By Lynn Paolillo, CFMG, CFCG
The grooming industry has been under scrutiny lately with multiple news stories featuring injuries and deaths of pets in grooming salons. Cats are particularly sensitive to the stress, loud noises, and the unfamiliar environment of a grooming appointment. It is important for groomers to recognize changes in the cat’s behavior and health in order to prevent severe injury or death. But, what should groomers look for? When do we know when to stop the groom? When to send the cat home? And when to send the cat to the vet?
Before the groom even begins, there are some cats that should be categorized as “high risk” grooms. Extra precaution should be taken with these cats in order to minimize stress and to monitor them for signs or symptoms of a problem. Cats that are high risk include cats who have never been professionally groomed before, who are in very poor grooming condition, those who are very combative during the grooming process, and elderly cats.
The first time a cat visits a professional groomer can be stressful, so it is important that the groomer focus on making this visit a positive experience. Also remember that the cat’s owner does not always know to share medical conditions and history that may affect the groom. During the initial conversation with the owner, ask specific questions regarding heart or breathing problems, history of seizures, medications, previous injuries, etc. Have a list of questions that cover previous medical, behavior, and grooming history to discuss with clients, and ask further questions if any “red flags” pop up. Any behavior or mannerisms that are out of the ordinary should be discussed with the owner and included in the grooming notes.
While grooming, take extra time to introduce each aspect of the groom gradually so as not to startle or frighten the cat. Variable speed dryers set on low, wrapping the cat snugly in a large towel, and testing clippers on a small area are all ways to help introduce the cat to the grooming process, similar to how a new puppy would be. The goal does not have to be a perfect haircut, but to introduce the various steps of the groom and to establish a trusting relationship with the groomer.
Unfortunately, not all first time cat clients are kittens. Many will come in already in horrible groom condition. These should also be considered high risk. Severe matting can cause skin irritations, wounds, hair loss, and sensitivity to touch. Cats in poor grooming condition may also have health problems that are hidden by large areas of mats. This can include fleas and flea bite dermatitis, anemia, injuries, and more.
Another group of cats that need extra precaution during the groom are aggressive cats. Cats who are hissing, growling, swatting, and actively trying to bite, all fall into this category. Many of these cats respond well to a snug hold to prevent them from flailing. This can include firmly holding them across the lap, putting some pressure on the shoulder area (with or without a scruff), wrapping them in a towel, or having a second person assist. The cat’s face and breathing patterns should be constantly monitored. Loops and harnesses should never be placed around a cat’s neck or used to extend the cat’s legs. Always adjust handling techniques based on the cat’s responses to avoid causing any pain or discomfort.
There are some cats who respond to restraint by thrashing and fighting even harder. Cats who respond this way should be sent to a veterinarian to proceed. It is dangerous to allow a cat to get worked up by struggling during the groom as the cat could have unknown medical issues or become overly stressed.
There are ways to help improve an aggressive cat’s behavior during the groom. First, try to discover what triggers the aggressive response and limit or avoid those things during
the groom. Sometimes that means limiting what services can be performed safely on the cat, namely full body haircuts or specialized trims. Normally, these cats do well during the bath and blow dry as these steps involve the least amount of additional handling or restraints. When making recommendations for an aggressive cat’s grooming schedule, a stipulation may include that the cat come in regularly in order to prevent matting.
Senior and geriatric cats are especially at risk during the grooming process. The likelihood of arthritis, diabetes, kidney failure, hyperthyroidism, and other health concerns increases as a cat gets older. Unfortunately, many owners do not take senior cats to the veterinarian regularly to check for changes in the cat’s health. It is common to see senior cats who have not been to the vet for several years, if not more! Senior cats are already prone to stress in new environments, but an undiagnosed health problem could lead to disaster very quickly.
Senior cats are not the only ones at risk of having an undiagnosed health problem.
Cardiomyopathy, or heart disease, is generally the cause when a seemingly healthy cat dies suddenly out of the blue. The most common, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), is a genetic condition where symptoms can appear in cats ages 3-10 years of age. Stress, or even just an exertion of energy, can trigger heart failure and death. The most definitive way to diagnose heart disease is through an echocardiogram. However, most cats do not exhibit any symptoms.If there are any symptoms, they can include labored breathing, lethargy, and trouble moving its rear legs (due to blood clots). While heart disease is uncommon in the average cat, some breeds are at a higher risk of HCM. These breeds include Maine Coons, Ragdolls, and Persians. Unfortunately for groomers, these are some of the most commonly seen cats in the salon since they all have long coats that require regular care.
Other conditions that can cause sudden illness or death include blood clots, arrhythmias, asthma, and more. The one thing these conditions have in common is that the cat will demonstrate very few, if any, symptoms until there is a serious problem. It is up to the groomer to watch for the changes in a cat’s behavior or condition. A general rule of thumb should be to err on the side of caution. It is better to have a veterinarian clear the cat to continue grooming than to have to rush the cat in for an emergency.
Cats who are anxious, especially vocal, or demonstrate minor changes in their breathing patterns should be given a break from grooming. When the groom stops, how does the cat respond? The cat should show visible signs of relaxing or calming down relatively quickly. If this happens, the groomer should plan to finish the groom as quickly as possible to minimize stress.
The groomer should focus on any major problems with the cat’s grooming condition, especially severe matting. If the cat’s behavior or condition does not improve, then the cat should go home without continuing the groom. Changes can be made to future grooming appointments to improve the cat’s experience. This includes scheduling the cat on slow days or times, having a second person available to assist, and changing the order of the grooming process. Respiratory distress, lethargy, seizures, and other more severe symptoms mean the cat must be immediately taken to the closest vet for observation and/or treatment.
Cats should be regular visitors to the professional grooming salon in order to maintain a healthy skin and coat condition. They require special care and attention in order to prevent serious injuries and health problems. Every groomer should learn about signs of stress, symptoms of illness or injury, and abnormal behaviors in order to make the best choices for each cat. Similar to working with challenging dogs, each groomer should follow their instincts and send a cat home if the cat becomes overly stressed or difficult to handle. It is better to be safe than sorry when it comes to safety of the pet and of the groomer. ✂
Lynn Paolillo has been grooming both dogs and cats for over 10 years. The last 4 have been dedicated to working as an instructor and certifier with the National Cat Groomers Institute of America, Inc. Contributions include magazine and blog articles, books, brochures, and creating online courses on cat grooming for the NCGIA. She has also enjoyed teaching the art of hands-on cat grooming to hundreds of students from around the world.