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Safe ways to keep your pet looking and smelling sweet.

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Chances are you probably already practice safe grooming on yourself and with your kids by using sulfate-, paraben-, and phthalate-free shampoos and conditioners. But how safe are your pet’s grooming products?

As a “canine-feline life extension specialist,” I do all I can to extend my animal companions’ longevity, and grooming products are a very important part of that mission. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize that most mass-market grooming products designed to keep pets clean actually conspire to shorten pets’ lives. Shampoos, conditioners, detangling sprays, and other pet-grooming products don’t just contain toxic sulfates, parabens, and phthalates—some also include DMDM hydantoin (a formaldehyde releaser), not to mention carcinogenic artificial colors. Yikes!

I know what you’re probably thinking: How will I ever keep my furry dirt-magnet friend clean without chemicals? Here’s the good news: It’s surprisingly easy. Really!

Furry Situations

For starters, make friends with an effective dry-cleaning tool like the FURminator, a popular product designed to brush away excess animal hair before it attaches itself to your entire wardrobe and every surface in your home. The scalp stimulation and thorough brushing help to distribute the skin’s natural oils across a pet’s hair shafts, balancing out both dryness and oiliness. This, in turn, simplifies the shampooing process. At times when it’s less desirable to bathe animals—winter in a very cold climate, for instance—an effective dry-grooming routine is a “dogsend” for pets (as well as people).

Safe Shampooing

When it comes to shampoo, it’s important to select one that’s free of sulfates, parabens, phthalates, DMDM hydantoin, chemical colors, and artificial fragrances. It’s especially shocking to find sodium laurel sulfate (SLS) in pet shampoos, as it is the same ingredient used in the dreaded Draize test (a test administered by some cosmetic companies to induce skin irritation in laboratory animals).

If you have a pet with white fur, be aware that some shampoos designed for white fur actually contain toxic optical brighteners for that fashionable “blue-white” effect. Here’s a simple alternative for dogs: In a plastic bowl, combine 1 quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide, ¼ cup of baking soda, and 1 tsp. of SLS-free dishwashing liquid. This is the recipe for deodorizing dogs who have been sprayed by a skunk, and its powerful bleaching action brightens white coats better than whitening shampoos. Mix it up fresh each time—this concoction cannot be bottled, or it will explode. Be sure to keep it away from your dog’s eye area, as it can cause serious ocular irritation. Follow up with neem shampoo, so your pet’s skin doesn’t feel itchy after bleaching.

Neem Me Up

Any pet shampoo that contains non-toxic neem oil is an excellent choice, as this extremely demulcent extract of the neem tree will ensure a glossy haircoat. Neem oil soothes skin irritation, whether caused by chemicals or overexposure to the sun. TheraNeem is an excellent brand, but you can also add about 10 drops of straight neem oil to your favorite brand of pet shampoo to experience neem’s extra-emollient action. A fringe benefit of neem is that it’s also a biopesticide—absorbed into the bloodstream via the skin, neem makes dogs and cats pariah-like to mosquitoes and fleas. Neem oils also works great as a natural mosquito and flea repellent for humans of all ages. 

Rescued animals who have endured neglectful treatment and malnutrition often have severely dry, flaky haircoats, or sometimes evidence of cigarette burns and other injuries. Frequent bathing with neem shampoo—i.e., every day or every other day—helps to moisturize the scalp and reduce flaking. If you discover hot spots, bald patches, scars, or scabs on your animal’s coat, apply a few drops of undiluted neem oil directly to those areas to help them heal quickly. 

Beware Hair Dryer Hazards

When bathing your pet, consider the hazards of hair dryers. The EPA has labeled magnetic fields a class 3 carcinogen. Magnetic fields occur around electrical motors such as refrigerators. Surprisingly, your hair dryer can actually emit greater magnetic fields than your fridge. Pets who get groomed and blown out frequently—for example, Malteses, Bichon Frises, Afghan Hounds, and Poodles—are especially vulnerable to the life-shortening effect of hair dryers.

Whenever possible, let your pet air-dry after a bath, in the warmth and comfort of the great indoors. If you’re concerned about your interiors getting wet—it’s a fact of life that just-washed animals may be counted on to self-massage on rugs and upholstered home furnishings—then acquire an extra-thirsty microfiber towel and arm your furnishings with a durable, machine-washable protective layer.


Secrets to a shiny coat and fresh breath

A great way to rehab a pet’s dry ‘dermis is to moisturize the skin from within by supplementing his/her diet with nourishing oils such as Nordic Naturals Omega- 3 Pet. Not only will this soften the skin and yield a gleaming haircoat, it will also boost your animal’s immune system and overall contentment—the addition of this tasty oil to a pet’s diet instantly makes any type of kibble or canned food more palatable and nutritious. Coconut oil, meanwhile, is antiviral and antifungal, and adding it to a pet’s diet actually deodorizes the skin and haircoat from within. (Used in place of conventional pet toothpaste, coconut oil is also excellent for keeping pets’ choppers clean and healthy—and its great taste ensures that Spot won’t resist the tooth-grooming chore.)

Julia Szabo is a journalist and healthy living advocate whose work has appeared in The New York Post, Cesar’s Way,, and Her new book Medicine Dog: The Miracle Cure That Healed My Best Friend and Saved My Life, will be published in March 2014 by Lyons Press. 


NORDIC NATURALS Pet Cod Liver Oil supports your dog’s coat, skin, joints, and more with healthy omegas.

ORGANIX SOUTH Theraneem Pet Shampoo moisturizes and protects with neem oil. It’s paraben- and sulfate-free, and safe for dogs and cats

OUR PET’S ecoPure Naturals Herbal Skin Crème alleviates itching and irritation with a blend of natural essential oils, including neem.