Willy died after sustaining serious injuries during a grooming. His owner, John Smith, learned there are no regulations on pet groomers and very few ways to hold them accountable. Photo courtesy of John Smith
John Smith and his wife decided they didn’t want another cat after their cat, Ben, died from kidney failure. But that all changed when the duo and their kids laid eyes on the pair of kittens, Willy and Lily, at a pet store one fateful day.
Smith’s daughter instantly fell in love with Willy, a long-haired tuxedo cat with a rambunctious personality.
“He was awesome. He was kind of the bad cat, if you will,” Smith said of Willy. But he had a soft spot, curling up on the laps of his owners for pets and rest. “He was also super lovable.”
Like most pet owners, Smith occasionally took his animals to be groomed, and Willy would get an occasional trim. Willy and Lily’s hair was so fine it would get tangled into knots no matter how much they brushed the animals at home, so a professional groomer was often needed.
Eventually, Smith found a local groomer up the street from him in Apache Junction. The company, Smoochie Poochie, did a decent job the first couple of times, but it was the fourth visit where things would turn sour.
“He was just miserable,” Smith recalled.
Willy hid in the closet, laid down and was not his usual, active self. That’s when the Smiths saw that their cat’s stomach was entirely burned.
“It just got progressively worse and worse over the next couple of hours,” Smith said.
The Smiths would eventually learn that the clippers used by Smoochie Poochie had burned Willy’s stomach so severely that surgery would be required, costing them over $2,000. But Willy didn’t recover from the surgery, and died from his injuries one week later.
Smoochie Poochie ignored Smith and his pleas for the business to take responsibility and help with Willy’s vet bills. When Smith began looking into the company, he discovered the groomer had a pattern of misbehavior — and that there is no real recourse in the state of Arizona.
“Anybody that can afford a set of clippers can start a grooming business,” Smith said. “It’s just insane there is no oversight whatsoever.”
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In Arizona, and in the rest of the country, there are no regulations on who can become a pet groomer. There are no licensing requirements and no regulatory boards that oversee pet grooming businesses and their work.
And there’s no governmental oversight of the health and safety of pet grooming facilities, like there is for salons, barber shops, restaurants, tattoo parlors and myriad other businesses.
“It is somewhat surprising that it doesn’t exist,” Kay Richmond, the co-owner of AZ Pet Stylist, told the Arizona Mirror.
Richmond is one of only a small handful of groomers in the entire state that are “Fear Free” certified for her business as well as her team members. Fear Free is a voluntary certification that trains veterinary assistants and groomers to help alleviate stress and anxiety in animals, and is considered an industry standard.
Pet groomers are voluntarily certified through professional organizations such as the International Professional Groomer Association or the National Dog Groomers Association of America. Neither organization returned requests for comment for this story.
But there is no standardization and no real requirements for pet groomers to get any of these certifications, they are only encouraged for certain jobs. Larger companies, like PetSmart and PetCo, have their own certifications and training.
For a pet groomer like Richmond, though, the certifications and continued education that comes with them is important, as it keeps her and her team up to date.
After Willy was fatally injured, Smith began digging into Smoochie Poochie, and what he found horrified him.
“If you love your pet, DO NOT, enter!” one Google review reads, adding that their pet ended up getting a fungal infection shortly after visiting, requiring hundreds of dollars in vet bills.
“Finding more scabs on my cat than I thought there were. They nicked her something fierce,” another review says.
The Mirror reviewed hundreds of Google and Yelp reviews, and the vast majority of them were negative, commenting on the overwhelming smell of urine, seeing groomers hit animals, pets being cut by clippers and even another pet death.
No other recourse
The loss of Willy was sudden and hard on the Smith family and Smith wanted answers from Smoochie Poochie’s owner, Debra Ray.
Ray did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story made via email and social media, and attempts to reach her via available phone numbers were unsuccessful. But pet owners and former employees the Mirror spoke to about Smoochie Poochie called the owner “elusive.”
An interview with Ray posted in online magazine Voyage Phoenix says she got her start grooming pets in a “little tuff shed” with “six cages and a small front counter” in 2006. Ray remained in that spot for nearly the entire time the business has been open.
The Smiths were told that they’d have to prove that Willy was hurt “on purpose” by Ray if they wanted to file charges or make a case. When they went to the police, they were told they would have to prove that Ray was acting “maliciously” against Willy.
“I kinda hit a wall,” Smith said.
Taking it to the Capitol
Smith eventually created a Facebook group whose name spelled out its sole mission: Regulate Arizona Groomers.
The group ended up seeing lots of support from people who had similar experiences at Smoochie Poochie, but the push for regulation has been difficult.
“Most people hear regulation and they get nervous about it,” Smith admitted.
It seems that is true at the Arizona Capitol.
Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, is widely known for his love of animals and his legislative proposals to ensure their health and safety. Last year, he received the Humane Legislator Award from the Humane Society — the third time he has received the honor — for his bills that sought the humane treatment of animals.
His wife is also on the board of Fearless Kitty Rescue in Fountain Hills, a non-profit no-kill cat rescue that helps rescue and adopt cats.
“This legislature, if anything, is going in the opposite direction,” Kavanagh said when asked about regulating the pet grooming industry. “There is clearly momentum of movement away from regulation.”
Rather than the government intervening, Kavanagh said the answers for the problems presented are “within the industry” — pet groomers themselves should self-regulate training and certifications.
He dismissed the incident the Smiths and others had with Smoochie Poochie as an “isolated incident” and said that “industry policing” would be a better option than the government setting standards and regulating the industry.
This month, a dog owner in Missouri asked for similar accountability after their dog had to be euthanized after an incident at a pet groomer left the dog with a compressed vertebrae and spinal injury. Late last year, a pet groomer in Boca Raton was charged with animal cruelty after he was found violently hitting multiple dogs, similar to a case in South Carolina that went viral late last year.
“I think this is absolutely something that needs to be addressed,” said Missy Pruitt, owner of La Gattara Cat Café and advocate for policies to help homeless cats.
Last year, Pruitt helped push for a law that would allow landlords to save a tenant’s pet if the tenant dies or is incapacitated.
Pruitt helped nurse back to health one of the cats who was left in 27-year-old Matthew Meisner’s house after he was shot to death in Tempe. The cats were left without food or water for five days.
Pruitt, along with former Republican lawmaker Shawnna Bollick, pushed for the change in the law — but it was a long battle to do so.
Pet groomers like Richmond both see the value in regulation and worry about the impacts it could have.
“I wouldn’t know where to begin,” Richmond said on creating a regulatory framework. “It could be overcorrecting, because regulation could go too far and there is a fear that it could go too far.”
Richmond gave an example of an issue within the practices at PetCo and PetSmart where groomers are often told to not put more than one animal in a crate at a time. Richmond said this can be problematic, as some animals may come in as pairs from a family and separating them could cause unnecessary anxiety and trauma. If a regulatory rule exists stating a groomer has to do so, then the pet groomer has to inflict that trauma upon the pet.
“There needs to be regulation, but there needs to be flexibility on what the pet needs,” Richmond said. “The people putting in the regulations may not understand it on the same level as others.”
Smoochie Poochie appears to be out of business, and it is listed as permanently closed on Google.
“I really do feel like there are groomers out there that should not be grooming,” Richmond said.
If you are a pet owner looking to find a pet groomer who has a Fear Free certification, you can use this link to find one.
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