you try to groom your dog with scissors,” said Austin. “Far too many times, I as a veterinarian have had to stitch up a patient after an at home ‘grooming accident.’” You should also avoid putting anything down your dogs’ ears, such as a cotton ball or Q-tip, without discussing with your veterinarian first, Austin added.

According to Satchu, it’s usually best to seek a professional if your dog has severe mats or clumps of tangles in their fur since some can lie close to the skin and make it easier to accidentally cut your dog’s skin. “Professionals have the experience and tools to remove these mats safely,” she said. And when it comes to nail trimming, it’s better to avoid nicking the quick altogether. “You could start by trimming just a little at a time to avoid [it] or leave it up to the professionals to do your dog’s toenail trims,” said Satchu.

The potential for injury isn’t the only reason professionals advise against using equipment to cut or shave hair: “From an esthetic perspective, I strongly dislike fixing home cuts,” said Akhmarova, noting she often sees holes in the coat or crooked ears. “It’s an expense you should calculate for when welcoming certain breeds into your home,” Haussmann added.

At-home dog grooming products

To help you get started on grooming at home, we asked experts about their recommendations for specific products — in some instances, they also recommended types of products without specifying, in which case we found a top-rated item matching their guidance.

Products to bathe your dog

Earthbath Oatmeal & Aloe Dog & Cat Shampoo

This soap-free shampoo is made with oatmeal and organic aloe vera, which the veterinarians we consulted said relieves dry, itchy skin and can heal dry, cracked skin in dogs. The Earthbath shampoo — suitable for both dogs and cats and boasting a . 4.8-star average rating from over 600 reviews on Chewy — has a vanilla and almond scent.

Burt’s Bees for Dogs Natural Oatmeal Shampoo for Dogs

This Amazon best seller has a 4.6-star average rating from over 7,000 reviewers and is made from colloidal oatmeal (consisting of finely ground oats), honey and beeswax that’s suitable for sensitive and dry, itchy skin. It’s also free of fragrances, sulfates, colorants and harsh chemicals, according to the brand.

Hydra Luxury Care Gentle and Moisturizing Dog Shampoo with Oatmeal

With so many shampoos on the market today, Chamberland said it’s important to find a shampoo that is going to serve your purpose. For dogs with dry skin, she recommended this dog shampoo from Hydra, which is formulated with soothing oatmeal and designed for all coat types, according to the brand. You can use this shampoo for both dogs and cats.

DELOMO Pet Grooming Glove

This flexible, slip-on pet grooming glove brushes away excess fuzz and dirt, with the shedding hair sticking directly to the glove as you massage it over your pet. Made of soft rubber, you can gently use the grooming glove while bathing your dog. The brand says the glove is one size fits all, and it includes an adjustable wrist strap for comfort and sizing. Plus, brushing with this glove will mimic your normal petting motion, so your pet feels more comfortable and relaxed. It currently holds a 4.2-star average rating from over 46,000 reviews on Amazon.

Lick Lick Pad Dog Distraction Lick Mat

A lick mat is a silicone mat that you can stick to the wall of the tub and spread on peanut butter, Greek yogurt, mashed bananas or pâté style wet dog food — whatever your dog likes to grab their attention “and keep both hands free for scrubbing your pup,” said Chamberland. She recommended this option that requires no adhesives or suction cups and is dishwasher safe for easy clean-up.

Products to brush and blow-dry your dog

Maxpower Planet Pet Grooming Brush

If your pet has very thick fur that can become matted, this grooming brush — which boasts a 4.7-star average rating on Amazon — has sharpened, fine-rounded teeth that help to deshed and untangle their coat. The brand instructs shoppers to start with the side of the brush with nine teeth that’ll help comb out mats and keep your pet well-groomed, and finish with the 17-tooth side that traps and removes loose pet hair.

TropiClean Tangle Remover Spray for Pets

You can use a leave-in conditioner or detangling spray to relieve some of the pain and discomfort of brushing if your dog has tangled or matted hair, as long as their skin isn’t sensitive to the product (always patch test if trying out for the first time). With a 4.3-star average rating from over 7,000 Amazon reviewers, the TropiClean Tangle Remover Spray is safe to use on both dogs and cats and can be applied to either wet or dry hair. Once you apply the spray, you can massage it into your pet’s coat and gently brush tangles out without needing to rinse it out afterwards.

Shernbao SHD-1800 Cyclone Force Dog Grooming Dryer

While a regular hair dryer on a cool setting can comfortably dry your dog’s hair, a dog-specific blow dryer may simplify the process for fluffier, longer-haired dogs. Chamberland recommended this one by Shernbao, which features a flexible hose that can dry different parts of the dog and three different blower nozzles that adjust the breadth and focus of the air stream. It also includes a handle for portability and features an easy-to-clean removable filter.

Other at-home grooming essentials

Safari Professional Nail Trimmer for Dogs

You should use a nail clipper specifically designed for dogs like this highly rated option from Safari. To help you avoid over-clipping your dog’s nails (and protecting the quick), the clipper includes a safety stop on its side. Made with durable stainless steel and designed with a non-slip handle for a steady grip, Safari’s nail trimmer earned a 4.6-star average rating from more than 4,000 reviews on Amazon.

Miracle Care Kwik-Stop Styptic Powder

While it’s best to avoid nicking the quick altogether, bleeding can happen on occasion and it’s typically not a cause for alarm, according to Satchu. If bleeding does happen, “it’s a good idea to have some styptic powder — a powder that’ll help with pain and clotting — on hand if the nail accidently gets trimmed too short,” noted Chamberland. The powder contains Benzocaine, which helps reduce discomfort and stop the bleeding for minor cuts. According to the brand, it can be used for dogs, cats and birds of all sizes and ages.

Dremel 7760-PGK 4V Pet Grooming Cordless Kit

Chamberland also recommended a pet-friendly nail grinder as a less stressful option if clipping is new or scary, adding that a nail grinder “files off a small amount of nail at a time and decreases the risk of cutting into the quick.” This option from Dremel lets you choose between four speed options and has an ergonomic design for accuracy and comfort. It trims nails at a 45-degree angle in a controlled manner, which can reduce the chances of cutting the quick, according to the brand.

Virbac C.E.T. Enzymatic Dog & Cat Poultry Flavor Toothpaste

It’s important to maintain your dog’s dental health, and a solid cleaning routine can be established during your regular grooming activities. “Teeth brushing can be done daily or at least a few times a week — it is the best way to avoid tartar buildup, maintain oral hygiene, and avoid big dental bills down the road,” said Haussmann. A dog-specific toothpaste like this one from Vibrac can inhibit the formation of plaque and is formulated specifically so it can be safely swallowed — and it earned a 4.7-star average rating from over 1,000 reviews on Chewy. Pair it with a dog toothbrush that comfortably fits on your finger for a simple and effective cleaning.

Keeping your dog calm and comfortable while grooming

Most groomers and trainers we consulted recommend starting puppies early with grooming activities. Those under 14 weeks “are in a developmental stage called the critical period — during this stage, puppies are very open and malleable to new experiences and can learn to enjoy grooming if the experience is made positive for them,” said Haussmann.

You should attempt to keep the initial introduction to grooming short and positive, with necessary breaks in between. “Start slow and gradually add the length of time or difficulty,” said Shelby Semel, the founder of Shelby Semel Dog Training. Owners may assume they can introduce all grooming activities at once, but Semel noted to never assume that your dog will be okay with grooming or handling: “Like anything, try in small doses and see how your dog behaves.”

It can also be helpful to pair grooming activities with something exciting or delicious. Semel suggested “letting your pup lick peanut butter off of a spoon or a lick mat while gently brushing their back, cleaning their paws or when they’re in the bathtub.” For a fearful dog, “it may start with simply walking into the bathroom, turning on the water, giving some treats and walking back out,” said Chamberland. “This will get your dog used to the sound of the water and start associating hearing the water with getting treats.”

You can gently introduce nail-trimming by simply holding your dog’s paw and giving a high value reward. Haussmann recommended trying to make it a game at first. “Teaching your dog to ‘give paw’ will greatly help her be comfortable with paw handling [and] from there, you should build them up to feeling comfortable with nail trims.”

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