We didn’t have ‘pets’ when I was little. We had dogs — gundogs. Working dogs that lived in outdoor kennels and ate great slabs of rotting meat straight from the butcher. Occasionally we dunked them in a tub full of eye-watering flea-killer. I do remember them being brushed, but roughly and only to dislodge stubborn thistles.
Now that I have my own dog — a Parson Jack Russell called Cato — I am somewhere in between the dog and pet worlds. She lives inside (mainly on the furniture). When she lets me, I brush her. I clip her toenails and wash her if she’s rolled in something foul. I can’t clean her teeth any more because she tears toothbrushes apart. Perhaps I just don’t see the point in getting someone to groom her when I can do it myself. Except, of course, in the interests of research. Which is how I find myself on the way to visit one of Britain’s most prestigious pet-groomers, Peter Young, of Peter’s Posh Pets in West Kensington, London.
It is pouring with rain. Cato is muddy and stinks. I am covered in dog hair. I’m sure we won’t be posh enough for Peter’s Posh Pets. Peter, however, greets us warmly. He is wearing a pinkish-red top like the ones they wear in Star Trek. I am ushered into a narrow reception area. Pictures of dogs and cats cover the walls. There is a signed photo of Michael Ball, grinning as he cuddles his dog.
I follow Peter through a knee-high white picket gate into the back, where the grooming is done. The most well-turned-out toy poodle I have ever seen struts towards me. The pompom on the end of its tail flutters elegantly. Its luxurious mane is tied back with green rubber bands to reveal a haughty face. Cato, who is usually afraid of nothing, backs away. I can’t believe she is frightened. It must have been awe, for I find out later that the poodle has just finished co-starring in Phantom of the Opera with Minnie Driver.
Peter no longer takes on new clients, preferring instead to look after his current set, who keep him busy enough. When I tell him that I am writing an article for The Spectator’s luxury goods issue, he says firmly that grooming is not a luxury — it’s a necessity. He explains that breeds like the shih tzu and Afghan have to be groomed, otherwise their coats get matted, forming dreadlocks that pull the skin beneath tighter and tighter until the dog’s movements are restricted. I concede that an immobile Afghan is not a happy one. But what about less hairy breeds? Peter lifts Cato on to the grooming table. Up here, she seems more shaggy sheep than rough-haired Jack Russell. To tidy her up, she could be stripped — a method of pulling out the hairs by hand, advancing her moult — or clipped. Peter demonstrates the former. It’s a bit like plucking chickens: messy and time-consuming. There’s a fine balance between removing too much hair or not enough, and not all parlours offer such labour-intensive work.
We don’t have time for the full strip (followed by a tea-tree-oil shampoo to soothe the skin), so Peter uses a special brush that has a similar effect. While he brushes and plucks at Cato’s sides, she gazes at him as if in a trance. In fact, there is something magical about Peter. Even the rap coming from the radio seems soothing.
As a boy, Peter worked in a local pet shop in Ealing, washing and cleaning people’s pets in a back room. His plans to become a vet were scuppered when it turned out he was dyslexic and was told not to bother with A-levels. However, he was determined to work with animals, and eventually, 23 years ago, opened Peter’s Posh Pets.
Cato is steadily shrinking beside the growing pile of her fur. Peter has noticed an increase in single people with disposable incomes who share their homes with an animal but don’t have the time to groom it themselves. In London, owners are willing to pay up to £50 for stripping, £35 for a wash (trimmed nails and brushed teeth included in both). Hence the rise of the professional pet-groomer in place of the humble housewife who used to do it for pin money.
Pet-grooming is already big business in America. In 2000 it was worth $32 billion a year, and it was estimated that the demand for pet-groomers would increase 12 per cent by 2010. Where the US goes, we often follow, so look out for dogs with varnished nails and pets sporting anything from simple tam-o’-shanters to red cocktail dresses. There are already grooming competitions across Europe. Eurogroom 2004, held over the bank holiday weekend at Bracknell sports and leisure centre in Berkshire, was the most recent. It included lectures in reiki for dogs and how to handle problem behaviour.
For the moment, the British seem happy to settle for pets with clean ears, short nails and washed coats, an occasional spray of pet cologne and a breath mint to chew on. People have been known to get their dogs dyed, though Peter’s not sure how much the pets appreciate it, since they’re colour-blind. He does know that they respond to the tone of voice used to say ‘Wow! You look great’ as opposed to ‘What the....’ And he’s sure most enjoy the attention that’s lavished on them for the few hours they’re at the parlour.
But not all. Peter is holding Cato’s bottom and picking stray strands from around her mouth. Pet-grooming can be dangerous work, he says. Some pets are vicious. And of course people, animals, electricity and water are not a good combination. He won’t give much away, but he does tell me that in the 30 years he’s been grooming only two dogs have died on him — not because of a slip of the scissors but because of old age. The excitement was too much and their hearts gave out.
Somehow we end up on blood sports. Gundogs are often seen at the parlour. Peter’s fine about hunting and is none too keen on the RSPCA. He has more in common with my family than I’d ever have guessed. He tells me how a tail is docked with minimum pain. He also lets on that that dogs grow more hair when they’re spayed or castrated, just as women do when they have a hysterectomy. We even touch on Geri Halliwell’s dog (poorly turned out). He’s just getting started on the exquisitely well-groomed dogs promenading on Copacabana beach in Rio, when I notice that he’s finished with Cato. I have to admit she looks amazing: lean, trim, ready for ratting.
Peter advises me to check with the Pet Care Trust if I use a grooming parlour in the future. I actually find myself contemplating it as I dash to the car with Cato wrapped up in my coat to protect her from the still pouring rain.