Thursday, June 16, 2016

Brushing Your Pet at Home Between Professional Groomings

Nothing beats a professional grooming to get your pet clean, conditioned, and styled. But without some at-home grooming between appointments, you may not be giving your groomer the chance to do his or her finest work. While the best grooming is an art form that pampers your pet, excessive dirt and tangles can turn Fluffy's spa session into a bathing marathon followed by disaster recovery.

Fortunately, there are simple grooming techniques you can practice at home to keep your pet in reasonable shape in between visits. And remember, even if your pet's coat doesn't require monthly visits to the groomer, his nails still need trimming and his ears may need cleaning. Most groomers offer these services à la carte.

For most short, medium, and long coats, you'll need:

For smooth coats, you'll want:

For extra long, dense coats, you may want:

For long, delicate coats, you'll also want:

For extra detangling power and damage protection, you may want:

I'll talk more about these tools and how to use them in Part II.

Part I. Understanding your pet's coat

Coat maintenance has two main goals:
  1. Preventing tangles from forming mats

  2. Matting pulls at the skin, causing pain and loss of circulation. Because mats trap dirt and moisture, they can contribute to skin infections. While minor tangles can be brushed out, more severe matting can't be removed without breaking and/or cutting the hair. Large, tight mats or diffuse matting that covers a significant portion of the coat must be removed by shaving underneath the problem areas, usually fairly close to the skin.

  3. Removing loose hair

  4. Shed hairs are meant to fall out of the coat, but often they get trapped. Too many trapped hairs can prevent the coat from regulating body temperature efficiently, meaning your pet will be less cool in the heat and less warm in cold temperatures. Loose hairs also speed up the matting process and, if left unchecked for too long, can hopelessly tangle even a lower-maintenance coat.
 The amount of care your pet's coat needs and the brushing techniques that work best for it depend on a number of factors.

Coat type and texture:
There are three genes that separately control length, coat furnishings, and curl [1]. They, along with the presence or absence of undercoat, interact to create a coat's overall texture. Hairs can be silky or wiry, straight or curly. Many coats are made up of multiple types of hair mixed together.

A coat may be a double or a single-coat. A double-coat is made up of a topcoat over a dense, fuzzy undercoat. Undercoat falls out and regrows frequently, while topcoat hairs shed slowly.

As a general rule:
  • The thicker a coat is, the more quickly it will tangle.
  • Softer coats mat faster and more tightly than coarser coats.
  • Wavier coats are more prone to matting than straighter coats.
  • Continuously growing coats tend to tangle faster than coats that stop growing at a set length. 
  • When comparing coats with similar length and texture, single-coats mat more quickly than double-coats.
Coat condition:
Damaged coats tangle faster and tighter than healthy coats. Dirt, debris, oil, and water all contribute to faster, tighter matting. Constant rubbing or scratching helps mats form and solidify quickly. Common friction points are:
  • Armpits
  • Under collars
  • Between toes
  • In the pads on the bottom of the feet
  • Behind the ears
  • Around the genitals
Coat length:
In general, a growing coat will tend to tangle faster and more tightly the longer it gets.

Cats and most dog breeds have coat that grows to a certain length and then stops. It may be long, medium, short, or a mix of lengths, but it doesn't ever get longer than its set point. Trimming the hair is optional to keep it neat, manageable, and attractive.

But there are also a handful of dog breeds with coats that grow continuously and require regular trimming:
  • Australian Silky Terrier (straight wire, double-coat)
  • Bedlington Terrier (curly wire, single-coat)
  • Bichon Fris√© (mixed straight and curly, single-coat)
  • Maltese (straight, single-coat)
  • Poodle (curly, single-coat)
  • Skye Terrier (straight wire, double-coat)
  • Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier (mixed straight and curly, single-coat)
  • Yorkshire Terrier (straight wire, single-coat)
  • Shih Tzu (straight, double-coat)
  • Lhasa Apso (straight, double-coat)
  • Coton de tulear (straight, double-coat)
  • Tibetan terrier (straight, double-coat)
Dogs of the same breed may have vastly different coats. For example, dachshunds may be smooth-coated, long-haired, or wire-haired. Many golden retrievers have medium-length coats while others have long, flowing coats. While the breed standard calls for a double-coat, some shih-tzus have a single-coat. A "straight" coat may be very straight or wavy. And mixed breed dogs may display coat traits from either parent, a combination of both, or something completely different, depending on its genes.

This means that it's difficult to say how much maintenance your pet's coat needs based on breed. You must factor in your pet's actual coat type, individual hair thickness, coat density, texture, length, and condition. Luckily, groomers work with many different types of coats and can help you develop a plan that includes both full-service and do-it-yourself grooming to keep your pet tangle-free.

Part II. Grooming Techniques

Surface De-shedding:
For fixed-length, short-haired, double-coated pets
(ie. short-haired cats, beagles, pugs, labrador retrievers, boxers)

Smooth-coated and short-coated pets require the least amount of maintenance. Curry combs and other styles of rubber brushes are great for regular coat care. Rub with or against the lay of the coat to pull out shedding hairs, distribute natural oils, and remove dirt from the coat. For all but the shortest coats, a comb with a rubber band interwoven through its teeth is a great tool for collecting loose hair as well.

Deep De-shedding:
For fixed-length, medium to long-haired, double-coated pets
(ie. short and medium-hair cats, corgis, german shepherd dogs, shorter-haired golden retrievers)

For coat that sheds seasonal tufts of hair but isn't prone to matting, regular de-shedding will help keep the coat healthy, balanced, and reduce the tumbleweeds in your home. Use a greyhound comb or a rake to comb through the hairs from root to tip being careful not to scrape the teeth against the skin. Comb through all the fuzzy areas of the coat and then use a rubber brush (see surface de-shedding) to remove loose hairs from shorter areas, like the front of the legs and around the face.

Mat checking:
For any mattable areas of a pet's coat
(ie. medium to long-haired cats, medium to long-haired continuously growing coats, long furnishings on fixed-length coats)

Pets who are clipped short may still have long ears and tails that need periodic checking for mats. Some medium-length cats never get mats anywhere except in their armpits. Golden retrievers may mat only behind their ears and in their "pants." Other pets may develop mats anywhere at any time.

Checking for mats is a simple procedure: just run a comb or rake through the hair, from root to tip. If it snags, use the line brushing technique to remove the tangle.

Line brushing:
For any mattable areas of a pet's coat
(ie. medium to long-haired cats, medium to long-haired continuously growing coats, long furnishings on fixed-length coats)

Make a part in the coat so you can see the skin. Put the ends of the greyhound comb’s teeth in the part and comb the hair from root to tip. Be careful not to drag the teeth of the comb against the skin. If the
comb snags, gently tap and release to work the tangles out.

If knots or undercoat don’t loosen easily, switch to the slicker brush using the same tapping technique. A light spritz of conditioning spray may also help tangles release. Work in small sections until your comb slides easily through every part of the coat.

To ensure your pet's coat stays in good shape between grooming appointments, it's important to go through the coat frequently enough that light tangling doesn't get the chance to form mats. Line brush daily for 2”+ coats, weekly for 1”+ coats, and as needed for shorter coats.

If your pet is too matted to comb out, consult your groomer to adjust your grooming schedule.

For long-haired double-coated dogs, you can use a rake instead of a comb. They work the same way, but the handle is perpendicular to the teeth, which makes it more ergonomic for some. For drop-coated and curly-coated dogs, a comb is usually the better choice, but ultimately, the best tool is the tone that works for you.

To prevent future tangles, it’s important to minimize damage to the coat during brushing. Extra long hair can be fragile and should be handled with care. A light spritz of water or diluted conditioning spray can help protect against breakage and damage to the hair shaft. Ask your groomer for product recommendations. For delicate coats, use a pin brush whenever possible in lieu of a slicker brush.


1. Cadieu E., Neff M.W., Quignon P., Walsh K., Chase K., Parker H.G., Vonholdt B.M., Rhue A., Boyko A., Byers A., et al. Coat variation in the domestic dog is governed by variants in three genes. Science.2009;326:150–153. doi: 10.1126/science.1177808.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Recirculating Systems for Better Pet Bathing

What's a recirculating system?

Essentially, it's a water pump with a hose and a nozzle attached. There are several commercially available models including the Hanvey Bathing Beauty and the Oster Deluxe Pet Power Bathing System, It's also relatively straight-forward to assemble one on your own with parts available online or at your local home improvement store (I'll give instructions on that later).

When you set the pump in your partially filled tub and turn it on, it sucks the soapy water up through its bottom, pushes it through the hose, and spits it out through the sprayer. As the water runs off the pet in your tub, the recirculating system continues to collect and eject that water, giving you a continuous spray with which to clean the coat.

stop washing by hand
get your hands out of that wash tub!
How do I use it?

You stopper up your tub and fill it with just enough water to prime your pump. In a standard tub, an inch or two will do it. If your tub has a well or a "deep end," you'll maximize your water savings by setting your pump there.

The pump recirculates the water over and over, so all you have to add is your preferred products for cleaning and conditioning the coat. Point the sprayer at the dirty pet and wash away. Add product as needed until you're confident that all of the dirt and oil has been collected and the coat is properly conditioned. Then you let the tub drain and rinse the pet with fresh water as usual.

Why makes it better than bathing by hand?

When done correctly, you get exactly the same results you'd get with hand-washing in significantly less time, using significantly less water and product. Imagine your shampoo as a bunch of little magnets. Each shampoo molecule wants to bond with a dirt molecule. When you wash by hand, you pour a bunch of shampoo over a pet and work some, but not all of it into the coat. Quite a bit of shampoo flows right over the coat without grabbing any dirt. All of that unused shampoo literally goes right down the drain.

But when you use a recirculating system, you allow every shampoo molecule multiple opportunities to pick up dirt. If there's more dirt than shampoo, all you have to do is add more shampoo. If the pet's really filthy, you can pre-rinse them and even drain your tub and re-bathe them with the recirculating system. It's hardly ever necessary, but if you did it that way, it would still take you less time, and require less water and effort than washing that same animal by hand.

Water pressure and volume
Recirculating systems are a huge time-saver for anyone dealing with low water pressure. The power of the pump dictates your washing pressure, not the water pressure in your shop. You'll still have to deal with low water pressure when you rinse, but the recirculating system will cut your rinsing time way down, because the bathing process leaves so much less product on the coat.

Even though you initially have to use an inch or two of water in the tub, you'll use less water overall because you don't have to pre-wet the coat to start with and the rinse at the end is takes significantly less time.

No more mixing bottles
Most professional groomers use concentrated products, which means you need to dilute them before you put them on a pet. After about 24 hours (note: the time frame varies by product), diluted shampoo or conditioner fills with bacteria, so any extra left at the end of the day should be thrown away. That means that mixing bottles need to be sanitized between uses. With a recirculating system, you add shampoo directly to the bath, eliminating the need for mixing bottles altogether.

Built-in massage
The warm spray from a recirculating system can get all the way down to the skin, through even the thickest coats. The water pressure helps dislodge dirt, oil, dandruff, and debris without any need for you to lay your hands on the animal. That can be a tremendous help when working with nervous or aggressive pets. It can also reduce skin irritation for sensitive pets.

That doesn't mean you can't do some hand scrubbing or massaging if you want to. You can spray with one hand and rub with the other. You can put the sprayer aside mid-bath to give the pet a full-body massage. You can use your favorite scrubbing brush as usual if you insist. The sprayer doesn't limit you. It gives you more options.

Built-in deshedding and detangling
A good jet of water works as well as an HV at kicking out loose undercoat and untying knotted spots. It works doubly well when you're spraying conditioner through the coat at the same time. And wouldn't it be fantastic if you can actually see the condition of the coat and skin while you're washing rather than having your view obscured by suds? A recirculating system allows you that view.

Superior conditioner application
It's tricky to get the right amount of conditioner into a longer coat without loading it all up on the ends, where you want it less, and missing it down at the root, where you want it more. A recirculating system takes the conditioner, dilutes it, and applies it exactly where you spray it, from root to tip.

Quicker rinsing
I've mentioned it already, but it's worth repeating. It's much easier to rinse a pet after bathing with a recirculating system. And why is that? It's because after you use a recirculating system, most of the shampoo+dirt molecules are floating around in the water, waiting to flow obediently down your drain. What's left in the pet's coat is so diluted, it's halfway to being rinsed already.

I'm sure you've seen how clean, undiluted shampoo behaves when you pour it on a coat and then wet it -- it foams and sticks and suds and resists. Pre-diluted hand washing solution is slightly better behaved, but a recirculating system gives you the highest possible dilution for the fastest rinsing.

Wait, I still don't get how over-diluted shampoo in dirty water get pets just as clean as hand washing.

A recirculating system works on the same principle that hand washing does. It's only the application that's different. Think about it. When you pour diluted shampoo from a bottle over a dog and start scrubbing, what happens? You end up with a dog covered in dirty soap and water. If you need more shampoo to get the dog clean, you might mix another bottle and repeat the process. Maybe you're a two bath groomer, so you lather, rinse and repeat.

But how is a dog covered in dirty, soapy water getting a finger scrubbing going to end up cleaner than a dog standing in dirty soapy water, getting a sprayer massage? It isn't. In both cases, you're putting shampoo together with dirt so they'll bond together and and then rinsing them both away. The recirculating system continuously re-applies the shampoo in the fastest, most efficient manner possible, so it's like bathing and re-bathing the coat a dozen times in a matter of minutes.

If you've tried bathing systems and didn't get good results, there was either a technical problem with the system or an issue with your technique. Think back to when you were first learning how to bathe -- you had to figure out how much product to use, develop a system for applying it over 100% of the coat, learn where the trouble spots are, and then make sure you got the product completely out of the coat before starting the drying process.

The recirculating system is a new way of bathing and requires you to learn how it works. But once you've got the technique down, you'll never want to go back to hand washing again.

 OK, tell me the benefits again.

1. No more throwing unused product down the drain. Shampoo gets pulled back through the pump and pointed at the dog again and again until it gets to bond with some dirt. If you need more shampoo, just add more to the water. Ditto with conditioner, silicone conditioners, vinegar rinses, medicated products, you name it. It can all be used with a recirculating system.

2. You can apply shampoo and conditioner evenly through the thickest, most water resistant coats with minimal elbow grease. You can press the sprayer right up against the skin and apply product from root to tip and there's no pre-wetting or mixing bottles required.

3. Rinsing is faster and easier. When you're washing by hand, you've got all that sudsy dirt to rinse away. When you're washing with a recirculating system, most of that sudsy dirt suspends itself in the water in your tub instead of sticking to the pet's coat.

The number one indicator of a poor bath isn't dirt left in the coat. It's product left in the coat. A pet sent home slightly dirty is still better off than he was before his bath. But un-rinsed shampoo can cause skin reactions, itching, and odor. Excess conditioner left in a coat attracts dirt, leaving pets dirtier on day three than they were before they came to get groomed. Super-diluting shampoo and conditioner and applying allows a bather to get the right amount of product in and then get it all back out easily, in a fraction of the time it takes to rinse away bottle-mixed solutions.

Why would you spend an hour bathing a filthy, hairy, giant dog by hand when you can get it done in less than half the time with a recirculating system?

4. You have the option of hands-off bathing. With a recirculating system, you can give an aggressive pet an excellent bath through a wire cage. You'll have good control of where your shampoo goes and a jet of soapy water to scrub where your fingers can't safely go. And because your bathing products are well-diluted by the system, it's less problematic when pets accidentally ingest it or get it in their eyes. Hands-off bathing is great for groomers with product sensitivities, too. No more tub rash on your forearms.

Cool. So why doesn't every groomer already have one?

 Recirculating systems have been around for over a decade, long enough for most groomers to at least have heard of them. I think the number one reason we don't all use them is because a lot of groomers aren't yet sold on the benefits. If you don't understand the science behind shampooing, it's easy to stick with the old techniques you know rather than trying a new-fangled trick so often referred to as "washing with dirty water."

The start-up costs for a professional system is also a bit steep for a lot of shops. The Bathing Beauty retails for $599 on Hanvey's website. You could buy two wonderful pairs of shears for that price. And recirculating systems are as different from hand-washing as cell phones are from rotary phones, which means there's a learning curve. Even with Hanvey's money-back guarantee, unfamiliarity is a significant enough barrier for a hordes of groomers to stick with bathing by hand.

I've also spoken with a number of groomers who've tried various bathing systems and didn't like their results. As I've said before, if you're not getting pets as clean (if not cleaner) with a recirculating system as a mixing bottle bath, the flaw is in the technique, not the system. In spite of how much bathing we do, shampoo chemistry is not intuitive to most people -- it requires an adjustment in the way we think about cleaning.

Consider the washing machine. When they were first introduced, they were met with equal parts awe and skepticism. "They're expensive contraptions that do what I can already do with a bucket of hot water and a washboard. How do I even use this thing? How much soap and where does it go?" You've probably seen a movie, TV show, or comic strip about a washing machine overflowing with suds. That's user error. Like recirculating systems, when used properly, washing machines are fabulous time-savers.

I want a recirculating system! How do I make the transition easy on myself?

First of all, congratulations. Your life is about to get so much easier. The best way to learn how to use a recirculating system is to try it out. But don't start out on a Newfoundland and expect to get a great result right out of the gate. It will take some time to get used to the system. You'll have to figure out how much product to use, and develop a new bathing routine that works.

To start out with, feel free to combine elements of hand-washing with your recirculating system as needed. Practice on the little dogs who are easy to re-bathe until you get the hang of it. When your shih tzu baths are fast and perfect, move up to golden retriever baths.

1. You may need to switch your shampoo if it's too sudsy. Bubbles are your enemy. They don't actually help clean and when you're using a recirculating system, they will slow down the bathing process. You want a low-sudsing shampoo that will clear the drain quickly.

2. Never ever run your pump when it's dry. It has to be sucking up water or you can burn out the motor. The professional models have safeguards against overheating, but play it safe and read the manual for a list of do's and don'ts.

3. Here's my personal bathing routine:
  • start filling the tub (your recirculating pump should be in the tub at the deep end)
  • wet face and wash with facial shampoo (I skip this step for cats and biters)
  • turn on the pump and stop filling the tub
  • add shampoo to the water
  • spray the animal with the recirculator to clean it
  • add more shampoo as needed
  • when the coat's clean, add conditioner to the water (skip as desired)
  • spray to condition the coat
  • turn off the pump and let the tub start to drain
  • rinse the coat with fresh water from the tub sprayer
Personally, I don't like to do multiple baths, so on really dirty dogs, I sometimes dump an overabundance of shampoo into the mix. The great thing about shampoo is that it will stick to conditioner as readily as it will stick to dirt. That means that if I don't want to get stuck rinsing for too long, I can add a little extra conditioner to neutralize that extra shampoo. It does waste product, but it saves me a lot of time.

After the shampoo is all bound up with dirt, the coat is free to bond conditioner, which is why I don't bother to rinse in between shampooing and conditioning. I won't get any deeper into the science of bathing here, but check out Barbara Bird's Beyond Suds and Scents book for a comprehensive look at how shampoos and conditioners do what they do.

Remember bathing is an art as much as a science. For most baths, I can tell by the color of the water if I need to add more shampoo for a squeaky clean. But every product is different, so it's impossible to give you a simple recipe for success. Ask for suggestions from co-workers and groomers online, but in the end, you'll have to find your own way. Experiment when you have the time to do so -- there's always more you can do to speed up the process and improve the end result.

4. Lastly, you will have to keep your system clean and sanitized. Luckily, running shampoo through it all day long will do a lot of the work. Just keep in mind that any time water sits around, it invites bacteria to grow. You don't want your pump to introduce a flux of unnecessary microorganisms to your bathing clients, so run vinegar through it at the end of the day to sterilize the excess. Make sure you turn the pump and hose upside down to let the water drain out.

Sanitize after using your recirculating system on any pet with a suspicious, potentially contagious skin condition. Vinegar is a fine sterilizer for most applications. Some groomers use bleach, but rinse well to prevent getting bleach on animals or corroding the equipment. I used the same disinfectant for my daily pump cleaning that I used to clean my cages and floors. I add two pumps of KennelSol from Alpha Pet Tech to a gallon bucket and run it through the system.

I can't wait to try a recirculating system. But I don't have $600 to spend.

home-made dog-washing machine
I had a pair of home-made recirculating systems in my shop for almost ten years and now that I work from home, I have another (pictured).

They're not at all complicated to assemble, and although there are a lot of benefits to buying a professionally manufactured unit (like that money-back guarantee if not completely satisfied), you can build your own for less than $200.

My current set-up ingredients:
1/6 HP Flotec pump
6' Leader hose
- Bon Aire nozzle
- Foot pedal switch

  • 1/6 HP submersible utility pump
I recommend the Flotec pump -- this is the brand I've used for 10+ years.
There are other options, but stick with 1/6 horsepower, make sure it's a submersible type pump, and don't get one with a float on it. You want it to work at a minimum water level.
  • hose
I use a 6' leader hose on my set-up. It's a little stiff, but the length is perfect for me. I've seen others recommend the Legacy Flexzilla garden hose, but I don't like the stiff sleeve on the ends. You can use any hose you like, it just has to be able to connect to the the (3/4") output spout on your pump.
  • sprayer nozzle
I swear by my Bon Aire nozzles. They have the fireman-style spray so you can twist them on and off. There's no trigger to hold and they stay at the setting you put them at, from gentle to full blast. They turn any water pressure into good water pressure. They're too heavy for some groomers' preference but I don't mind the weight. Again, use what you like. As long as it can connect to your hose, you're good to go.
  • on/off switch
Pumps don't have on/off switches, so they turn on as soon as you plug them into the wall. That's not convenient, so you need to add a switch of some kind. You also need to make sure you're plugged into a GFCI outlet, to ensure that if your connections get wet, the circuit breaker will trip rather than let you get shocked. Hopefully you have a GFCI outlet near your tubs. If not, install one or use an adapter. At the shop, my pumps were hard-wired to GFCI light switches, so that's an option if you're a bit handier.

At home, I plug my pump into a power strip with an on/off button, but it's not the most practical solution for a grooming salon. A better solution is to use a foot switch (it doesn't have to be on the floor). Plug your pump into the switch and the switch into the wall. Press the switch to turn on and then press again to turn it off. (I use this: Foot Pedal Switch)
  • hair screen
This is optional but recommended. An extra layer of screening will protect your pump from getting clogged with hair and burning out. I keep my pump in a one gallon paint strainer bag. Just pull the hair off as needed and replace bags when they start to tear. Any kind of mesh will work as long as it's fine enough to keep out the fuzz while still letting water pass through.

Once you have your parts, put them together: attach the nozzle to your hose and your hose to the outlet of the pump. Plug the pump into the switch and the switch into the wall. Put your hair screen on the pump (if you're using paint strainer bags, put the pump in the bag).

When assembly's complete, either try it out or watch one of the many how-to videos on YouTube until you feel comfortable getting started. If you have problems or questions, feel free to contact me through I'm happy to help.

I'm not quite ready to start bathing with recirculating water

If you want most of the benefits of a recirculating system without the "dirty water," there are a number of bathing systems available to accommodate you. These systems don't require you to stopper your tub. Shampoo and fresh water are combined within the system, come out through the sprayer, penetrate the pet's coat, and then run down the drain. You don't have to worry about cross-contamination from the pump or re-using water, but you'll still get the cleaning power and the time-saving features of a recirculating system. It's less efficient than recirculator, but still better than bathing by hand.

Popular non-recirculating systems (I haven't used any of these, but check out the testimonials and reviews others have made available online):
Oster Hydrosurge
Prima Bathing System
Blue Mule Ultimate Wash System

This post is for informational purposes only. If you need more convincing or want to learn more about the ins and outs of recirculating systems, there are lots of additional resources online.

BBird's Using a Pet Recirculating System FAQ
Debi Hilley's The Dirt on Using Recirculating Systems