Filling the Feline Void
Offering services for cats can be lucrative for groomers who can effectively educate themselves and pet owners on this relatively unmet need.
It is a dog’s world.
Today’s dogs are often coddled and spoiled—and thus the beneficiaries of regular trips to pampering groomers. Cats, on the other hand, have been mostly left to fend for—and groom—themselves. According to today’s feline-grooming experts, this lack of services for cats has been a loss for the pets, their owners and the many grooming professionals who have avoided working with felines.
While cats are suffering from unintended neglect and losing out on the basic care they need, industry observers say that groomers are missing an opportunity to grow their businesses in a segment of the market that, so far, offers relatively little competition.
“There’s been this huge market out there,” says Danelle German, president and founder of the National Cat Groomers Institute of America, Inc. (NCGIA), and director of the National Cat Groomers School, in Greenville, S.C. “But it has been so untapped.”
For groomers who do choose to tap into the feline market, the payoff can be huge, especially given the multitude of cats owned in the U.S.
“People own more cats than dogs—there are millions more,” says German. “And the ratio is about the same in Canada and some other countries. But, here’s the question: How many cat groomers do we have in comparison to dog groomers? It is way out of balance.”
Because so many groomers decide not to go into the cat side of the business, those who do wind up with more clients than they know what to do with.
Charlene Hibbs, owner of A Gentle Touch Pet Care Services, in Spencerport, N.Y.—which offers dog and cat grooming, as well as cat sitting—says her cat grooming business has benefited from the lack of competition. “Some of the bigger box stores have stopped doing cats, and so people tell me that they have a hard time finding places that do,” she says.
A lack of competition was something that Lisa Menze, owner of both a dog-exclusive salon and a cat-exclusive salon/boarding facility in Largo, Fla., saw as an opportunity. After having had a successful dog-only grooming salon for years, she was inspired to make the foray into the feline side of the industry during a presentation given by German at a grooming convention.
“I saw that going into cat grooming could be a great way to expand my business and not have to worry about who’s cheaper down the street,” she says.
Yet, while she hoped for a good result, others who knew about her intentions at the time held out little hope for her success.
“There were people who thought I’d be bankrupt and would go out of business instantaneously when I opened up a cat boarding facility,” she recalls. “They thought opening a cat-exclusive facility was pretty close to stupid. When they realized that we had to build a new facility in about a year, that shocked a lot of people.”
Many also may be surprised by the slew of perks that a cat-focused business affords a groomer, says Kim Raisanen, president and founder of the Professional Cat Groomers Association of America (PCGAA), based in Fairview Park, Ohio. For one, she notes, cat groomers have less overhead—there are no high water bills or costly shampoo expenses. Groomers can work in their own home, or make home visits, for which a groomer would charge for the service and a fee for transportation.
“This is perfect for mobile groomers,” she says. “It’s clean and quiet—perfect for cats.”
German agrees, adding that mobile cat grooming is a highly marketable service for which groomers can charge handsomely. “Cats are notoriously bad travelers,” she says. “If you have a client who is driving 30 minutes with a howling, screaming, peeing, pooping, barfing cat, how much is it worth to them to have someone pull in the driveway and pick up the cat? And are you marketing that?”
The more convenient and distinctive the service, adds German, the more likely it is to be a hit with cat owners. For example, having a feline-exclusive shop is a tremendous advantage. “A lot of cats don’t do well in a dog environment, and a client will pay you a lot of money to not have their cat in that environment.”
However, the incentive for groomers to get into the feline side of the business is not strictly financial. Despite the obvious challenges that come with the job—most notably the potential for injury while handling cats—many are finding cat grooming to be a welcome respite from the hardships of working on dogs day in and day out.
“It’s not necessarily the younger groomers coming into the industry [who are getting into cat grooming],” says Raisanen. “I see a lot of mid-career people saying ‘I just don’t have the back for big dogs,’ or, ‘My carpal tunnel is getting so bad, I just can’t scissor all day anymore.’”
Menze concurs. “It’s easier on your body,” she says. “It is far easier. With dogs, they are going to use their body weight against you. Just the act of picking up, carrying and balancing the body weight of a 40- 50-, or 100-pound dog is taxing on your body.”
No matter the inspiration, recent cat-grooming converts are only likely to survive if armed with the necessary education and the business savvy to pull it off. This is where things get tricky. Certainly, dog and cat grooming share some similarities—whether it is a dog or a cat, groomers may need to clean the animal, trim its coat or deal with matted fur or skins issue. But the similarities end there.
“You are not washing a small dog,” says Raisanen. “Before you put a cat on the table, you really should know what you are doing.”
Experts warn that without proper education and training, cat grooming can be hazardous for both the groomer and the cat. Like many experienced dog groomers, Menze, who opened the dog-focused Unleashed Pet Spa in 2008, was aware of the dangers when she decided to pursue cat training. Understandably, she had concerns.
“It was terrifying, because I knew I didn’t know anything about cats,” she says. “Working with cats can be very dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing. And because I’m a pretty accomplished dog groomer, I didn’t want to make a fool of myself.”
Fortunately for Menze and others who are interested in a career in cat grooming, educational opportunities have increased over the past few years. The National Cat Groomers School and PCGAA both provide cat-specific training and certification, filling a gap in the education offered in grooming schools, most of which focus mostly or solely on dog services.
Armed with Resources
Raisanen says her association offers cat-care professionals much more support than the average grooming school. Beyond training, she says, PCGAA gives its members access to a number of resources, such as mentoring, vendor discounts and study guides—all of which are critical supplements to training, she says. The association also gives workshops around the country.
“If you go to a grooming school, you’re going to get about a week or two, which is not enough,” she adds.
Raisanen also offers private instruction, and recommends that anyone interested in making the transition into cat grooming book an instructional session with her or participate one of the associations workshops before making a long-term commitment to the field.
NCGIA and its affiliated school also provide training, mentoring and support for cat groomers, as well as develop professional standards to serve as a guide for grooming practices. These can be particularly helpful in an unregulated field. German, meanwhile, tours the country and abroad teaching her methods. She says two of her most popular seminars cover how to handle aggressive cats and how to tackle the business end of grooming. The school, she adds, is booked a year in advance.
Fortunately for cats nationwide, it seems the availability of grooming instruction and the growing numbers of cat owners who seek services for their pets has propelled the industry forward.
“We have come a long way from having groomers be totally clueless as to breeds, colors and coat types,” she says, adding that in the past, groomers were likely to lump all cats into one category. “There is definitely room for lots of improvement, but boy, have we come a long way.”
Converting Cat Owners
Still, while future cat groomers are filling up training classes, this segment of the business still faces another sizable obstacle—cat owners themselves.
“At this point, most people don’t understand cat grooming,” says Menze. “The myth has always been that cats groom themselves, and it is not seen as necessary.”
Cat groomers see plenty of examples of this thinking when pet owners come in with cats bearing the signs of unintentional neglect—greasy, matted coats; dandruff; overgrown nails and fleas are just a few of the issues they have to address. “My slogan has always been: Cats lick. We groom. There’s a difference,” says German.
The misconception that cats, particularly, short-haired ones, do not need regular grooming is a thorn in the side of every cat groomer who has had to shave a cat down to the skin to remove a matted coat. The erroneous belief has also served to discourage some potentially skillful groomers from entering the field for fear that they would not find enough clients to support their business.
While shattering those impressions may be difficult, it is certainly not impossible. “I think that the best way to do that is to educate groomers so they can then educate cat owners about what cats’ are,” German says.
Groomers can use a variety of methods to promote the idea that cats often need far more grooming than they are receiving. Marketing materials such as videos and brochures, for example, can help educate cat owners. Veterinarians can also help spread the word.
“The veterinarians that I work with put my flyer in every single new-cat packet they hand out,” says Raisanen, who also works with rescues on spreading the message.
Because the concept of cat grooming is still so new to many pet owners, groomers have an opportunity to not only educate these potential clients, but also position themselves as the foremost authority on the subject in the process.
“We offer certification, and we have around 150 certified master groomers around the world,” she says. “If you are one of the 150 people on the planet who has taken these exams and proven that you can do this, market the heck out of that. Chances are, you are the only one in your area or the only one in the whole state.”