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Should You Sedate a Dog for Grooming? Options & Risks

Most people fall into two categories when it comes time to sedate a dog for grooming. Some think it’s no big deal and that we should sedate animals anytime we need to do something that makes them uncomfortable. The other people are deathly afraid of drugging a dog to get them through a scary situation.

There is a happy medium somewhere between these two extremes. Sedation and tranquilization are tools we can use to prevent our dogs from suffering extreme fear when they don’t understand that we’re trying to help them. But it shouldn’t be the easy answer to accomplishing everyday maintenance routines like grooming.

There are risks involved anytime you give a drug to an animal. Thank goodness modern drugs are much safer than drugs used even 20 to 30 years ago. Safe as modern drugs can be when used correctly, we should not be cavalier about giving them to dogs.

It’s OK to sedate a dog for grooming if it prevents them from suffering extreme anxiety and fear. Sedation can keep the dog and the person trying to groom him safe from injury. But it could be unethical to use sedation for restraint without also using other techniques to help a frightened animal adapt to the situation.

Why Your Dog Hates Grooming

Not all dogs hate to be groomed. Some dogs look at it as a fun way to get attention. Others get very upset and confused about bathing, brushing and nail clipping.

Common reasons dogs hate grooming:

  • Grooming requires close contact between humans and dogs 
  • It often occurs in noisy places with lots of other dogs around
  • Many dogs are afraid of people they don’t know 
  • Your dog might not be used to being handled so much

Even if you’re grooming your dog at home, it’s possible that your dog won’t understand what you’re trying to do and become frightened. 

Depending on your dog’s coat, grooming could also be painful. Long-haired dogs with tangled, matted fur are already in pain from the mats pulling on their skin. Then it’s even more painful when a person starts pulling on the fur with a brush.

Finally, dog grooming usually involves trimming the nails which is upsetting for many dogs. 

A dog’s feet are quite sensitive and even gentle handling can be uncomfortable. Your dog may have experienced painful and frightening nail trimming sometime during his life. 

Your dog may associate any kind of pet grooming with having his nails trimmed and get upset before you ever get to his nails.

black and white Teacup Poodle (sedate a dog for grooming)

When Should You Allow Groomers to Sedate Your Dog?

It is sometimes necessary to sedate a dog in order to groom it for health purposes. If your groomer has suggested your dog be sedated for grooming, it should be done under the supervision of a veterinarian. 

Many animal hospitals have an in-house dog groomer. The kind of sedation used depends on your dog’s anxiety level and health condition. Your vet might recommend your dog be given an oral sedative drug at home before you transport him to the groomer.  

Dogs who are extremely anxious to the point of injuring themselves of groomers might require injectable sedatives given by the vet at the clinic. If your dog needs heavy sedation or full anesthesia, he will be monitored to keep him safe while he is unconscious. If there are any issues with the sedative, the veterinarian will be in the same building to provide support. 

Sedating your dog at a grooming salon without a vet on the premises is risky. Even a mild tranquilizer can cause unexpected reactions in dogs. A grooming shop won’t have the medical equipment or staff needed to help your dog. 

Sedation of dogs goes very smoothly most of the time, but if your dog is in the small percentage of complicated cases, he needs to have a medical professional nearby to help.

Different Levels of Sedation for Dog Grooming

Not every dog requires deep sedation in order to be groomed safely. Veterinarians assess a dog’s behavior and anxiety level when choosing what sort of sedation to give them for grooming.

Oral Tranquilizers for Mild Anxiety

Dogs with anxiety limited to trembling, shaking and hiding during grooming might do just fine taking an oral tranquilizer at home before they go to the grooming shop. 

Oral tranquilizers are less predictable than injectable or inhalant methods of sedation. You won’t know your dog’s exact response until he takes the drug and gets groomed. Most vets will start with a lower dose than they think your dog needs and work their way up if necessary.

The most commonly prescribed oral sedatives/tranquilizers for dogs include:

  • Acepromazine
  • Alprazolam
  • Gabapentin
  • Trazodone

Can You Use Benadryl to Sedate a Dog?

Contrary to what you’ll read on the internet, most vets would not recommend Benadryl for sedating a dog for grooming. It’s unlikely you would see much sedating effect from this antihistamine in an anxious dog. 

So, in short… NO–you can’t use Benadryl to sedate a dog!

Injectable Sedatives Used for Grooming Anxious Dogs

Once a dog’s level of anxiety has peaked, oral sedatives do very little to calm them. 

I’ve seen dogs who have been given fairly strong doses of oral sedatives who are still trying to bite and thrash around while being groomed. Then as soon as they get home and the anxious situation is over, they are heavily sedated and sleep 4 hours. That is not an ideal situation!

Dogs with an extreme level of anxiety about grooming often need an injectable sedative. Your vet will choose an appropriate sedative to make your dog’s grooming experience less stressful. This often means the dog is very sleepy but not unconscious from the drugs. 

Injectable sedatives’ effects may last from 15 minutes to several hours. Sedated dogs should be monitored by medical professionals until they have recovered fully. 

General Anesthesia for Dog Grooming

There are very few dogs who need to be fully anesthetized for grooming. Dogs under this sort of anesthesia are usually intubated to make sure they are breathing properly. They must be monitored by trained medical personnel at all times. 

Bathing a dog while they’re under full anesthesia comes with its own risks due to the potential for low body temperature. I will often ask a groomer will clip the coat but not bathe the dogs first to reduce the potential for hypothermia.

How Often Can You Sedate a Dog for Grooming?

Most healthy dogs can withstand taking oral tranquilizers for grooming every 4-6 months. But if your dog requires full anesthesia? That’s going to take a toll on your dog’s health (not to mention your wallet) if you do it every few months.  

Heavy sedation and anesthesia are far from simple procedures and that they should be avoided whenever possible. It is much better to work with your dog to get him to tolerate grooming so he doesn’t have to go through a major medical procedure every time he needs a haircut.

Sedate a Dog at Home for Grooming

Clients often ask their vet for something to sedate a dog at home for grooming. While I agree that it’s less stressful for a dog to be groomed at home, I don’t think it’s safe to sedate your dog at home. If your dog requires more than mild tranquilization, it should be done under the supervision of a veterinarian in a fully-equipped veterinary facility.

You can talk to your vet about whether your dog is healthy enough to take a mild oral tranquilizer such as acepromazine to make grooming at home easier. But any drug that will actually sedate your dog carries risks and should not be attempted at home. DON’T DO IT! 

I’m not using hyperbole or trying to scare you here. I’ve seen many, many situations where sedated dogs had unexpected reactions and might have died if they didn’t have a vet nearby. Don’t let this happen to your dog.

If you do give your dog a mild oral tranquilizer, keep in mind that he could still get very upset about being groomed. Go slowly and be careful not to push him past his fear threshold.

If you find the oral tranquilizer is not strong enough for you to groom your dog, let the tranquilizer wear off and contact your vet about the best next step.

Over-the-Counter Dog Tranquilizer Pills

Now I want to address the recommendation I’ve seen all over the internet to use Benadryl as a sedative for dog grooming. At best, Benadryl makes already calm dogs more relaxed and a little bit sleepy. 

Benadryl is generally safe for dogs as an antihistamine, but it could be fatal if given in excessive amounts. 

Benadryl is not an appropriate dog tranquilizer or sedative

There are other unsafe recommendations to use over-the-counter cold medicines or medications prescribed to humans. 

I’ve seen deadly outcomes when people gave their dogs cold medicines or human prescriptions for sedation. 

I’ll never forget the poor dog who was fed excessive quantities of cold medicine in an attempt to sedate him. He was brought to the clinic very sick and dying from liver failure. 

Please don’t waste your time or endanger your dog by trying to sedate him with over-the-counter tranquilizers or human medication. Talk to a veterinarian and get help so that your dog can get groomed properly the first time and not have to go through repeated sessions of stress.

Natural Sedatives for Dogs

There are a lot of internet rumors about natural sedatives. People talk about valerian root, passionflower, Rescue Remedy, essential oils and on and on. 

At best, these are mild tranquilizers that might help a dog relax a little bit in situations that are not very frightening. At worst, a natural sedative could cause organ damage. 

Just because a substance is natural does not mean that it is absolutely non-toxic. Most of these natural sedatives have not been tested and are not approved for use in dogs.

I’ve never seen a dog who is normally terrified by grooming be sedated enough by a natural substance so that they could be groomed. You’d probably have to give a toxic dose of most natural substance to achieve any level of actual sedation. 

Please don’t experiment with this! We have safe ways of sedating dogs. Don’t put your dog’s life at risk.

Cost to Sedate a Dog 

You might be concerned about the cost of sedating your dog for grooming. 

The cost of oral sedation will involve a veterinary exam and the negligible cost of the pills. Most likely you’ll spend less than $100 (not including the grooming fees). 

If your dog requires injectable sedation, you might be looking at $100 to $200 depending on where you live. 

Full anesthesia may cost $300 to $500, or more, depending on how your regional location and how long the procedure takes. If your dog is older or has certain health conditions, your vet may also require diagnostic testing prior to anesthesia. 

Train Your Dog to Accept Grooming/Nail Clipping

The best way to avoid having to sedate your dog for grooming every 4 to 8 weeks is to train him to accept it without sedation. 

I recommend training using the techniques of desensitization and counterconditioning. Desensitization means gradually building up a dog’s tolerance to the feared event. Counterconditioning means gradually getting the dog to associate the feared event with something positive such as a high-value treat. 

In order to accomplish this, you must make sure that grooming does not hurt and that you do not push the dog over his threshold of fear.

Yes, this takes time! As a dog owner, it is the absolute kindest thing you can do for your fearful dog. 

Enlist the help of a dog trainer who uses positive reinforcement so they can show you exactly what to do. It’s important that you understand the timing of when to give positive reinforcement and when to stop your grooming session. 

You should also find a professional groomer who is willing to use the same training methods. Ask if you can stay to observe the first grooming session. You can make sure the groomer understands the training process and you might learn a few things from them at the same time.  

Continue to use whatever level of medication is needed to keep the dog calm for routine grooming while you use training to lower their anxiety. 

Each bad experience your dog has while being groomed will make it more difficult the next time. 

It’s very important to keep your dog below their anxiety and fear threshold during grooming!

Summary

  • Oral tranquilizers may be helpful for dogs with mild grooming anxiety but should be done under the care of a veterinarian. 
  • Sedating a dog for grooming is a serious procedure that should be done under the direct supervision of a veterinarian.  
  • Desensitization and counterconditioning training can help a dog accept grooming with minimal need for tranquilizers or sedation.

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