The word “holistic” is currently a bit of a buzzword in the American language. It brings up connotations of woo-woo-crunchy-granola-touchy-feely-New Age feel-goodism. But what exactly does it mean and how does it pertain to the grooming industry? I asked two women, who have not only openly embraced holistic grooming, but have taken steps to teach what they have learned to other groomers… all with the well being of pets in mind.

The first person I heard use the term “holistic grooming,” was Sheryl Woods. Sheryl owns and operates a cat specialty house call grooming business in Illinois called Wet Whisker Feline Grooming. She was the first person I ever heard speak of grooming a cat without “scruffing,” (holding firmly onto the back of the cat’s neck.) She got my interest with that concept. I consider myself to be an excellent and kind cat groomer, but I have always “scruffed.” Sheryl explained that cats perceive this as an aggressive action and become defensive. I had never thought of that, and tried grooming cats in a new way, with much success. I’ve been learning from her ever since.

I asked, “What do you consider holistic cat grooming to be?” She replied quite simply, “It’s all about what is best for the cat.” Sheryl had a career change at age 50, and went to grooming school. “I was quickly labeled the ‘cat nut’ due to my extreme preference for grooming cats. I didn’t like grooming cats surrounded by tables of dogs and I could tell the cats didn’t like it either. I also didn’t feel it was right to have to muzzle frightened cats. The teachers would talk about control methods used in salons they’d worked in, and to me, it sounded like torture. Taping, dunking bags, forcefully held pets, and more. We had a ‘cat specialist’ come in for a 3-day seminar and the specialist advocated scruffing and air muzzles. Looking at the methods from a cat’s perspective, I knew in my gut it wasn’t right. But I figured these were people who knew how it should be done, and who was I to say differently? I was just a student.

By the time I graduated the school, my ‘crazy cat lady’ label was firmly in place. I advocated grooming cats in a separate room and was the go-to person for handling felines. I started my own cat grooming business before I graduated. For what were called ‘aggressive cats,’ I used the methods I’d been taught, of scruffing and air muzzles. I didn’t like how the cats would become catatonic with the use of those methods. I’d been taught that the cat was now ‘calm,’ yet I received one of my worst bites trying to get an air muzzle on an ‘aggressive cat’. I quickly decided this method was bad, as the cats were just frightened, not aggressive. The state of ‘calm’ was actually the cat frozen in fear. Why in the world would anyone want to put cats through such abuse? By trial and error I learned how to approach cats and work with them. Once I abandoned the force methods, the difference in cat behavior was astounding. They responded calmly and affectionately. My house call cat grooming business really took off.”

Sheryl was clearly onto a successful method of handling cats. “I heard from owners how their cat had come home from the salon and hidden for days, or had become very fearful. What these cats were going through was traumatizing them and it was wrong. I became the person the veterinarians would refer to for cats who couldn’t be sedated but had been banned from salons. They’d heard from clients how I worked with the cats, treated them with respect, and was able to groom them successfully.”

She continued, “So, in summary, my holistic approach to cat grooming was due to a realization that the traditional force methods didn’t work with felines. A completely different approach was needed for cats; one that took into consideration how they view the world and interact with it. One that treated them with respect and compassion.”

Sheryl became an advocate for changing the way groomers handle cats, and was vocal in internet grooming groups. “I was floored by how many groomers rejected what I said and even became angry. That is something I’ll never understand.” She began a Facebook group called Holistic Cat Grooming. The description of the group is, in part, “A group for professional cat groomers to learn more about and discuss all aspects of holistic (mind, body, spirit,) grooming.”

Sheryl summed things up by saying, “It means addressing not just the groom, but relating to the cats psychology, the comfort of their body, and their feeling of security by developing a bond. All these things are interrelated; holistic grooming isn’t about the one thing you can do when the cat is flipping out on your table. It’s about preventing that scenario from ever happening in the first place. Holistic grooming involves learning how to relate to the many varied personalities of cats, understanding behavior and incorporating this understanding into your grooming methods. It’s about building a bond of trust so the cat is a willing participant in the groom. Holistic grooming also involves the cat’s owner and the environment in which the cat lives.”

Phrased like that, embracing a holistic method of handling cats makes a tremendous amount of sense. But what about incorporating such methods when working with dogs?

Mary Oquendo, a mobile stylist from Connecticut, says, “I am not the groomer I was 10 years ago. The holistic path has been a journey for me. This method of working with animals chose me.” Even as a newer groomer, Mary was able to experiment with how she handled animals to find the most effective methods. “I found, over time, that working within the pets parameters worked a whole lot better than trying to force things on them. By trial and error I was able to find methods that were effective, and then experiment with ways to keep pets calm and happy.” For example, she might allow the pet’s owner to stay with it if she felt that would make things easier, or she would work to calm and reassure a frightened pet rather than force it to conform to grooming techniques. These were early steps along her path to holistic grooming. “My focus is on what is best for the pet, mentally and physically.”

Currently, Mary uses a variety of things in her van to ensure that pets are calm about the grooming process. Crystals as are tucked here and there, and she even keeps a large piece of rose quartz in the bath tub so that every pet is bathed with the gentle energy that crystal is purported to possess. She also plays her favorite music, Steven Halpern’s Chakra Suite. “Basically what it does is cycle through the energy centers of the pets body, and mine, too. Chakras have been found to correspond with the major nerve plexus in the body. This is calming and soothing and keeps the environment serene. The pets are more relaxed, and relaxed pets behave better.”

Mary continued, “Holistic does not necessarily mean that I have to use all natural, organic products, but rather I choose what is best suited to the pet. I take control and make that determination. This means I want to know the ingredients in the products I use. That goes for cleaning products, too. I prefer to use natural products in my van, when possible. I also have a UV sanitizer.” She avoids using harsh chemicals when possible.

“In the end, it’s important to remember that holistic isn’t just about the pet, it is taking everything into consideration; the pet, the client and the groomer. No one thing trumps something else. Everything is a consideration, and decisions are based on what is best for all three”, states Mary.

Mary also began a Facebook page called Holistic Dog Grooming to help educate dog groomers about holistic methods. “My goal for the page is not to force my opinions on anyone, but to educate. I hope that groomers will begin to think that there might be a better way of doing things. It’s a non-judgmental site, where I hope ideas will be introduced and shared. Ideally, groomers who participate will find things that resonate with them, and take steps to introduce holistic practices into their daily work.”

All the woo-woo and touchy-feely aside, grooming holistically merely means giving consideration to the well being of the pet in its entirety. It is more than giving a good haircut, it is thinking of the dog or cat as a complex, sensitive, living being and treating it with the respect and kindness that will support its mental, psychological and physical well being. A good groom is expected from all of us, but a great groom leaves the pet feeling as good as it looks.