The Low Down on the Wipe Down for Working Dogs

Author: Sharon M. Albright, DVM, CCRT
Photo of a search and rescue hound lying down outside

Search and rescue dogs and military working dogs provide valuable services to help keep us safe, but they are often deployed to areas contaminated with hazardous materials such as petroleum products, heavy metals, and volatile organic solvents. Regular decontamination of the dogs’ fur and skin is recommended, but there is little objective data on the best techniques and cleansers to do so. Therefore, AKC Canine Health Foundation (CHF) funded investigators at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale conducted a pilot study to evaluate the effectiveness of decontamination procedures for these valuable dogs (CHF Grant 02847-A: Assessment of Field Wipe-Down Procedure for Removal of Aerosolized Contaminants on Dogs).

Commonly used veterinary cleansers are just as effective as FEMA recommended dish soap at removing a simulated contaminant from working dog coats, plus they provide the added benefit of antimicrobial activity.

An important factor to consider for decontamination of deployed working dogs is the availability of water for adequate washing and rinsing. For situations where water supply is limited, investigators tested disposable wipes saturated with either povidone-iodine, chlorhexiderm, or water on Labrador Retrievers and German Shepherd Dogs. Povidone-iodine was more effective at removing a simulated contaminant from the skin and coat of both breeds, while chlorhexiderm and water performed about the same.

For situations where water is available for rinsing, investigators tested povidone-iodine, chlorhexiderm, common dish soap, or plain water on dogs of various breeds and coat lengths. Results showed that all 3 cleansers were more effective than plain water at removing a simulated contaminant from the coat. Chlorhexiderm required more water for complete rinsing compared to povidone-iodine, and longer coats require more water than shorter coats. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) currently recommends using dish soap for canine decontamination, this study showed that povidone-iodine and chlorhexiderm are just as effective and have the added benefit of antimicrobial activity. This could be important for dogs deployed to areas of flooding and similar natural disasters.

Another factor to consider for decontamination of deployed working dogs is the effect of any cleansers on skin barrier function. Disrupting this barrier could subject the dog to skin irritation, bacterial infections, increased licking (which would result in further contaminant exposure via oral ingestion) and increased topical absorption of contaminants. To study the effect of cleansers on skin health investigators measured skin pH and trans-epidermal water loss – two measurements that correlate with skin barrier function. Skin pH was significantly affected by all 3 cleansers used, but water loss did not change before or after decontamination.

This study provides important objective data on the best decontamination procedures for working dogs exposed to hazardous substances. Commonly used veterinary cleansers (povidone-iodine and chlorhexiderm) were just as effective as dish soap at removing a simulated contaminant and provide the added benefit of antimicrobial activity. Povidone-iodine and shorter dog coats required less water for adequate rinsing, a necessary consideration for situations where water is scarce. Future studies will explore the effects of repeated exposure to decontamination cleansers, provide more details on the impact of coat length and type on contaminant exposure and removal, and examine how decontamination procedures affect the skin barrier. This work is part of CHF’s expansive profile of research to benefit working dogs – allowing them work safely and effectively.


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