Reaching for Optimal Health
Professional groomers must make maintaining their physical and mental wellbeing a priority if they want to have a long, productive career in a business that can be tough on the body and the mind.
Grooming pets is hard on human bodies. It’s easy to find stories of professional groomers with back problems and repetitive motion injuries of all kinds. Yet our livelihood depends on being hale, hearty and able to wrestle live, potentially uncooperative animals around. Grooming can be mentally stressful too, but we do our best work when calm and happy—and our four-legged clients respond best to that as well.
So, what can we do to keep our bodies and minds in optimum condition, reduce the chances of chronic pain or injury and increase our longevity in this physically demanding profession? More than you might think.
Wellness is a state of mind as much as it is a specific objective. It’s usually defined as the state of being in good health, especially as an actively pursued goal. For hands-on workers in the pet industry, staying happy, healthy and pain free—not to mention capable of working in the industry for as long as we want—often requires some changes in the way we think.
There are two ways to think about combating the physical and mental stressors of our profession. One is in the way we work and how we take care of ourselves, and the other relates to our environment—i.e., surrounding ourselves with ergonomically correct tools and equipment and an atmosphere conducive to wellness. First, let’s talk about how we take care of ourselves.
One really important aspect of staying healthy is making sure you don’t ignore symptoms. If your back has hurt on and off for weeks, there’s a problem. Have a persistent cough or a shooting pain in your wrist? Don’t ignore it—have a medical professional look at it. Pain and discomfort is your body’s way of communicating that there’s a problem you should do something about. Knocking back OTC painkillers and anti-inflammatories is not the answer for anything beyond a minor injury.
An Ounce of Prevention
Sometimes simple changes in the way we work can make big differences to our overall health. Change itself can be the biggest improvement we make. Repetitive motion injuries are common, so stop repeating that same motion the exact same way, whatever it is. Try to change it up all the time.
Do you normally stand to groom? Get a stool, and sit part of the time.
Do you bend too far over the tub? Get a rack to raise the dogs. Use it at least half the time.
Do you stand the same way all the time? It’s great to have good posture and stand upright with your feet apart at shoulder width, but you can’t do that all the time while grooming. So, mix it up a bit. Put one foot up on a stool or whatever’s handy for part of the time.
Is it clipping that makes your muscles cramp up? Get a lighter clipper and use it half of the time. Just changing to a different clipper that engages slightly different hand and forearm muscles can prevent problems.
Does brushing cause cramped hands? Use different brushes, dematting tools and products before, during and after the bath to make dematting/deshedding and brushing easier.
Consider every aspect of your day and where you can change things up a bit to go easier on your body.
Teri DiMarino, a popular and award-winning judge, speaker and industry spokesperson, has been grooming for a long time. Based on that experience, if she could recommend just one thing groomers can do to preserve their health, it would be to wear full ear-covering headphones.
“After 45 years, some things don’t work as well as they did,” she says. “My hearing has really suffered more than anything else. The loud dryers have taken away all of my high-range hearing. I wish I had used full ear covering years ago. When I realized I had a problem, I insisted my employees all wear them when I had my salon. I use them all the time now, but it’s too little, too late.”
Another often-overlooked issue that DiMarino highlights is air quality. “Masks will help prevent the dreaded ‘groomer lung,’” she says. “Hair doesn’t clog your lungs; the dust from nail grindings and the particulate matter from dog dander and cruddy skin are the culprits. Remember, if you can smell it, it’s entering your lungs.”
In addition to masks, many salons utilize air purifiers for this reason.
Like many other veteran groomers, DiMarino has also had her share of back problems. However, she says that hydraulic tables and proper posture have been her friends as long as she can remember, along with chiropractors, acupuncture and massage therapy. Also, “a good mattress along with a good pillow is a must!”
Simple stretching exercises can also go a long way in avoiding and alleviating back problems. Such exercises should be done whenever possible—in the morning, evening or throughout the day. Taking a gentle yoga class a couple of times a week is another great idea.
We tend to use muscles for strength, so yoga or stretching is ideal for counteracting those hours in the salon. Let’s face it: most of us are not going to keep up with a complicated exercise and nutrition program. Hats off to anyone who can pull it off, but for many groomers it’s simply too difficult to find the necessary time and energy in an already busy schedule, no matter what great benefits it might provide.
With that said, do what you can, when you can. Once you’ve fit that in, you may find that the worthwhile results encourage you to make time for more.
Dr. Richard Horowitz, a chiropractor in Searsport, Maine—the magician who keeps me functioning while grooming—recommends that groomers try to get in at least some simple stretches once a day (three times is even better). First, raise your arms overhead with your shoulders comfortably down, not raised. Bend to one side slowly as far as is comfortable, reaching with your arms, and come back up straight. Then do the other side. Repeat three times.
Next, slowly bend forward at the waist and come back up to straight again. You can use your hands against your legs, if that’s more comfortable. Repeat this three times as well.
That’s it. In less than three minutes, you can prevent a lot of strain that can lead to discomfort, keeping your range of motion intact.
Groomers may also want to consider seeing a chiropractor. “It’s like taking your car in to be oiled and greased—regular maintenance for your body,” says Dr. Horowitz, noting that chiropractic adjustments maintain the integrity of the nervous system by keeping the spine and nerves free from obstructions. In addition, a good chiropractor can suggest exercises to target your specific trouble spots.
In addition to chiropractic adjustments, regular massage therapy (for both physical relief and relaxation) and acupuncture are both popular ways for groomers to alleviate the physical stress of the job.
One of the most important and effective ways to keep the body well tuned and lower stress levels is a regular exercise program. Horseback riding, hiking and going to a gym are effective activities for many groomers.
Mitzi Jones, a pet stylist at Dog Owner’s General Store in Loveland, Colo., got a lesson in the positive impact that regular exercise can have after she started having trouble with the day-to-day rigors of grooming.
“I found myself having to limit the size of dogs I was doing, and I was really in pain at the end of the day,” she says. “After about a year of getting my back better with a new chiropractor, I started kickboxing. I now can do big dogs again and am not going home at the end of the day in crippling pain.”
Of course, not everyone will be able to take on a fitness regimen as ambitious as kickboxing—and that’s fine. The important thing is to fit exercise in wherever you can. For example, one mobile groomer based in Texas wears five-pound ankle weights while she is out grooming. “I do leg lifts and practice balance by standing on one leg while I’m grooming,” she explains.
Sometimes a small change like this can make all the difference in the world.
Good nutrition is another aspect of wellness that shouldn’t be neglected. Groomers are notorious for grabbing a quick bite between dogs, or even during a groom. Taking the time to eat good food is one fairly simple thing that anyone can do and will pay dividends in your wellbeing. Laura Hearn of Lazy Daisy Mobile Grooming in Pflugerville, Texas, says groomers should “always make sure to take a lunch break and eat food that makes your body feel full—not drive-through greasy fast food.”
After years of grabbing food when I could, I was amazed to find that a salon I’d begun working at actually stopped work each day in order for everyone to take a half-hour to eat. It was amazing what it did for my energy level to be eating decent food, and it helped morale in the shop, too. (Thank you, Yankee Clipper in Rockport, Maine!)
Luckily, there are plenty of quick and healthy options available for busy groomers. For example, Scott Hunt of Grr’n’Purr Mobile Pet Grooming in Hemet, Calif., uses a service called HelloFresh. “I get three healthy meals for two delivered each week,” he says. “They’re easy to prepare and cheaper than going to the store to get the fixings for one meal.”
Maintaining a Sound Mind
To maintain their overall wellbeing, groomers should be quick to note and address any symptoms of too much mental stress. If you are having trouble getting out of bed in the morning or find yourself complaining about your job, there’s a problem.
A recurring theme among groomers that have found ways to combat job-related stress is taking time off on a regular, scheduled basis. Build your vacation time right into your schedule. In fact, book it first. Mary Oquendo, popular speaker and owner of Pawsitively Pretty Mobile Grooming in Danbury, Conn., as well as Pawsitive Educational Training and SpiritedDog.com, has always taken this approach.
“From the day I started my own mobile grooming business, I scheduled a couple of weeks of vacation right into my appointment book,” she says. “It has allowed me time to shut the business brain off. When we are always on, it can be difficult to see solutions to our problems. That time off gives our brains and body a necessary reboot. A real vacation is when I do nothing but relax and have fun. The computer stays home—no articles, no projects, no nothing.”
While taking much-needed vacations can go a long way in helping you manage stress, building personal time into your day-to-day schedule is also important. Groomers have long been trained to make the customer happy. Sometimes that means working longer hours than we should, scheduling more dogs in a day than we ought to and sometimes feeling guilty if we cannot accommodate every request.
This is changing, and it’s a good thing for groomer health.
Many groomers have begun creating a schedule that suits their needs as well as their clients’. For example, many work only a half-day on Saturdays, or not at all. If that inconveniences too many customers, consider opening late and working one evening each week for clients who can’t get there during regular business hours.
Tina Lavender, owner/operator of Shampoodles Mobile Pet Grooming in College Station, Texas, only works a half-day of easy dogs on Fridays. “It gives me space to move people around or run errands if needed, or I can start my weekend early,” she says. “I don’t kill myself squeezing in clients who didn’t plan ahead anymore. Life got a whole lot easier after that.”
Sometimes a mindset is more important than the actual time taken. Many of us are on automatic “yes” when it comes to accommodating customers, but that’s not always the best answer for our health.
Christy McDonnel, owner/operator at Christy’s Mobile Grooming in Foster City, Calif., only does half-days on Saturdays. She also listens to podcasts during work and music on the weekends. “Oh yeah, and I learned ways to say no,” she says.
This is possibly the most important way to reduce personal stress in our industry.
Similar to McDonnel, Oquendo plays nice, calming music throughout her workday and uses crystals (amethyst and rose quartz) to encourage relaxation and calmness. Groomers who are interested in learning more about crystals, their properties and how to use them can check out her Facebook group, Crystal Clear.
Whatever you need to do to create an environment that makes you happy and keeps you calm, find a way to do it. Paint the salon or van in soothing colors, or get soundproofing that reduces the noise of barking. Use headphones to listen to podcasts or soothing music and protect your hearing. Hire a bather. Learn how to use essential oils to calm yourself and the pets in your care. If you aren’t calm and happy, your body will be tense and more at risk for injury, whether chronic or acute.
A Healthy Environment
That brings us to another important aspect of combating the physical and mental stressors inherent in grooming dogs—changing our work environment to be more ergonomically correct.
DiMarino says that a good place to start is by taking a look at your equipment. “Good quality equipment (shears, clippers, brushes, etc.) helps, as you want your tools to work with you, not against you,” she says.
Your equipment should not only be of good quality, but also ergonomically correct for you. Make sure your shears fit your hand and are comfortable, which will differ widely from groomer to groomer. There’s no such thing as the “best” scissors, just the one that’s best for you. The same goes for clippers—make sure they are comfortable to hold, and make sure you have two different options to use in order to change your grip and avoid harmful repetitive motions. Just changing the weight and size of the hand piece by going from one clipper to the other will save stress on your hands.
Think of comfort. Anti-fatigue mats at every tub and table will ease stress on feet and knees. So will a stool with a back and a footrest.
Think of safety. For example, when using high-velocity dryers, that means using not only hearing protection, but also masks and eye protection.
Electric or hydraulic tables and tubs can be easily lifted to the right height for whatever work is being done (feet, faces) on any breed and can be the right height for any stylist or bather who’s working on them. There are means to help keep dogs standing and to keep them from wriggling as much. Remember that the more room a dog has to move, the more it is likely to move. Sometimes a smaller table is the better choice.
If you need some help in finding the right equipment, ask your favorite distributor or manufacturer to create a solution to any problems you have. They are in business to sell products, and selling more means being aware of the issues that groomers face and providing solutions, just as selling to your customers means solving their problems of shedding, odor, etc.
“To understand how ergonomics could improve the health of groomers, those in the pet industry need to be aware of the work hazards groomers are exposed to,” says Lori Haraske, director of product development for PetEdge, a distributor that also markets its own brands of grooming equipment and tools. “Grooming is physically strenuous, like a sport—it’s regimented and continuous. For many groomers, the long hours and physical strain of their profession have meant wrist, shoulder and back pain, as well as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) like carpal tunnel syndrome, rotator cuff injuries and tendonitis. A lot of the groomers we’ve spoken to stick to this strenuous schedule because they feel it’s necessary—inviolable, even—for creating a successful business.”
Unsurprisingly, studies conclude that dog groomers are exposed to the risk of developing MSDs. Grooming is extremely physical. The work calls on groomers to lift heavy dogs and stand on hard floors for hours. A groomer might spend a majority of a day bending, twisting, leaning and kneeling in awkward positions, in a cramped space, blow-drying or snipping hair. Groomers are likely to sustain work injuries this way. Imagine all the trouble down the line after a lifetime of this kind of strenuous activity.
It’s not just common aches and pains that groomers are exposed to. According to the labor department, hundreds of thousands of days of work are lost every year due to MSDs, making up about one-third of all the days lost to injuries. For a groomer with a small business, the loss of workdays because of an MSD could dramatically impact the business’s productivity and bottom line.
What’s more, how terrible would it be to have these health problems extend into old age? Who wants to have aches and pains when they’re supposed to be enjoying their golden years? Who wants to pay for costly surgery to tend to carpal tunnel? Who wants to end a career too soon because of chronic pain?
PetEdge and other distributors and manufacturers have a sincere interest in helping groomers solve their problems. From the very first PetLift Hydraulic table that went up and down and turned so groomers could stand in one place and groom, to today’s lift tubs and tables that go within inches of the floor, the businesses that sell to us have been working to provide us with what we need and want. Let them know what that is.
If grooming is your passion, make sure you can continue to do it for as long as you want. Use the ergonomically correct tools and equipment that are available to us to preserve your health. Keep stressors to a minimum and make sure you have your own wellness at the forefront of your mind all the time, every day. Eat well and exercise in some way that’s fun for you. Pursue groomer health actively, and stay happy and healthy for years to come.
Carol Visser has been involved in the pet industry since 1982 in various capacities, including grooming in and owning a busy suburban shop, working as a product expert for PetEdge, teaching seminars and training dogs. She certified as a Master Groomer with NDGAA in 1990 and as a Certified Pet Dog Trainer in 2007, and she continues to enjoy learning about dogs and grooming at her small salon in rural Maine.