Lifestyle

Dog owners share heartbreaking tales after alleged PetSmart grooming deaths

With his soulful brown eyes and floppy ears, Speck was full of life when he bounded into PetSmart to get spruced up for the summer.

Sadly, the beloved rescue mutt wouldn’t survive to see out the season.

“Not even two hours later, he couldn’t even walk,” his owner, Annika Nash, told NJ Advance Media, her eyes welling with tears.

Nash had taken Speck and her other dog to the pet-store chain’s outlet in Rio Grande, NJ, in July 2015 for their twice-a-year grooming.

About an hour after the drop-off, she got a call from an employee saying Speck was being rushed to an emergency vet.

By the time Nash got there, the Jack Russell terrier-border collie mix was limp, his breathing labored. The vet offered to start intravenous fluids and let the dog stay overnight, but it was clear Speck was dying.

“He’s going to die in the middle of the night without you,” Nash recalled the doctor telling her. “So, he said, you’re better off just putting him down because he’s suffering.”

Nash made the decision to euthanize Speck. But, she said, she hasn’t heard a peep from PetSmart and is still searching for answers in his death.

“To this day, we don’t know what caused it, other than the vet said it was trauma, some sort of trauma,” she said. “There’s probably not a day that goes by that we don’t think about him.”

Speck is among 47 dogs in 14 states that have mysteriously died after grooming at PetSmart since 2008. NJ Advance Media uncovered the disturbing trend in a nine-month investigation and published its report Thursday.

And there could be many more. The nation’s leading pet-store chain, which has 1,600 stores in the US, Puerto Rico and Canada, refused to disclose how many dog deaths it has documented and has not admitted to any wrongdoing.

Twenty of the pups that died were English bulldogs or similar brachycelphalic breeds — those with short, pushed-in noses that can make it hard to breathe.

In many cases, it’s unclear how the dog died. Necropsies are often inconclusive and speculative.

Nick Pomilio took his English bulldog, Capone, in for grooming at a Philadelphia PetSmart in February 2017.

What was supposed to be a 15-minute session lasted nearly an hour, and the 7-year-old dog emerged in a shopping cart, no longer able to walk on his own.

Five minutes into their drive home, Capone stopped breathing. By the time Pomilio got back to the store for help, Capone was already gone.

“I’ll never forget that last look he gave me,” Pomilio, 72, told NJ Advance Media through tears. “You don’t take the dog to get its nails clipped and it winds up dead as a doornail.”

The death of another dog, Scruffles, garnered much media coverage. The 8-year-old bulldog died Dec. 29, 2017, one hour after arriving at a PetSmart in Flemington, NJ, for a trim.

His owner, Danielle DiNapoli, publicized his death in the Facebook group Justice for Scruffles and has held rallies in his name. She also sued PetSmart, which alleged defamation in a counterclaim. The suit is pending.

“I was in shock. You know, you expect to see your dog happy and healthy and groomed, and I got a dead dog,” DiNapoli previously told NJ.com.

NJ Advance Media’s report — for which it interviewed 22 current and former PetSmart employees — cited a number of potential factors. PetSmart groomers, who make commission, are often undertrained and rushed in to fill shortages. They are also pressured to meet daily quotas.

The grooming environment at the pet giant changed, some employees said, after it was acquired by the private-equity firm BC Partners in 2015.

“When the new owners bought it, they demanded six to eight dogs in eight hours,” Marti Fernandez, a salon manager at two PetSmart stores in New Jersey from 2006 to 2016, told NJ Advance Media.

Danielle DiNapoli with her bulldog Scruffles, who was killed during a routine grooming at PetSmart in December 2017
Danielle DiNapoli with her bulldog Scruffles, who was allegedly killed during a routine grooming at PetSmart in December 2017.Justice for Scruffles Facebook page

“There’s always pressure to do more dogs.”

Amber Hosford worked at a Castleton, Ind., store for 15 years. She became a grooming-salon manager before quitting in 2014.

When she started, she said, training was rigorous, “very intensive,” “very hands on.”

But soon, the chain began operating under the motto, “Just one more dog,” she said.

“It turned into how much money we could make, and that’s when the safety practices went to the wayside,” she said.

PetSmart’s Web site outlines a stringent, roughly 14-month training process “valued at over $6,000.”

“Pet stylist” candidates get three months to bathe at least 125 dogs, then move to “Grooming Academy.” The academy includes four weeks, or 160 hours, of classes and in-store training.

Grads return to their stores, where they are supervised for 640 hours and groom 200 dogs and spend another six months under supervision before becoming certified pet stylists.

But one PetSmart groomer, Katelyn Douglas, said her training was lax, with her manager giving her little required supervision at a North Carolina store.

“She wouldn’t even see the dogs I was doing sometimes,” she recalled.

With a lack of regulation, there are no training standards to keep pet groomers accountable. Individual groomers aren’t required to be licensed in any state.

In New Jersey, bills have been introduced to make the state Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners responsible for oversight. Similar laws have been floated in New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and California.

But the legislation that would mandate training and licensure in New Jersey — dubbed Bijou’s Law after a Shih-Tzu who died at a pet salon — has stalled.

Meanwhile, PetSmart has defended its record.

“Any assertion that there is a systemic problem is false and fabricated,” the company said.

“We extensively investigate any and every incident, no matter how minor. Our independent team of investigators, many of whom have law enforcement backgrounds, is committed to conducting these comprehensive investigations.”

The chain refused to discuss specific cases with NJ Advance Media or answer some 125 questions related to its investigation.

In many cases, it has offered payments to grieving owners in exchange for their signing nondisclosure agreements barring them from discussing details of their pet’s death or even the existence of such agreement.

Jill Ryther, an attorney who has represented owners in suits against PetSmart, blasted the NDAs as “pretty extreme.”

“They basically want to erase that it ever happened . . . PetSmart is basically buying their silence,” she said. “That’s what they’re paying for. It’s like hush money.”