Groomers dazzling up dogs

Extreme makeovers catch up with the canine set

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Sugarplum went into the salon as a reddish-blonde dachshund mix and came out with pink and green ears, a rainbow tail and a bow in her fur.

"It's like having a little unicorn creature," said Sasha Sinnott, an attorney from Pasadena, Calif., who was nearly giddy about her dog's makeover.

For some dog owners, simple bathing and combing is not enough. So they pay groomers to turn fur into an artist's canvas, where vibrant sweeps of chalk and paint transform pooches into fantasy fur balls that draw both compliments and strange looks. For an extra 10 or 15 minutes at the groomer, the everyday dog can get an outlandish redesign with a temporary paint tattoo, a mohawk, feather extension or glued-on jewels.

Then there are the "extreme groomers," who turn their own pets into elaborate creations such as zombies, flowers or even whole jungle scenes, transformations that can take months as hair grows, paint is applied, fur is braided or extended, and shapes are sculpted.

But there are limits to the makeover mania, which is blossoming in an unregulated industry that can leave pets open to risks. Experts say products should be toxin-free and there should be absolutely no piercings or real tattoos. If dogs enjoy being groomed, they shouldn't mind the extra primping.

But many pet owners and industry professionals say it's fun and helps a person and pooch bond.

But a big worry for the average pet owner is a grooming industry unfettered by regulations, said Amy Bullet Brown, founder and president of the National Association of Professional Creative Groomers LLC and the owner of an Alabama dog spa.

"If a groomer wants to bathe your dog in battery acid, he can, and it's going to die, but it's not against the law," she said.

Some groomers use bleach and oxidizing dyes on pets, Brown said. Neither should be used on animal skin, which is much more susceptible to toxic chemicals than human skin, she said.

Creative grooming can be fun, but it is cosmetic only. If there is any danger, such as sharp instruments, it should not be done, Brown said.

To help keep pets safe, ask a friend or a veterinarian to recommend a good groomer. Brown is one of the "extreme groomers." The fad has become a sport of sorts -- more than a dozen U.S. competitions are held every year. Some of Brown's most photographed dog work includes a zombie, sculpted over a year to look like exposed bones and rotting flesh.

For the regular pet owner, birthdays are the most popular occasion for chalk-based makeovers, said Megan Mouser, groomer and PetSmart salon project manager in Phoenix. Sports team colors are also in demand, she said.

At PetSmart, it costs $6 to chalk a dog's ears and $2 for a single streak of color on the coat. After applying a sealer that resembles hair spray, the design can last one to six days.

Two veterinarians had disparate takes on the phenomenon.

Grooming a dog is almost always for the benefit of a person, so if there is no pain and it's fun for all, then "party up," said Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a professor at Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine and director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists.

Her colleague, Dr. Mark Stickney, a clinical associate professor at Texas A&M, said he's never tried anything beyond a Halloween costume s. Additional grooming "just really is not my kind of thing. It's just something I would not do."