The Road to Wellville

Professional pet grooming can be physically and mentally grueling, so groomers must be proactive in taking care of their health to ensure long, prosperous careers.

Pet grooming is a tough job, both physically and mentally—probably a lot tougher than most people realize. Groomers spend all day using their bodies in very physical ways, such as bending, lifting and holding themselves in odd positions, and using their hands and arms in repetitive motions. While the physical strain that comes with being a professional pet groomer may be easy to deal with at 20 years old, eventually it rears its ugly head in the form of pain, discomfort and even injury.

In many ways, grooming dogs is also a mentally stressful way to make a living. Groomers are usually thinking ahead to the next thing on the to-do list, stressing over whether or not everything will get done. Not to mention, they bear the responsibility of having to care for other people’s beloved pets.

Yet, sadly, the business of keeping pet groomers healthy and comfortable is an often-neglected part of the profession. Staying in the grooming industry over the long term means taking steps to stay sound, both physically and mentally.

When I interviewed to become a grooming student at the Pedigree Career Institute in 1982, no one mentioned that there might be heavy lifting involved. No one asked if I perhaps already had a bad back from working with horses for many years. And very few people even knew about the risks of repetitive motion injury back then. Fortunately, today we know better. Even, if you have not been careful about health and wellness until now, or even if you are dealing with chronic injuries, it is never too late to start taking good care of yourself.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” goes the old saying, which could not be truer. The most common ailments in our work are back problems, repetitive motion injuries and burnout. How do we prevent those? By taking a close look at everything we do all day and making sure we are doing it by the easiest possible means.

Working more efficiently wherever possible saves time and increases the amount of work groomers can do in a day, as well as reduces the risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders. With this in mind, it is imperative to evaluate all of the salon’s equipment and make sure that it suits the needs of everyone using it.

It makes sense for groomers to examine how they are working, as well. For example, do you stand all the time to groom dogs? Try sitting part of the time. Wheeled stools that move up and down, including those with back rests for comfort, are readily available through many of the grooming industry’s distributors. It can be challenging to learn to groom seated if you have always groomed an animal standing up, but it will pay off in the long run. On the other hand, you do not have to sit all day—in fact, it can benefit your muscles to change from one position to the other during the day’s work.

Today’s lift tables can accommodate a wide variety of pets and grooming professionals. They can lower to a few inches off the floor—so that even a giant, geriatric dog does not need to be lifted—and they can raise high enough to make clipping a Poodle’s feet comfortable for a six-foot-tall groomer. Even tubs are made with lift mechanisms these days, allowing groomers to avoid both lifting dogs and bending over to bathe them. Groomers who work with tubs that do not lift should try using a stepstool, so that they can occasionally lift one foot and rest it. Just changing the way you are standing and the angle of your spine by doing something as simple as raising one leg a few inches can alleviate discomfort.

Groomers should also be aware of how they are bending. For example, leaning over to work on a dog in the tub can be murder on the back. To remedy this, in addition to using a loop to secure the dog to the back of the tub, I sometimes put a loop lead on the dog and stand on the end of it to stop those leaners from clinging to the back wall of the tub. Some groomers use an industrial suction cup on the inside front part of the basin as an additional limitation to movement, but the main restraint point has to be the backsplash to make sure the dog cannot jump out and potentially hang itself.

Jeanne Caples, director of operations at Forever Stainless Steel, recommends using a rack that can be raised to put small dogs at a more convenient level for grooming. “Forever Stainless Steel tubs have a built-in ledge on the front and back of the inside of the tub,” she explains. “The platforms that go on the tub bottom are always in use: To elevate the dog, one lifts and rotates the platform and puts it in place between the two ledges. When you want the platform back on the bottom, lift, turn it and replace. We call it the Elevating Platform System, and it is patented.”

As in the tub, restraints on the table can make the grooming process easier on the body—think of that frighteningly strong Poodle squirming in someone’s arms while having its nails worked on, or that Lab that jerks its foot out of your hand each time you go to clip a nail. Using a Groomer’s Helper will gently hold a dog in place and, in many cases, keeps the pet calmer, making it easier on the dog, as well as on the groomer’s body. Some groomers also report great results with one of the several sling-style restraints available from MDC Romani, Hanvey Engineering or other manufacturers. Slings can be beneficial in instances when the animal being worked on does not struggle and is not distressed with its feet off the work surface.

Aside from having the proper restraints and other helpful equipment, any grooming business that does not utilize quality anti-fatigue floor mats should get them. Having quality mats near both the grooming tables and tubs can help prevent back fatigue and general tiredness at the end of the day, and they are a fairly reasonable investment.

In addition to making sure our equipment and practices are ergonomically correct, there is another important way to prevent problems and ensure groomer health and wellness: take counter-measures to protect yourself.

For example, most groomers work in an environment filled with loud noise all day. Some high-velocity dryers have been measured at levels similar to that of a jackhammer, and most of us have met that certain small dog whose barks can cause actual pain. To avoid hearing damage, get ear protection and wear it.

One of my grooming instructors used to say that when she died, they would find her lungs full of fur. That is not so funny now that I have been grooming for decades and have inhaled my own ration of undercoat. Get a mask, and wear it. Breathe Healthy masks are one popular, comfortable option, but there are many out there. Protecting your eyes with goggles is a good idea too.

Protecting a groomer’s body can be as simple as learning to lift carefully and properly, and not lifting over 40 pounds alone, even if you are trying to bend at the knees so as not to tax your back. Or, it can be as difficult—and rewarding—as teaching yourself to brush, clip and even scissor ambidextrously to reduce repetitive motions on any one area. Personally, all I have mastered lefty so far is hand-stripping, but even that helps with bad hands.

Lara Latshaw, NCMG, owner of Gordon’s Grooming in Plymouth, Ind., has had good cause to learn how to care for her body. Back pain led her to Foundation Training, an exercise program designed to strengthen back muscles, and ease or eliminate pain. “It’s an easy way to stay fit, one that doesn’t require a big time commitment,” says Latshaw, who became certified to teach this fairly new exercise modality. “As little as 15 minutes three times a week will protect your back.”

Foundation Training is ideal for groomers, as it changes the way you work and stand, with larger muscles learning to support the body better. As you learn to move differently, hinging at the hip, your muscles begin to protect your spine better. There is a lot of information on how to begin this method on the Internet, and one good place to start is with Latshaw’s Facebook group: Lara Latshaw, Foundation Training Instructor for Pet Groomers.

Consulting a chiropractor is another good way to counter physical stresses at work. Making sure that your spine is in alignment can help with not only back pain, but with headaches, neck pain, and discomfort in limbs and extremities. Dr. Richard Horowitz, DC, of Searsport, Maine, says it is like regular maintenance for the body.

“Pain is Mother Nature’s way of telling you something’s going on,” he says. “When she tells you, pay attention.”

Professional Assist
Horowitz recommends seeing a chiropractor every month or six weeks for a tune-up, contending 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 specific to your trouble spots. “A few simple exercises that take less than three minutes a day can keep you comfortable, and your range of motion intact.”

What if a groomer is experiencing pain? Horowitz recommends using ice—although not directly on skin. Apply the ice for three to five minutes and remove it for three to five minutes over a period of about a half hour. Then wait 15 minutes, and repeat.

Yoga can be another wonderful way to counterbalance both the physical and mental stresses of our days. Ann Hedley Rousseau, yoga instructor and owner of Rasa Yoga in Appleton, Maine, thinks it is important for groomers to recognize that the work they do is physically intense and requires tremendous concentration. “Sometimes, that depth of concentration can take someone away from their sense of physicality in the moment, so holding one position too long or moving in ways that are awkward can be overlooked,” she explains.

To avoid this trap, Rousseau recommends making sure your breathing is long, deep and even while working. Concentrating in part on breathing can stop you from holding a position too long, and just a moment of relief from a long-held posture, done regularly over time, can be enough to prevent injury.

Rousseau also points out that the simple practice of taking a break once in a while can be invaluable in avoiding discomfort and even injury. “Taking small breaks can be useful,” she says. “Because so much of a groomers work is in the forward bending posture, for a break, I would stand with the legs hip-width apart, clasp hands together behind the back and bend my knees slightly. With a nice big exhale through the nose, I would lift my clasped hands slightly away from my low back, then release. Doing this takes about 15 seconds and can be added several times while working.

“After finishing with a grooming session, it could be helpful to circle the wrists and stretch them. Place the hands together in a prayer-like position, but spread the fingers wide—each finger touching its right/left mate. Isometrically press each finger and thumbs against the other and make a little space between the palms, hold for one exhale, then gently shake the hands. This could be repeated several times a day to evenly strengthen the hands and fingers.”

To take advantage of the many benefits of yoga, find an instructor you are comfortable with and go from there. As with any other exercise, however, the most benefit will come from not only taking a regular class but from doing a few of the exercises at home, and even in the salon—a few “cat and cow” stretches, for example, will counteract the stresses of the day wonderfully.

Taking some time to catch your breath and stretch your body is great advice, especially as it includes taking care of your mental state, too. Plan breaks into your day, including a lunch break. Also, keep in mind that gulping down a sandwich at the grooming table between scissoring a Bichon and clipping a Cocker may provide nourishment, but it does not provide much of  a mental break.
Perhaps the most important lesson in maintaining health and wellness comes from Horowitz: “Think before you do.” Or maybe, it is from Latshaw: “Just because you can lift 100 pounds doesn’t mean you should.” In fact, both bear heeding.

Take the time to think of yourself, your continuing health and how long you plan to be in our industry before you do anything at work—it is sure to pay off in the long run.

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