Grooming the Older Pet
By Daryl Conner
I look forward to giving first trims to fat, wriggling puppies. During the years I have been grooming, some of my happiest memories have been those times when some small child reluctantly hands over his new puppy to me for its first haircut. Happier still to me is seeing that same child, years later and nearly grown, lead that same dog to me, gray muzzled and ancient, entrusting its care to me in its final years.
It is a happy fact that dogs are reaching advanced old age much more often than they did in the past. Beloved pets can now be expected to live long enough to need "geriatric care" at the veterinarian’s office, and major pet food companies now offer special diets to meet the needs of aging pets. Sadly, older dogs are often plagued by many of the same infirmities that older humans experience, such as arthritis, impaired vision, and difficulty hearing. Because of this, these treasured older pets sometimes have special needs that we must consider.
Many elderly dogs suffer from joint pain and arthritis. Those creaky bones will not tolerate the dog standing on our grooming tables for long periods. Stylists find that allowing an older dog to sit or lie down for much of the grooming eases the stress of the process. There are also some sling systems currently being marketed that help support the dog’s hips while they are standing on the grooming table. Cheryl Russell Miller, owner of The Grooming Gallery in Mooresville, IN., recommends placing a dog with arthritis or sore joints on its side to trim nails and paw pads. She says, "Pulling legs back or laterally can cause great strain on joints, muscles and tendons. Ouch!" These considerations also apply to younger dogs that have hip dysplasia.
Dogs also may develop cataracts and other vision problems as they age. This can cause a dog that was always very reliable on the grooming table when it was younger to accidentally step off the table and fall. Groomers must be especially vigilant to maintain constant physical contact with older animals while they on the grooming table or in the tub. Dogs with vision problems are also more prone to fear biting or moving suddenly during trimming. Being aware of this can prevent injury to both groomer and pet! Slow, methodical, gentle movements are recommended when handling all dogs, most especially older ones. Along with loss of vision, older dogs can become hard of hearing, no longer understanding the groomer’s commands. A gentle hands-on approach to show the dog what is expected, rather than verbal commands is needed. Groomers find that pet’s skin may become more delicate with age. The senior pet appreciates a very light brushing technique. Using mild shampoo and following with a soothing conditioner is best unless there is a specific skin problem that the veterinarian recommends a medicated treatment for. The coat often becomes thinner, as well. One schnauzer I have groomed for nearly thirteen years used to look wonderful when I clipped her back with a #7 blade. Now that same blade would leave her looking bald. I have switched to a #4 blade and her fine, wispy coat still looks short. Older poodles that have had their feet shaved since puppy hood sometimes will no longer tolerate this procedure. The time they need to stand on three legs and the physical separation of the toes needed to achieve this trimming becomes painful for them. For these dogs, a scissored terrier style foot becomes the most practical answer. Being creative and using modified trims comes in handy when working on our special needs pets.
It is important for groomers to communicate the pet’s changing needs to the pet owner. Ginger, a beautiful Lhasa Apso, was kept in a long, flowing coat from puppyhood until she was 12 years old. At that point she could no longer tolerate the time needed for me to keep her tresses in top shape. Her owner and I came up with a plan for me to put Ginger in a longish puppy-type clip. Ginger’s owner much preferred the look of the full coat, but when I explained to her that the grooming process was uncomfortable for her older pet, she understood and agreed to what I call a "comfort clip" As stylists, we need to reduce our expectations of the finished product as well. It is sometimes just not possible to make a geriatric pet look as perfectly finished as we do with a younger animal.
While senior pets are in our care, there are steps we can take to keep them safe and comfortable. A soft towel or blanket to lie on, a crate in a quieter corner of the shop, and a potty break outside all contribute to a pleasant stay. Keep in mind that because older dogs do not withstand temperature and stress as well as younger dogs it is important to use heat type drying methods with extreme caution. It is also a good idea to keep cool water accessible to senior pets, as well. Some groomers find it best to minimize the time that older dogs spend in the shop. Terese Sams, a stylist at Shelby Center Hospital for Animals in Bartlett, Tennessee told me that she tries for a fast turn around time when dealing with senior pets. She gets them in early and then out of the shop as soon as they are finished to reduce time they spend away from the comforts of home.
With a few minor changes to our normal grooming routine, older pets can be happily accommodated. A caring pet owner will gladly pay for the extra care given once these adaptations are explained to them. In my opinion there is a special joy in seeing an older dog strut proudly towards its waiting owners, freshly groomed, tail wagging and a spring to their step. Puppies are a lot of fun, but give me a silver faced, wise eyed, older dog to work on, and let me make him shine!
Daryl Conner is a Master Pet Stylist, Meritus who has loved grooming for over 20 years. She lives in rural Maine with her husband, daughter, five dogs, an antique cat, and several canaries.