At first it seemed just a tough bout of kennel cough, so we updated Bordetella vaccines. Yet every day we got worsening information. Was it the canine influenza (H3N8 virus)? The usual flu vaccines were the only treatment available. Symptoms were a distinctive cough, lethargy and inappetite.
Dog grooming businesses were in the national news, not in a good way. This broke at maximum contagion time – Spring Break. Boarding kennels were packed full. The mysterious highly contagious airborne canine flu spread rapidly through the Chicago area.
A long-standing client came home from vacation to find her beloved Maltipoo, Rocky, hacking hoarsely. She was told every one of the 200 dogs in the kennel caught it that week.
Then came the news that 5 shelter dogs had died at an emergency vet.
The official death toll was likely underreported. Most were stressed, unhealthy dogs in shelters, older or younger. Sick dogs were now front page news – on television stations every day. Soon headlines of “Outbreak in Chicago” were appearing nationally.
Chicago groomer Hollus Gessler of Wigglyville, who maintains a close relationship with veterinarians, began posting warnings earlier than most. She said, “Customers did not seem to be too concerned until the news media reported on the growing problem.”
Veterinary research facilities mobilized to study this virulent strain. They isolated a new sub-strain of the H3N2 virus – never before seen in dogs. It was a mammalian mutation of the Avian Flu that had killed millions of birds in Asia after 2006.
Veterinarians emailed clients instructing them to keep their dogs at home and not to take them anywhere there would be other dogs – no kennels, no dog parks, no daycare, and NO trips to the groomer.
Veterinarian Hospitals required owners to keep their dogs outside in the car during checkups. Shelters temporarily closed their doors. Daycares shut down. Big box stores ceased boarding services. Images of staff disinfecting dog care facilities were broadcasted all over Chicagoland. The financial toll, and the toll on dogs, especially those needing shelter services, was devastating.
Established vaccines for H3N8 were not going to help with this virus. And worse, dogs were found to be most infectious before showing symptoms, even if they never developed symptoms. There was no treatment – only isolation.
My shop’s appointments dropped by half within days because customers were worried to the point of frantic. I started posting signs, making calls, screening clients, and intensive disinfection. Some groomers closed their doors. Unconfirmed reports circulated that a few grooming shops may have even closed permanently, unable to weather the financial collapse.
In late May, cases of the H3N2 were appearing in Indiana, Wisconsin, and as far away as Texas and Atlanta. The virus has also been found in cats, guinea pigs, and ferrets. USA Today featured the problem on their front page, quoting scientists calling it an EPIDEMIC.
Dr. Robert Parrish of Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine was one veterinary researcher who has been studying the H3N2 virus to determine its origins and to identify ways to treat or prevent infection. He said in April 2015, “There is no evidence the virus can infect humans”, while others wondered how far the mammalian mutation of the virus could go.
While extremely serious, the virus was usually not deadly to dogs. Healthy dogs survived it, even becoming “inoculated” against relapse. Saliva, identified as the easiest way to transmit the virus, led us to pull up all the community water bowls and stopped allowing ANY physical contact or close proximity between dogs.
Life changed for us overnight, hitting commission-based groomers the hardest. It’s a cautionary tale for our entire profession.
As we watch now and worry how far this will spread, the good news is at least we now know what we are dealing with. Other cities will not go through the deadly period of uncertainty that Chicago did.
I developed protocols that kept Love Fur Dogs completely free of the H3N2, and that I believe will help groomers everywhere:
Plan on taking lots of extra time to communicate fully with each individual client. All staff should be prepared with talking points, especially answering phones. Be current, sound knowledgeable and “on top of it.” If you have mass email capacity, you should be out front of the media, to be the source of information so your clients don’t have to come to you frantic about what they “have heard.”
Give detailed descriptions of your screening, isolation, and disinfection protocols. Be clear how seriously you take the illness. I never questioned veterinary advice. Despite the financial cost, I dismissed no one’s fears; commending their decision to postpone grooming.
We spread out our intake intervals and scheduled fewer dogs. We posted signs on our door and expanded our hours to have fewer dogs over a longer day. While I had never allowed customer dogs to wander freely in my shop, we ended ALL dog to dog proximity, even that passing sniff in the lobby. If two clients missed their scheduled time and happened to be coming in or checking out at the same time, we used body blocking and leashes to prevent any close encounters, moving dogs quickly in or out. Our shop is fortunately spacious, so we spread out. Though 17 of my clients got sick at boarding kennels over Spring Break, none of them entered my shop until weeks later after being cleared by a vet.
We always use a top professional disinfectant, its effectiveness against the H3N2 was uncertain. We switched to a bleach solution because, as one vet told me, “bleach kills everything.” It is also hard on skin, nasal passages, and equipment; and doesn’t mix well with urine, for those with daycare businesses.
We quadrupled our cleaning protocols. Hand sanitizers everywhere and used between every dog. Smocks washed repeatedly. No comb, brush, tub, or table went unbleached as we went from dog to dog. Nothing touched a dog that wasn’t bleached before the next dog touched it. The most costly step I took was to install a UV light on our HVAC system which kills viruses, molds, fungus and bacteria in the air. Diligent disinfection will remain a permanent fixture in my shop.
Our wonderfully patient clients were thoroughly interviewed as each appointment was made – where have they been, at least 48 – 72 hours away from any other dog contact and vet cleared if they had any symptoms before we would allow them in. Only dogs who had been isolated in their homes were allowed to come in for grooming.
As a brick and mortar store without mobile capacity, we had to develop in-home grooming capability. One mobile groomer called us offering to take our clients for a few weeks. While we appreciated her truly helpful sentiment, we took it on ourselves. We groomed on kitchen counters and in basement utility sinks. We carried smaller dryers along from the shop and we sent groomers to the homes of some of our regular clients that had dogs most at risk, and who could not delay grooming. We tacked on a $20-$30 extra fee to partially cover the time that such grooms took. Our clients noted our extraordinary effort. They saw in deeds, not words, how much we cared.
All of this effort and lost business was costly. Our income in April was down one third. We still felt the effects of it in May, even though our clients came back. We tightened our belts. Our savings account alone saved us but we burned through our financial safety net. Every one of my wonderful employees suffered and made sacrifices personally and professionally.
Are you setting aside some of your income each month to help you through a drop in business? Embrace this self-discipline – even a little bit at a time helps. We don’t know how bad the H3N2 will get nationally, but it could have a significant impact on our profession. This is an important time for us to help each other.
Whether it is the H3N2, or some other natural disaster, professional groomers have to be prepared at all times for some external force hitting us in ways we might never imagine.
I worked to live the mission of love in my shop’s name, putting the dogs’ well-being ahead of our own at all times. This meant letting go concerns about making money, and instead remembering why I became a groomer – because I love dogs and want to aid in their well-being. Dogs I know and love were sick. Nothing else mattered.
Spring 2015 has been incredibly hard, but with our integrity evident to our clients and local veterinarians, I learned that hanging on to who you are and what you believe will get you through the tough times.
Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, ICMG, is the owner of Love Fur Dogs in Glencoe, Illinois (www.lovefurdogs.com), and the Director of the Train to Groom Program at the Bishop Grooming Academy, (www.traintogroom.com) a vocational school housed at her new state-of-the-art facility. 2015 marks her 30th year as a Certified Master Groomer. Jennifer has bred and shown a wide diversity of dogs, as well as Himalayan cats. She is also a prominent activist for crime victims’ rights. A career educator and retired high school teacher, Jennifer’s accredited vocational training program for groomers combines her award-winning career in dogs with her award-winning teaching skills.