As pandemic spreads, Petsmart reopens dog grooming salons

Across the country, barbershops and salons have closed down. Millions of Americans are getting shaggy, but it's necessary to maintain social distancing and save lives. 

On March 21, Petsmart, the largest specialty pet retailer in the United States, closed its dog grooming salons “out of concern for the safety and wellbeing of both our associates and customers.” But starting Monday, with the virus still raging in many areas of the United States, Petsmart reversed course. The company will reopen its salons and offer grooming services for dogs at many of its 1600 locations. 

Petsmart claims that its decision was “in accordance with government orders.” But that does not appear to be true. Los Angeles, for example, explicitly says that pet grooming is not a permitted business activity under its “Safer At Home” order. The only exception is if the grooming is provided as part of veterinary care.

And yet, Popular Information was able to book an appointment for a “Bath & Full Haircut with FURminator” 10 AM Monday at a Petsmart location in Los Angeles.  

Popular Information confirmed with a Petsmart employee in Los Angeles that Petsmart grooming salons in the city were open on Monday. Many groomers, the employee said, were concerned for their safety.

In response to a request for comment by Popular Information, Petsmart said in a statement that they would close their dog grooming salon locations in Los Angeles.

Our team has reviewed hundreds of government documents related to various stay-at-home orders to ensure we only open salons in jurisdictions where pet grooming is not prohibited. Oftentimes, cities and states have published updated orders as frequently as every week. Specifically, the first stay-at-home order from the City of Los Angeles did not prohibit pet grooming. We assume this is why many of our competitors in the City of Los Angeles have continued to operate grooming salons. Now that you have brought this revised order to our attention, we are taking immediate action to close salons located in the City of Los Angeles.

Is professional pet grooming a “necessity of life”?

Petsmart’s decision to reopen its dog grooming salons may run afoul of government orders across the country. At least eight states — Arizona, Hawaii, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia, and Wisconsin — only allow businesses to offer services that are “necessities of life” for pets. 

Rory Cowlam, a graduate of the Royal Veterinary College in London and a practicing veterinarian, said professional pet grooming is not a “necessity of life” for a dog. According to Cowlam, there are certain rare breeds of dogs, like the Hungarian Puli, that need specialized grooming to prevent “sores and skin issues.” But, Cowlam said, owners of these breeds should be able to do the grooming themselves. 

A professor at a major veterinary school, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the media, agreed:

I would not consider grooming a necessity of life except for rare instances when there are issues involving normal or excessive hair causing medical issues with the eyes or rectum. These would be diagnosed and handled by a veterinarian though and veterinarians have been deemed essential businesses.

In other states, Petsmart is exploiting the fact that, because it also sells pet food, it has been deemed an “essential business.” (Some Petsmart locations also offer veterinary services through Banfield Pet Hospital.) It’s unclear if operating a dog grooming salon within a larger pet supply store is consistent with the spirit or letter of the orders in these states. 

Petsmart gives employees talking points for run-ins with the law

Internal guidance distributed to Petsmart employees, obtained by Popular Information, anticipates run-ins with law enforcement officials. 

If law enforcement officials show up and say, “we need to close the salon,” employees are instructed to say: “We have been given direction from our corporate offices that we are allowed to operate the grooming salon.” If that doesn’t work, employees should tell law enforcement that “we have revamped our operations to be consistent with CDC guidelines.” But later in the same document, Petsmart instructs employees to violate the CDC’s social distancing guidelines in several circumstances that arise during pet grooming. 

At no point does Petsmart advise employees to comply with an order from a law enforcement or government official to close the grooming salon.

When someone with coronavirus wants their dog groomed

The internal Petsmart Q&A for employees contemplates what to do if a “pet parent” shares “that they are COVID-19 positive (confirmed/presumptive/potential exposure or otherwise).” The instruction is that you should encourage the infected person to send their dog in for grooming. “Kindly request they have an agent bring the pet in for grooming,” Petsmart advises their employees. 

A Petsmart employee told Popular Information that an “agent” refers to a friend or family member. The same advice applies if the “pet parent” or “agent” shows up at the store with “signs/symptoms” of COVID-19. Employees are told to accept the pet from the person exhibiting symptoms for grooming. 

Petsmart says that employees should use personal protective equipment (PPE) to handle pets from people with confirmed or suspected COVID-19. What if no PPE is available? Petsmart says employees should groom the pet anyway but “avoid contact with your face… and wash your hands regularly.” These pets should be bathed “as long as behaviorally and medically possible.”

Petsmart’s social distancing exceptions

Petsmart’s internal Q&A describes several situations in which groomers should not follow social distancing. The company says that groomers should “act with urgency” when “a co-worker needs assistance.” 

Petsmart also says groomers should help coworkers lift large dogs onto a grooming table. The company says that groomers should maintain distance from each other by “being on opposite ends of the pet, facing away from one another and avoiding the bite zone.”

Petsmart’s multi-million dollar ad campaign

Petsmart says it reopened its dog grooming salon on Monday because “so many of our customers” were requesting the service. But Petsmart is not responding to consumer demand — it is spending millions of dollars to create it. 

Since January 6, Petsmart has spent more than $11.6 million airing this national TV ad promoting its grooming services. The ad was on the air Sunday and Monday.  

Petsmart is likely eager to restart its grooming services because, according to analysts, it is a “high revenue margin service” for the company. Selling dog food, on the other hand, “carries relatively small margins” because “60% to 70% of the retail price of a bag of dog food goes to the manufacturer.”

Employee fears

Petsmart also claims it is reopening its dog grooming because “so have asked us to.” But, in a private Facebook group, many Petsmart associates were alarmed that the company was reopening its salon, and many were concerned for their health -- and the health of customers. 

A Petsmart employee in Maryland expressed fear for their family but said they would return to work out of financial necessity. Petsmart does not require employees to report to work during the pandemic, but anyone who chooses to stay home must use vacation time or unpaid leave.

Others expressed concern for customers, particularly the elderly. 

There are hundreds of comments from Petsmart workers expressing similar sentiments. Petsmart told Popular Information that it “consulted with and incorporated feedback from a group of our salon associates” before resuming grooming services.

Petco also is offering dog grooming

Petco, another major pet supply chain, is also offering dog grooming during the pandemic. They never stopped. On Monday morning, “full-service grooming” was available at the Los Angeles location, despite the local prohibition on dog grooming. 

Unlike Petsmart, Petco defended offering grooming services in the City of Los Angeles, despite the city’s order. 

Petco told Popular Information that “[p]et retail and grooming are both recognized as essential by the state of California.” Pursuant to the governor’s executive order, however, the State Public Health Officer designated a list of “Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers.” The list makes no mention of pet grooming, but does include an exemption for pet supply stores and workers engaged in “veterinary and/or routine care and other necessities of life for animals.” But the state order does not prohibit cities from adopting more stringent standards.

Petco also said that the “Los Angeles County Public Health Department authorized Petco to continue offering grooming services in stores." The company said it did not have documentation but “spoke directly” with the health department. Regardless, the City of Los Angeles, not the County, would be the controlling authority for stores located in the city.

Petco says its grooming salons “have implemented incremental social distancing and safety measures to help protect everyone in the broader Petco family.” In its statement to Popular Information, Petco outlined a number of other steps, including providing groomers with masks and limiting the number of appointments. The company also said that employees that were uncomfortable coming to work could take unpaid leave.

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