Proper Grooming Techniques and Examination Skills for the Professional

PetMD Editorial
March 23, 2011
Share this:

By T. J. Dunn, Jr., DVM

A groomer often spends more time with your pet than a neighborhood veterinarian. He or she is, therefore, better equipped to judge your pet's physical and mental attitude. So how do they do this?

Well, each groomer has his or her methods, but I'll let you in on a little secret. It has a lot to do with examining the dog (or cat)thoroughly and recognizing what is "normal. Let's look at a typical examination ... from the perspective of a groomer.

Skin and Coat

Groomers, by the very nature of the profession, have the best opportunity to evaluate the character of pets' skin and coat. Using your senses of touch, vision, and smell, you will be able to detect deviations from a "healthy skin and coat," and these changes should be noted in the pet's chart and personally conveyed to the pets' owners.

Let's define "healthy skin and coat" so we're clear about what is considered "normal." Don't confuse "normal" with "common." Every day in my practice I see pets that have unhealthy skin and coats (usually due to improper nutrition) -- so less than optimum is actually quite "common." I've often thought a normal skin/coat condition was actually quite uncommon! Using your senses of touch, vision and smell you will begin to recognize the character of a "normal" or "healthy" skin and coat.

Touch

Normal touch: There will be a soft texture to the hairs and even in wiry coats, such as in Airedales, the character of the coat should be pliable and smooth.

Abnormal touch:The coat will be made up of dry, coarse, brittle hairs, some broken off, some very fine. The coat may be sparse and thinning or short and underdeveloped.

Appearance

Normal appearing skin/coat: The skin will have a clean look to it and be free of scales, scabs and crusts. The coat should appear full, almost lustrous and have a soft look to it.

Abnormal appearing skin/coat: The skin will appear thin, dry and scaly or greasy. The coat will appear dull, lusterless or even dusty. It will have no "shine" to it and will have a harsh appearance.

Smell

Normal skin/coat: A healthy skin and coat won't have any smell to it. And even when dirty, will smell like whatever is making it dirty.

Abnormal skin/coat: An unhealthy skin and coat will have a rancid, oily odor; the odor is caused by superficial skin bacteria and their waste products breaking down the oils on the skin.

All skin surfaces have colonies of bacteria present. But an unhealthy skin surface harbors too many of the wrong kinds of bacteria. That is why many veterinarians recommend weekly shampoos with benzoyl peroxide for some dogs with chronic bacterial dermatitis. These types of shampoos keep bacterial numbers to a minimum.

Ears

By far the most common medical ailment I see in my practice is "otitis." The root causes of ear trouble can run the full spectrum ... from contact irritants such as occurs from soaps, pollens, grass or carpeting, to infectious organisms such as yeast and bacteria, to parasites such as fleas and ear mites. Veterinarians further generally classify otitis as externa, media, interna depending upon which areas of the entire auditory system is affected. As a groomer you will see many cases of otitist externa and these will generally be either allergic or microbial in nature.

Allergic otitis displays itself as reddened, inflamed ear tissues that feel warm (or even hot!) to the touch. These cases tend to be dry, and have only a mild odor with minimal buildup of wax, pus and debris. An allergic ear really looks red and inflamed.

On the other hand (or other ear!) infected ears and other surrounding tissues due to microbial otitis -- and the bacteria and yeast -- become moist and purulent (the medical term for pus.) That ear canal is a perfect incubator for microorganisms -- dark, most, warm with a good supply of nutrients! If that ear canal sounds wet upon manipulation and has a foul odor, there is certain to be an infection present.

Always check with a veterinarian before plucking hairs from any ear structures that seem to be infected. Sometimes the ear problem requires sedation and cleaning. And chronic, severe cases of infected and scarred ear tissues often respond well to surgery to open up the canal for better exposure to the drying effects of air. Be sure to mention to the pet's owner to have the ears checked if you suspect otitis is present. The longer it goes on, whether it's allergic or infectious, the more scar tissue forms and the more difficult it is to cure. And simple ear cleaners that work well to clean the waxy or oily ears won't touch an infection and may further irritate allergic ears.

Shaving the hairs close with a #40 blade can be of help (keep that blade flat to the skin surface - not at an angle!). If the ear structures have a buildup of crusts or debris, eliminating the hair prevents the hairs from trapping the exudate and allows better contact of medications and facilitates the drying effects of air. So, in general, removing hair from infected tissues can be helpful. (Don't forget to disinfect the instruments frequently!)

Nails

Crooked, dry, cracking or pitted nails are a tip-off that the dog may have a fungal infection or be poorly nourished. If you see abnormal nails, be especially watchful for areas on the skin where there may be circular, dry patches of hair loss. The dog or cat may have "ringworm", a fungal infection (called dermatophyte), that requires oral medication to correct.

And it is important to notify a veterinarian if there is any pus or bleeding from the nail bed. This can be serious if you come into contact with bloody or purulent discharge.

You must also be able to properly trim nails. For a quick tutorial, click here.

However, simple trimming won't provide proper nail set if the dog has large or overgrown nails (such as with the Basset, Doberman and some small breeds. Instead have a veterinarian take a look. The dog may require a "deep pedicure" under anesthesia to cut the toe nails back close.

Broken nails need to be trimmed back to the fracture site, then a coagulant applied. Pulled nails -- those that have been torn from the nail bed, with a bloody circle at the end of the toe -- require a an immediate veterinary check. I've had to amputate many toes where a chronic deep infection invaded the toe bones and simply would not heal ... all because of a pulled nail.

Eyes

As a groomer you will have numerous opportunities to help your subjects by pointing out abnormalities to the owner or veterinarian. Probably the most common disorder you'll see will be epiphora, or excessive tearing. There are so many causes for the tears draining down the face that entire books could be written on just this topic!

Here's where your penlight comes in handy. Darken the room and shine the light along the edges of the eyelids and look for tiny eyelashes growing along the edges of the lids. If these tiny lashes are contacting the eye, there is the potential for serious corneal damage. Report this condition, called distichiasis, to the owner or veterinarian. Often the tiny openings, one in the inside corner of all four lids, will be under-developed or plugged up.

Tear duct obstruction sometimes can be alleviated by using small amounts of an antibiotic called tetracycline. A veterinarian can evaluate tear duct flow under anesthesia.

Numerous other disorders such as entropion, follicular conjunctivitis, facial folds, or long hairs contacting the eye can predispose the dog to excessive or misdirected tears resulting in chronic wetness and a mucoid, crusty build-up on the face.

Clipping the hairs short if possible will make clean up or application of medication easier. And please help to dispel the myth that dogs with lots of hair falling in front of the eyes, such as OESD's and Shih Tzus, must have their eyes shaded or excessive light will make them go blind. They most certainly can see better, and the light does not cause blindness, if all that hair is kept away from their eyes.

Inform the owner if you see cataracts in the eyes. Darken the room and shine your penlight directly into the front of the eye and look over the top of the light (as if you were aiming the light into the eye.) Deep in the very center of the eye the light passes through the pupil (the circular opening made by the colored part of the eye called the iris.) Just behind the pupil is the lens and the light should pass unreflected through the lens to the back part of the eye called the retina. If you see a milky or hazy object or reflective particles where the lens is, the dog may have some vision problems and you should let the owner know.

Be very careful about scratches on the corneas. Pekes, Boston Terriers and other breeds whose eyes seem to be bulging out of the socket are especially prone to receiving abrasions on the cornea. Tearing and squinting are the most likely signals of corneal abrasions, and sometimes with the penlight directed at an angle, the abrasion or ulcer on the cornea is visible. Veterinarians will use a stain to highlight these areas.

It's also good idea to have a sterile eye wash solution available if you suspect the dog's eye is irritated.

Mouth

Every grooming session should include an oral exam. Check the teeth and gums, and pull the corner of the mouth back in order to visualize the molars. It's quite easy to detect oral problems by visualizing bleeding gums, chunks of brown plaque on the teeth or loose teeth and an odor that will knock you over!

You'll be shocked at how many dogs have severe gum inflammation and infection (called gingivitis), loose teeth or even occasionally have cavities.

A healthy oral cavity is vital to the pet's optimum health. You will be doing the pet and owner a great service by suggesting a veterinary check-up for dentistry. You'd be surprised how many veterinarians overlook a thorough oral exam. Dental hygiene is a very important topic and unfortunately it is often overlooked by veterinarians and groomers.

Nutrition

No matter what else may be adversely affecting the skin/coat, such as allergies, infections, harsh environment, or parasites, the problem will be worse in a dog that is only barely meeting its nutrient requirements. And skin/coat problems are always less severe and occur less often in well nourished pets. Dogs (and cats) are primarily meat eaters. They will act, feel and look their best if fed a diet whose first ingredient listed on the pet food label is MEAT, POULTRY or FISH. Diets that are based on grains such as corn will not properly nourish dogs (or cats).

Always recommend to the customer that they seek a veterinarian's advice if you suspect a pet may have a nutritional deficiency. And here's a hint... emphasize the words "may have". If you don't, I guaranteed you that the veterinarian will hear your client say "The groomer says that Fritzie has a nutritional deficiency" and you will erroneously be accused of making a medical diagnosis. So be sure the customer understands that you are making an observation and merely suggesting a veterinarian examine the animal

The entire field of pet health nutrition is now only beginning to recognize the value and function of meat-based (poultry, beef, lamb, fish) diets. Many well known brands of dog and cat foods that have been around for years and whose foundation (the first listed ingredient on the label) is a grain such as corn, wheat, barley, or rice simply do not provide the health enhancing nutrients that meat-based diets provide. As a professional groomer your suggestions to the pet owner carries remarkable credibility. It is your obligation on behalf of the pet and as a pet health care professional to become familiar with high quality diets.

Always note on your client chart what the pet is being fed. If you detect a less than optimum skin/coat condition, be sure to discuss with the owner your concerns about the pets nutritional status. You might even suggest some nutrition counseling with a local veterinarian who has a genuine interest in nutrition. Remember ... if a pet doesn't look well, it probably doesn't feel well.

Grooming Hazards

Cuts

Oh, brother! Now you've really done it! While cutting that tiny mat behind the ear or trying an awkward underneath, backhand, reverse scissor cut you slice a neat little crescent shaped incision into the pet's skin.

If you're lucky, it won't bleed. But you should try to close the cut temporarily with surgical glue until the veterinarian can examine it. Put a drop into the wound, pinch the skin back to its normal position and hold it for three seconds.

If there seems to be a significant bleeding problem, and even tiny cuts along the pinna margins are notorious for splashing crimson all over -- direct pressure to the cut will halt the flow as long as you keep up the pressure.

Be sure to call the owner to explain what happened right away. Don't wait until they come for pick-up to inform them. You may have just performed a grooming at no charge if you want to keep them as clients. You should offer to pay for the veterinary bill, too.

Clipper Burns & Abrasions

Every successful and competent groomer on occasion has had an experience where a few days after grooming a dog it develops an extremely itchy, moist, scabby area that drives the dog and the owner crazy. These skin sores are often called Hot Spots. Also called Moist Eczema, hot spots occur due to trauma to the skin surface, either from a clipper blade scratch or from contact with a hot blade.

Hot spots can result from inadequate rinsing, too. If any shampoo is not rinsed away completely and remains in contact with the skin for an extended period of time, a local skin infection can result. The solution: Rinse thoroughly and dry the entire skin and coat before sending the dog home!

A true "clipper burn" is a skin lesion that can occur due to a hot clipper blade contacting the skin. The most common site for this problem is along the cheekbone and on the cheek. Hot Spots (moist eczema) requires repeated cleansing and often oral antibiotics to hasten its resolution. Be especially careful with the clippers around the cheeks; it's possible the sharp points on the blades are creating tiny scratches that become irritated or infected, then the dog scratches the area compounding the skin trauma and shortly after that you get a call from the owner!

And don't be discouraged if you loose a client because of "clipper burns." Whoever they take the dog to next has had their share too! You won't know when it happens, but you'll find out a few days later. As in any worthwhile endeavor, the fruits of your hard work will be recognized by customer satisfaction. You will have lots of repeat customers! And they will tell their friends.

Your success will result in no small measure from your professional and knowledgeable assessment of the mental and physical and nutritional well-being of the pets entrusted to your care. Be observant, take good notes, and don't be reluctant to advise your clients about proper pet health care.