Ukrainian Groomer Endures a War to Care for the Pets of Kharkiv

Ukrainian Groomer Endures a War to Care for the Pets of Kharkiv

Photos provided by Irina Savenkova-Pashenko

“My profession is the health of animals so I had no moral right to leave them and go away.”
– Irina Savenkova-Pashenko

Salon and grooming school owner of Kharkiv, Ukraine, Irina Savenkova-Pashenko, has 16 years of grooming experience and is a multi-award winner of grooming competitions of European Groomers Association (EGA), Ukrainian Grooming Association and The National Association of Professional Creative Groomers. In addition, she is committed to caring for the pets of her country which was recently under attack…

How did the war start for you?

Irina: At 5:24 AM I woke up from the sounds, as if someone was knocking out the iron door to the entrance. I lie and think, do I call the police or go out to quarrel? 


The thought came that someone, after a successful celebration on February 23rd, forgot the keys and tried to get home. I got up, went to the window, looked out…and there was no one there. At the same time, the sounds of “bang bang” continued and the question flashed through my head: Are we really being bombed?!

Then I heard a very loud and scary sound of a plane flying over the roof of the house. It was so terrifying and powerful that I involuntarily squatted down and became very frightened. As it turned out later, it was a cruise missile, which gave a clear understanding that the war had begun.

What happened next?

Irina: The first weeks were a state of chaos and panic, in everything. We did not know if we should run away from the city, the country or wait. For almost a month, together with a small child, we hid in the corridor; in fact, we lived there and did not go out. It was very scary. In rare cases when went out, we did it in small dashes. The city was shelled at least five times a day, and not only at military facilities, but also at civilian ones.

Just in case, I started packing things at home and in the salon, too. Of course, there were no calls for work. But after about three or four weeks, a call came with a question if it was possible to wash a dog, because in many parts of the city, there was no water, light or heating. People with animals had to hide for a long time, mainly in basements filled with fleas, dampness and dust. No one could have imagined such a thing in a nightmare. And so, the owner of the Spitz called, which was already so full of dirt that they couldn’t even comb him, and asked for help.

What was your first thought in this situation?

Irina: To help. I have water and light, and I have no right to refuse a person who does not have these. Despite the fact that my way to work was through a micro district in which rockets were actively flying and shooting, I pulled myself together, overcame my fear, took my five-year-old child by the hand, and we began to run to work in short dashes. In the salon, I bathed, sheared and saved animals from potential problems, despite all the circumstances in which we found ourselves. 

You and your family stayed in Kharkiv, although as a groomer, you could find a job almost anywhere in the world. Why?

Irina: I found out that in our city with a population of roughly 1.5 million people, out of the number of experienced groomers (not counting those who have just completed their training and do not have any experience yet), there were only five or six people left. The rest were gone.

Ground public transportation in Kharkiv was not running. The subway also does not work, as it is used as a bomb shelter. One can go by taxi only to those areas where it is more or less calm, so people without personal transport cannot get very far. Therefore, thank God that we, the remaining groomers, are scattered throughout the city and we can refer clients to each other.

Returning to the question itself; I realized that I could not leave those who remained in the city, and that people from my micro district, which is quite large, would simply be abandoned since they would not be able to get to other parts of Kharkiv. My profession is the health of animals, so I had no moral right to leave them and go away.

What has the war changed in your work?

Irina: It limited opportunities. There are things that we can’t get now. The bulk of the dogs come in with tangles. Previously, to solve this problem, we used professional tools, costing 700-800 UAH each, enough for two to three dogs. Now, due to the financial difficulties that have arisen, this has become impossible. Therefore, in such a situation, we use human Gliss Kur, but it is important to wash it off, otherwise it can ruin the coat.

Has the customer base changed, and if so, how?

Irina: Yes, it has changed a lot. Mostly animals are brought to us by very elderly people, husbands or young people. This is a category of people at which animals were thrown. And there are a lot of them.

For example, a woman comes with a Yorkie. I see that the dog is familiar, but I see the woman for the first time. It turned out that the animal was left to her, under what conditions I do not know, but it is clear that the person has absolutely no idea how to care for him. I gave her a full consultation; how to properly feed and care for it—everything that a person who remains in place of the owner should know.

The big problem is that many pets were thrown at people who are feeding them borscht, meatballs and other unacceptable products, and who do not know how to properly look after them, hence the mass of problems with coat, stomach, etc. 

Has the cat-to-dog ratio changed?

Irina: The cats have become much, much smaller. For some reason, many people believe that cats will get their own food on the street, so many of them were just left. Both purebred and non-pedigreed. For two months I had only two cats, despite the fact that it was nine or 10 in earlier months. 

How has the demand for services changed during wartime?

Irina: A very short haircut is the top service now. People understand that animals suffer in tangles, and due to the fact that they cannot provide normal care, they ask to cut everything as short as possible, leaving only a beautiful head and tail. They dress pets in clothes so the dogs do not freeze and they clean them with napkins since there is no water.

How are you coping now during the sounds of explosions and wailing sirens?

Irina: During the war, people are afraid to separate, and therefore many come with their whole families. If an air raid alarm is triggered during work, and we have five or six of them a day, we hide the owners in the bathroom, because there are three protective walls there. I also hide the tools so that it does not harm the animal. And realizing that now there may be loud sounds, I cover pets’ ears, start talking to it and distracting.

What is the most unusual client you’ve had during the war?

Irina: A cat that is almost completely paralyzed. She’s four years old and a very beautiful black color of the Scottish Fold breed. She jumped off the windowsill the wrong way about a year ago, hit and injured her spine. The animal lives in a “bracket” position, all four paws practically do not work, its tongue hangs, its head is almost always lowered and it cannot be straightened, because it hurts. She doesn’t walk, she crawls. And when I raised the paw to shave, I see that it hurts her and I feel it all myself; it hurts me. At the same time, the owners take great care of her and are not ready to let her go: they treat, anesthetize, feed soft food from a spoon and help her drink from a syringe.

You also help people who are in need. Can you share a little about your volunteer activities?

Irina: As I am a breeder of Bichon Frise dogs, we received help from a group of owners of the breed from The United Kingdom. They sent a lot of diapers for babies, and we distribute them to mothers who stayed in Kharkiv. There are objectively a lot of them. We share them with the elderly, too.

I don’t really have anything else for people. As for animals, thank God, we receive help from different countries and Ukrainian cities. First of all, we help with food. For those who cannot come themselves, we try to bring it to them. Recently, with my dad and husband, under shelling, we carried food to kennels that are located in settlements cut off from the world. We distribute help to abandoned dogs and cats also.

Ninety percent of people in Kharkiv were left without work, and therefore without income. As a result, people have nothing to feed and maintain their animals. At the same time, in our city, you rarely find a family with only one pet. We may have two dogs, a cat, fish, hamsters and birds per family.

When I get help, I post it on my Facebook page and people who see what they might need ask for it. It is very difficult for some to ask—no one could ever think that they would find themselves in a situation where there is no money and you have to ask. Others call with tears in their eyes.

What help is needed and how can it be given?

Irina: Help is needed in many ways. Food for cats and dogs. Rodents and guinea pigs are also in dire need of feed. I know a rat whose owners have to feed it dandelions, as they have no money to buy food.

A very big problem is with litter for cats. Some people collect sand and make a replacement, but an animal that is used to going in litter does not understand this and walks by.

In addition, there is a big problem to buy disinfectants and detergents. There is no sanitizing gel. Bleach and chlorine only enhance the smell of cat urine even more. Moreover, it can cause damage to the respiratory tract in animals.

There is a need for antiseptics. Due to the fact that half of the veterinary clinics are closed, people cannot vaccinate their pets on time and treat them properly, so I have to treat paravirusitis several times a day, which also became unavailable.

In terms of grooming, we would be very grateful for shampoos, conditioners and blades. Since the dogs are under stress, they jump and run away and the instrument falls. During the hostilities, I broke two trimmers and four knife blocks. One can find and buy them, but because of the difficult financial situation, it is extremely hard.

But under all these difficult circumstances, we hold on and do not give up. We hope everything will be fine soon. And thanks to the help and support of all the people who worry about us and pray for us, we are alive and trying to help others. ✂️

To help the pets and groomers of Kharkiv and other affected regions of Ukraine, please visit:  (World Dog Press Association (WDPA)) (WDPA member)

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