Groomers can play a vital role in a pet’s healthcare by being vigilant in looking for signs of illness and referring any possible problems to a veterinarian.
Many veterinarians will say that the skin is the most important organ in the body, and the animal’s first line of defense against practically everything. The skin keeps out debris, disease and infection, protecting all the rest of the organs. It regulates body temperature and provides weather proofing. And it is often the early warning signal for other issues.
But pet owners and even veterinarians, who see a pet perhaps once a year, do not look at a dog’s skin as carefully as the groomer. It is the groomer who, by the nature of a good, thorough grooming job, looks at pretty much every square inch of this huge organ. The skin may be the first line of defense for the animal, but the groomer is also part of the team. When they notice things that may be amiss, groomers can save lives.
Part of groomers’ job as pet caretakers is relaying to pet owners whatever they observe about their pets. Any change, even if it does not seem like an obvious medical issue, should be brought to the attention of the owner, with appropriate recommendations.
Those recommendations can be tricky, as groomers are not veterinarians and cannot legally do anything that even has the appearance of practicing medicine without a license. Yet, as experienced pet-care professionals, they generally know a great deal more than the average pet owner, even without the frequent crossover in the pet industry—many groomers have worked as trainers, in rescue and as veterinary technicians.
However, it is important to know your limitations and not give advice where you are not an expert. Groomers should emphasize, while discussing observations, that they are not giving medical advice and the owner should always bring the dog to a veterinarian.
Teresa Lagoski, who operates a small grooming business that specializes in Poodles out of her home in Boise, Idaho, has a great example of why it is important to immediately refer health issues to the veterinarian. When she got a call from the owner of a Standard Poodle that she had groomed that day and was behaving oddly, Lagoski knew enough to send her to the emergency veterinarian with suspected bloat, which the dog survived.
Certainly, groomers give general advice about training and nutrition, but they need to be careful not to cross lines into territory better served by a behaviorist or veterinarian. Not only is it not ethical, it can lead to liability issues if a customer follows a groomer’s advice with poor results—even if the advice was good.
Groomers should research federal and state guidelines for legalities, as they vary greatly. Last fall in California, for example, two people not licensed as veterinarians were convicted of practicing veterinary medicine without a license for providing anesthesia-free dental cleanings with metal scales. If there is doubt as to what is legal, a state veterinary medical association should be consulted.
As careful as a groomer may be to avoid diagnosing ailments or recommending medical treatments, a pet owner will often present it to their veterinarian that way. There is little that will annoy the medical professional faster than groomer diagnoses. Even if what was actually said was “might be,” “characteristic of,” or “should be ruled out by testing,” owners often hear only the disease or problem that is suspected. To ensure that they are not misquoted by a pet owner, groomers should offer to write something for clients to take to the veterinarian. Some businesses have even created forms to report health issues.
Groomers can keep their credibility high by developing a good relationship with as many of the local clinics as possible. Getting to know them by bringing baked goods may seem old fashioned, but it works. Or set up an appointment to acquaint the clinic with the grooming business’ policies and discuss how both sides can work together as pet professionals to best help people’s pets.
Consistency is Key
One aspect of a groomer’s role in a pet’s health care is good record keeping, whether they use software or index cards. In order to spot changes and a possible red flag, record everything each time a pet is seen from behavior to the size and location of lumps. Thanks to careful record-keeping, Lisa Porter, who works at Wigglebums Pet Grooming in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, has known to send dogs to the vet, leading to diagnoses of thyroid problems, Cushing’s disease, ringworm, heart problems, urinary tract infections, staph infections, glaucoma and more. Says Porter, “I try to document anything I come across that seems ‘not quite right,’ and we take lots of pictures for proof too.”
Any change from the last grooming should be brought to the owner’s attention, as should anything unusual, no matter how minor. The owner may be aware of it, but especially in the case of a newly adopted or foster pet, they may not. Some cues to look for include:
• An oddly round tummy can indicate parasites.
• Yellowing skin can be a sign of kidney failure.
• Panting or wheezing could be signs of hot weather—or congestive heart failure, heartworms or lung problems.
• Odors on feet and brittle, splitting toenails or swollen nailbeds have led to diagnoses ranging from fungal infections to cancer.
• Changes in drinking habits or unusual urination or defecation can signal more than stress.
• Discoloration in skin or coat, changes in hair texture, hair loss, excess oils/grease and excess dryness can all be signs of serious illness.
Signs of illness are not limited to the physical, though. Changes in temperament can signal the onset of many medical conditions. Perhaps an older animal is becoming confused or experiencing pain, causing it to bite or struggle during parts of the grooming it always accepted before. Some medications, including steroids, can also cause irritability, and changes in behavior can be important feedback.
Geriatric pets, in particular, need groomers to be aware of changes, as their health can change so quickly. Groomers should tell owners when they notice differences in temperament, lameness or if a pet is favoring a leg. A dog that may look just fine chasing a ball at home can have trouble standing on three legs for nail trimming or footwork. It is sometimes hard to change gears with a dog as it ages and provide it with that extra care, but the same hold that is comfortable for a youngster may be putting undue pressure on old bones and ligaments, so groomers should take care that their handling is careful enough that it does not add to any issue.
Odor can be an important clue to certain problems, especially infection. Odor has led groomers to notice what turned out to be infected wounds, infected ears, infected teeth and gums, urinary tract or kidney infections and more. Systemic problems such as diabetes can sometimes have a characteristic odor. And while the odor of fecal matter is never pleasant, a really unusual odor can be a sign of an inability to digest, a systemic problem or cancer.
Dental issues are often overlooked by owners. Even if there is no odor, groomers should take a careful look in a dog’s mouth, as some dental problems can turn critical if left untended. For example, Daryl Conner, manager at the Yankee Clipper in Rockport, Maine, recently found a narrow, sharp pork bone wedged across a small dog’s upper palate—inflamed and reeking of infection—that the owner never noticed.
A buildup of tartar or periodontal disease can cause digestive problems, heart issues, strokes and more. A simple tooth abscess can end up with infection in the bone, leading to a great deal of pain, heart, liver or kidney disease, and even euthanasia. Any redness, discomfort, growths, yellow or brown tartar accumulations, or a chipped or broken tooth should be seen by a medical professional.
Sometimes groomers are simply in a position to see things that the owner is not. Heather Eastabrooks Roozee, a stylist at A Groomery in DeKalb, Ill., has had cats urinate in the tub and seen blood. The resulting vet visits have disclosed urinary tract infections or blockages. The owner can easily miss this, as cats are urinating in a litter box or outdoors.
Anal glands are another area that pet owners, understandably, are not likely to observe closely, but it is an area that lends itself to trouble. Whether a groomer offers external expression of glands in their salon or not, giving them a quick check in the tub could save a dog a lot of discomfort, at least. Redness, soreness, swelling or hardness can be signs of a problem. Growths under the tail are also easy to miss, and owners need to know about them as soon as possible.
Probably every groomer has sent a dog with a possible ear infection off to be checked, but it is important not to forget the eyes. One groomer sent a Shih Tzu to be checked because, “he just looked a little more bug-eyed than usual.” As it turned out, the dog had glaucoma and possible irreversible damage was forestalled by the groomer’s quick eye and the owner’s willingness to have it checked out right away.
After Jeana Ward, owner of Jeana’s Dirty Dog Salon in Cambridge, Mass., noticed a Springer with a ring around his iris in both eyes, the customer’s veterinarian told her to thank the groomer as the dog would have gone blind if it had gone unattended.
Odor, unusual discharge or the dog rubbing at them should raise an alert, but it is also important to report a blue cast or a dog suddenly bouncing off doorjambs. Vision loss can be gradual, so a dog can memorize its home layout, but a problem may be exposed in the less familiar salon.
It is a great privilege to be allowed the responsibility to help care for people’s beloved companions, despite some of the trials of being a groomer, and in part this is why we do it: because we make a difference. Although we should not presume to diagnose, we should know as much as we can about common ailments and their signs and symptoms. We should develop a demeanor that gets across the importance of consulting a veterinarian without panicking the owner unnecessarily. And we should continue to be aware of each and every dog that crosses our professional path as an individual, keeping in mind that we may see things the owner cannot and that we may be the first line of defense against illness in our fourlegged clients. We are groomers. We help save lives.