Pet grooming is a multi-billion-dollar industry that’s growing each year. More and more pet owners have come to rely on groomers, who—in addition to top-notch trimming and clipping skills—must know animal anatomy, calming techniques, and the best way of avoiding potentially dangerous scratches and bites. We spoke to several to get the inside scoop.
1. PET GROOMING CAN BE RISKY BUSINESS.
Whether it’s an aggressive dog who bites or a nervous cat who scratches, groomers must be constantly aware of potential threats.
“Even the sweetest and most docile cat has the potential to scratch or bite,” says Jared Gorton, who owns Rhode Island Cat Grooming with his wife, Mandi. Most groomers are able to keep themselves and their animal clients safe by wearing gloves and using muzzles when necessary, but some groomers also protect themselves by turning away animals with a history of aggressive behavior.
2. THEY PREFER DOGS (USUALLY).
While some pet groomers focus exclusively on cats, most avoid them. There’s one big reason: In general, cats are more unpredictable, and many groomers don’t want to risk a scratch or bite.
According to Mandi Gorton, that’s why most groomers start out working with dogs only. “There are many feline-exclusive groomers who started as dog-exclusive groomers; I was one of them. I thought ‘cats groom themselves’ and didn’t want to be one of those groomers who had a career-ending bite by a cat,” she explains. “Some [groomers] will shave cats or offer to brush cats, but don’t understand the basics of cat behavior, breeds, or grooming. They see it more as a necessary evil than a field to thrive in.”
Mel Brink, the owner of Club Meow, a cat boarding and grooming facility in Iowa, explains that in his region, many grooming shops won’t take cats at all. “And the ones that do [groom cats] only take easy cats and are primarily dog-oriented,” she says. “There are a dozen Petsmart and Petco stores here, and only one takes cat clients!”
3. THE CONDITIONS ARE QUIETER THAN YOU MIGHT THINK.
Barking dogs, running water, and blow dryers can make pet grooming shops noisy places to work. But keeping the volume as quiet as possible is integral to making sure the animals feel safe. “Animals feed off the energy of others and easily go into flight or fight mode,” Brink says. “I keep my shop very quiet and peaceful. I diffuse essential oils and keep my own energy low.” Some cat owners also prefer to patronize feline-exclusive groomers because the smells and sounds of dogs can stress out their cats.
4. CATS AND WATER AREN’T A BIG PROBLEM.
While most dogs jump eagerly into the water to swim, cats are more timid, and there’s a common belief that cats have a phobia of water. But the pet groomers we spoke to insist that’s just not true. “Most cats are not afraid of water like so many people believe,” Brink says. “They are actually afraid of loud noises, so if you keep your spray nozzle low, especially at first, most cats tolerate water with no issue.”
According to Mandi Gorton, cats are afraid of drowning, rather than water per se. “Cats drink water every day, lots of cats even play with water or follow people into the shower. Getting a cat to trust you enough to bathe in it is a cat groomer's super power,” she notes.
And there’s another pro trick when it comes to pets and water: Many dogs dislike when soap and water get in their eyes and ears, so good groomers are careful to wash an animal’s face last and rinse it first. This method ensures that soap and water have the least time to irritate an animal’s sensitive eyes.
5. THEY’RE EXPERTS AT GETTING ANIMALS TO TRUST THEM.
Pet groomers are often called dog and cat whisperers for good reason. Their ability to quickly connect emotionally with a new animal, establish control, and convince the animal to trust them takes a great deal of skill, knowledge, and experience. Like horses, cats and dogs read people and pick up on body language cues. A calm, confident groomer will encourage pets that they’re not in any danger. “The first step is to begin with that feeling that the cat can trust you not to harm him in any way. After that, you have to be compassionate and understanding,” Jared Gorton says. “Most cats are fairly compliant when treated with kindness, mutual respect, and a ‘matter of fact’ attitude,” Mandi Gorton adds.
6. LOVING ANIMALS IS KEY, BUT PEOPLE SKILLS ARE ALSO A MUST.
As Massachusetts pet groomers Kathy and Missi Salzberg explain, many people enter the profession because they prefer to spend time with animals rather than people. But although pet groomers have a rapport with animals, they must also be able to converse and connect with their owners. “People skills are a necessity,” the Salzbergs write. Besides having customer service capabilities, successful pet groomers must effectively communicate with pet owners about what type of hair cut they want and clearly instruct pet owners how to take care of their pet between grooming sessions.
7. COMBS ARE THEIR SECRET WEAPONS.
While groomers may reward good behavior with dog treats or distract insecure cats with catnip, their number one secret weapon is a simple comb. As animal groomer Margaret Campbell tells Angie’s List, most brushes only reach the top of an animal’s coat, but combs get further down to the skin, where tangles and mats can hide. Besides bathing an animal and applying a conditioner, groomers comb the animal’s hair from head to toe, gently working out any tangles. That’s crucial, because if fur gets too matted, the animal may have to be shaved or buzzed in order to safely remove the knots—a process that can be painful.
8. THEY CHUCKLE AT THEIR CUSTOMERS’ LIMITED PET VOCABULARY.
Much like hairdressers, pet groomers work to fulfill their client’s wishes and create a cut that is aesthetically pleasing. Grooming styles vary based on breed and range, from a puppy cut to a lion cut. But pet owners often don’t have the vocabulary to describe exactly what kind of style they want for their pets. “I laugh at times to myself when a client tries to describe what they want done,” Brink says. “I recently had a lady call and ask for a ‘backsplash.’ I was perplexed until I realized she meant a sanitary trim around the bum. We both had to giggle about that and I may just use her terminology!”
9. THE CERTIFICATION PROCESS CAN BE INTENSE.
Depending on the state and city in which they work, some pet groomers may need to be licensed and certified. Organizations such as the National Dog Groomers Association of America and the International Society of Canine Cosmetologists teach groomers about everything from clipping styles and cutting nails to anatomy and behavior. According to Certified Feline Master Groomer Lynn Paolillo, who works as an instructor and certifier for the National Cat Groomers Institute of America, cat groomers who want to become certified learn about feline temperaments, how to recognize breeds, correct color terminology, handling techniques, and common health concerns and symptoms. “This information combines to create a cat groomer who is knowledgeable, confident, and proficient with cats of varying temperaments and needs,” she says.
Groomers who certify with the National Cat Groomers Institute of America must also pass four written exams and five practical exams, proving that they have mastered clipper skills, bathing and drying, and safety. “I think most people would be surprised to know how creative cat groomers need to be. Working with cats is primarily about problem-solving, so the groomer must be able to think quickly on their feet in order to keep both cat and groomer safe and as low-stress as possible,” Paolillo says.
10. THEY PROBABLY SUFFER FROM VARICOSE VEINS.
Working as a pet groomer can be extremely physically demanding. “Groomers are prone to back problems from lifting heavy dogs and carpal tunnel syndrome from the repetitive motion of scissoring, brushing, and hand stripping,” the Salzbergs write. “A groomer’s legs can suffer from standing all day over a long period of time. Circulation problems, varicose veins, overstressed tendons and ligaments—these are common ailments in this profession.” To counteract the physical demands of their job, pet groomers may learn to groom while sitting on a stool and/or hire assistants to help with lifting heavier dogs. For many, staying physically fit is also a priority.
11. THEY MIGHT SAVE YOUR PET’S LIFE.
It’s essential to take your pet to the veterinarian for regular check-ups, but groomers also use their knowledge of animal anatomy to observe your pet’s health. Besides looking out for ticks, fleas, and ringworm, they can often spot infections and life-threatening lumps. One groomer who tried to empty a cocker spaniel’s anal sacs (small pockets used for scent communication) noticed that the dog was unusually distressed, so the groomer told the owner to take the dog to the vet. The dog was diagnosed with anal sac carcinoma, a malignant cancer that disproportionately affects cocker spaniels. Because the cancer was caught and removed early, the cocker spaniel survived her illness, all thanks to an observant and knowledgeable pet groomer.
12. THEY WISH PET OWNERS WOULD BETTER EDUCATE THEMSELVES.
Because pet groomers love animals, it can be particularly difficult to see cats and dogs in bad shape. Whether a cat is severely matted or a dog has sores on his skin, animals in distress are a troubling reality of the job. Paolillo laments that many cat owners hold common misconceptions about grooming, such as that cats hate water, they groom themselves, and they shouldn’t be bathed. “[Grooming] doesn’t have to be stressful, and cats definitely benefit from regular bath and grooming appointments. However, when a cat has never been groomed or bathed, and then it becomes severely matted at an elderly age, the groom becomes not only difficult but dangerous,” she says. “It can be frustrating to be working against many myths involving cat grooming.”
Jared Gorton echoes Paolillo's point, explaining that matting is entirely preventable. “Matting hurts, plain and simple. While we don’t have magic wands to just make the mats disappear, we have tools and skills to get rid of them,” he says. “After that, it's about educating the owner because matting is entirely preventable. Once that education has been given and received, there are no excuses for it to happen again.”
13. THEY FORM DEEP ATTACHMENTS TO THEIR CLIENTS.
Pet groomers love making a living by caring for animals, and receiving affection and gratitude from their animal clients gives them true joy. “The best thing about being a cat groomer is when the cats realize how much we are helping and how appreciative they are,” Paolillo says. “Getting head butts, purrs, and kisses from our kitty clients is the best part of the job!" Some pet groomers even form bonds with more difficult, less appreciative animals and mourn their passing. “I had a cat who was Satan to groom, just a hissing, spitting, biting, baiting devil. But when he passed away his mom called me and we both cried hysterically,” Mandi Gorton admits. “When cat owners share their furry treasures with you there is a bond that is deep and profound.”
All photos via iStock.