Bill would regulate, license pet groomers in California

02/19/2012 12:00 AM

02/22/2012 9:50 AM

An uneven cut wasn't the only issue Sheri Test noticed after she picked her toy poodle up from a Modesto pet spa.

The shampoo and shear left 2-year-old Sophie with an open wound on her backside. "Ointment" later applied to the raw skin by the shop owner turned out to be glue adhesive that had to be removed by the veterinarian.

Test was shocked to later learn that the groomer didn't have to undergo training or become licensed to primp her pet.

"They should have to come up with qualifications and go through certain criteria for them to be able to touch a living thing," said Test, who has sued the groomer in small claims court.

One lawmaker has proposed just that. Senate Bill 969, by state Sen. Juan Vargas, D-San Diego, would make California the first state in the nation to require vocational licenses for pet groomers.

In addition to requiring that groomers pass a state-issued exam and pay a license fee of up to $350, the legislation calls for statewide standards governing everything from lighting to record-keeping. Violating the law would be a crime punishable by fines of up to $2,000 and a year in jail.

Supporters say the proposed regulations would hold groomers accountable and protect pets.

"It's going to weed out the people who are injuring and killing our pets because they've never had any training that had standards that they are going to be tested on," said Jacque Mercier, an animal advocate and dog rescuer who helped draft the bill language.

But some groomers are growling about the proposal.

"To have the state of California be the tail that wags the dog is a mistake," said Pamela Demarest, the owner of Sacramento's Launderdog & More! grooming service and pet shop.

Demarest said she worries that even well-intentioned rules will result in a situation where groomers "regulate ourselves out of business." She said a state-run test can't replicate hands-on experience gained by cleaning kennels, bathing dogs and performing other "gruntwork" around a shop.

"You can't regulate experience," she said. "If you're trying to regulate the problems, you potentially mislead the consumers into believing the regulations or licensing is an equivalent of skills or experience."

Vargas said he's open to amending the bill to set certification or training requirements instead of a licensing exam. But he believes groomers should face the same sort of professional standards as lawyers, doctors, dentists and hair stylists.

"The reality is that it's not a good idea in pet grooming to learn on the job only when you're dropping pets, when you are killing pets, when you are breaking their little limbs, when you're shaving off their nipples," he said. "That's not the way you do it."

A lack of statewide statistics makes it difficult to estimate how common it is for pets to be injured at the groomer.

The state Department of Consumer Affairs does not keep keep track of complaints. Gary Almond, president of the Sacramento Better Business Bureau, said it received just three complaints about pet groomers in the past year.

Mercier, the animal advocate, pegs the number of California pets injured at the groomer at 1,200 a year, based on a survey she conducted of local animal control services and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals chapters.

Groomers say serious injures are rare. Stephen Mart, a Washington state-based management consultant for pet groomers who runs PetGroomer.com, said the percentage of pets that need medical attention because of an injury suffered at the groomer is "one fraction of one percent."

"Of course, one is too much, but it is very, very low," said Mart, whose family owned a Silicon Valley grooming shop for 26 years.

While pet groomer licensing legislation has been proposed in the past in California and other states, the latest attempt was sparked by the experience of a Palm Springs terrier mix named Lucy.

Lucy's owner, David Martin, said five of the red-blond rescue dog's eight nipples were shaved off during a 2009 grooming appointment at a big-box store. A trip to the veterinarian showed that Lucy, for whom the law is now named, had also likely suffered torn ligaments and an eye injury. The store later reimbursed Martin for the grooming fee and paid his dog's medical bills, but that wasn't enough.

"You go to your beautician and your cosmetologist, he or she had to go to school and be trained and certified and licensed and they can be held accountable if they cut your ear off, for instance," he said. "Whether it was an accident or not, you had some recourse, whereas the pet grooming incident, it is, 'Oh, it was an accident,' and 'You can't prove we did it.' There was nothing I could do."

Martin's attempts to raise awareness about the incident led him to Mercier, who says she spent the following years researching the issue and searching for a legislator willing to carry the bill.

While the National Pet Grooming Association has not taken a position on the bill in the past, the organization's executive director, Jeff Reynolds, said attempts to enact similar proposals have fallen short in the past decade.

Vargas said he's hoping to work with the groomers to get their buy-in for the bill, noting that one company with services across the state has already signaled a willingness to cooperate on creating new standards. "I love these animals," he said. "I don't think that we have to maintain the status quo."

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