If you groom long enough you will hear that statement a few times. The problem is the problem they are talking about is NOT a burn. It is irritation which can be caused by several things, but in 14 years of grooming, including working at Vet Clinics, I have never seen an actual burn on a dog or cat caused by clipper blades.
The picture above shows permanent skin scars from clipper "burn"
Generally you will see irritation caused by clipping in sensitive areas, like faces, throats, feet, tummies, genitals and around the anus. It can be seen in other locations however, especially in dogs with skin allergies or an underlying condition you are unaware of, dogs that have fleas or dogs that were severely matted requiring a very close clip down. When you get an all over irritation on a dog there is generally a reason for it that makes the clipping the reason but not the cause.
The major causes of clipper irritation (I don’t use the term clipper burn at all) are
Hot blades (not for the reason you may think!)
Clipping too close
Pre-existing skin ailments
Too much pressure on the clipper
Matted dogs that require a close clip
Dull blades cause clipper irritation by dragging against the skin and pulling hair. When you pull hair rather than clip it you can cause irritation to occur at the skin level. This can be an immediate or delayed reaction to the clipping and may not be seen until several days later. It is very similar to dry shaving your own legs or face. It can take several hours for the bumps or rash to show up but once they do they are extremely uncomfortable and itchy. The more you itch the more the rash spreads and it can get really sore and red. Clipper irritation can cause the dog’s skin to be red, itchy and inflamed in much the same manner.
Hot blades are the result of friction between the moving part of the blade (the cutter) and the blade itself. Friction causes blades to dull. The friction causes the blade to heat up and then the blade gets duller. Even a very sharp blade that is allowed to heat up will start to go dull. When a blade is dull or acts like it is, the tendency of the groomer is to push harder to force the blade to work. This in turn can cause irritation. I have never seen a dog actually burned by a blade. It would seem that if a blade got hot enough to actually cause a thermal burn the clipper itself would be hot to handle and the dog would be trying to get away from the heat.
Clipping too close is self explanatory, but I want to give you a few thoughts on this. White and light colored dogs are in general more apt to be irritated by clippers from ANY cause but they seem to be most sensitive to clipping. There is also a thought that you can “toughen up” light colored skin by repeatedly clipping with a shorter blade. Some people believe that if you start a dog young you can prevent irritation from happening.
NONE OF THAT is set in stone. It may be true for individual dogs but as a “law” of grooming it doesn’t hold true.
Case in point is my dog Kisses. She is a 12 year old parti poodle that I have had in my care since she was 6 weeks old. She had her feet and face done the first time at 4 weeks. The breeder was a client and I talked her into it. Well, she did fine, groomed with a 15 or a 30 for a year, being done every two weeks because I couldn’t stand a fuzzy face on her. One day she developed an irritated spot on both cheeks. I have no clue why she did, but it took a trip to the vet to get a steroid shot to stop her scratching and rubbing at it and almost 3 weeks to clear it up. She went from no problem to major problem being clipped. I went to a longer blade, a ten, next time (almost a month after the spots healed) and she started rubbing again immediately. More shots and creams, and she healed up. Next time I used a 7F on her. The same thing happened. To this day, she will irritate no matter what length blade is used on her face. She irritates nowhere else on her body, only her face.
Some people feel that once a dog has suffered an irritation they are more likely to suffer subsequent irritation. In some dogs it is true, but I am not sure if it is because the dog is more prone to irritation in general, or if it is because of the previous injury. Scout Monroe is a prime example of this problem. He had a major problem over 12 years ago on his second ever groom. He still bears the scars to this day. If I put a blade of any size anywhere near his skin he will blister and scar. I can use plastic combs and scissors with no issue whatsoever, but just clipping his pads will make his feet red and inflamed. With him I tend to believe he is just super sensitive to the metal. The photos below are Scout today. You can see where no hair grows in spots on his throat and nose. The clipper irritation that caused these scars occured over 10 years ago. No hair grows there today due to the infection and scratching that the irritation caused.
Then we have the “allergic” dogs; dogs whose skin flares at the drop of a hat and with no warning. Those are harder to clip without irritation anywhere on their bodies, not just the feet, face and butt. Those are harder to deal with as well and require the groomer to think about grooming in an entirely different way.
Pre-existing injuries or irritation can be aggravated by a clipper going over the area, especially a short blade is used. Usually the problem results in dogs rubbing or scratching an area that they were already scratching or rubbing. Since the protective layer of hair has been removed the skin is more susceptible to damage.
Fleas on a dog can make them itch uncontrollably. In our shops we try very hard to kill all the fleas on every dog that comes in the door. Then we clip the dog,taking off the hair that was protecting the skin from damage from scratching at the fleas. Fleas can also cause flea bite dermatitis which can leave the skin with sores and weaken the dog’s immune system so that any little thing can cause the skin to flare up. Once the dog goes home fleas return to the fresh skin and the process begins again. It is not the clipper that causes the irritation, but rather the fleas that cause it. This problem is compounded because during grooming the pets nails were clipped, which often leaves a sharp edge. That edge can cause considerable damage if an itchy dog is scratching on unprotected skin.
Groomers should also consider how much force we are putting on the blades as we clipper the hair. If you use a light touch and do not force the clippers against the skin or to try to cut hair faster than the clipper is designed to work, you will have less likelihood of irritation. A heavy handed user can actually cause some scraping and scratching of the skin that results in injury to the skin that, again, the pet will continue to scratch at making it worse.
When a cause cannot be found for the injury, or if you see redness or lines immediately upon clipping you should immediately check your clipper blade to make sure that there is no misalignment of blades or missing teeth. Either one can cause scrapes and scratches. If you find a problem immediately put the blade aside until you can fix it, or if it is damaged throw it away.
Matted dogs that require a close clip down to remove the hair are prone to irritation on all parts of the body. The reasons are not 100% clear, but it stands to reason that matted hair hides unknown conditions. It also traps moisture and pulls on the skin. Both moisture and that pulling can cause damage to the skin leading to irritation and bruising, hematomas and tearing of the skin. Many times you are simply uncovering an issue that was already present but no one knew about. In doing so you may get blamed for injury you did not cause. Again, the injury was revealed by the clipping, not the result of the clipping. Filing or grinding the nails will help stop some of the self-mutilation from occuring. It is a great idea to file nails on every dog, but especially those with a history of irritation.
When we see redness in the salon it’s a fast, easy thing to stop it from getting worse. I use Witch Hazel pads (they are for soothing hemorrhoids) to stop the pink almost immediately. You can send home a couple with the owner in a plastic bag to use as needed. I have found that one or two applications of these pads will eliminate most irritation before it becomes a problem.
I have also found that Aloe Vera treatment for SUNBURN (the one with Lidocaine in it) will stop the irritation in its tracks. I keep some of this in small plastic containers to give owners whose dogs are prone to irritation. Oxyfresh gel is also great for handling those small scrapes and redness.
If these home remedies do not show significant improvement in a matter of a couple of hours or if the area is swollen, bleeding or getting larger then veterinary treatment is required immediately to prevent infection and further injury. They can treat the area with a topical spray or cream designed to dry the area up and stop itching or a more generalized steroid therapy. In some cases antibiotics may be needed to help stop a secondary infection that can set in quickly after even a minor injury.
Thermal and chemical burns are not treated in the same way as clipper “burn”. They are treated with a moist cream containing silver sulfadiazine. It is an antibiotic cream designed to keep the areas moist and prevent infection. The creams and sprays used on clipper irritation are designed to dry the injury up and prevent itching. So, since they are treated with different medications, it is safe to say they are not the same type of injury. The photo below is Lucy Rambo. A groomer used hot glue to anchor a bow in her hair on top of her head leaving this lovely scar.
The next photo is Buddy Kendrick. His mom tried to save money by using an over the counter flea preventative on him. His hair grew back in black instead of silver. The chemical burn caused by that product almost killed him.
There are things we can do to prevent this problem on certain dogs. Ideally we try to talk owners who have dogs that irritate into longer clips, generally done with scissors or snap on combs. When that doesn’t work I try the routes below.
Some dogs that seem extremely prone to irritation can be given a steroidal shot the day before the grooming session. It will “settle” the skin and prevent the dog from scratching at itself causing even more injury. I suggest this to a lot of clients who insist on their dogs being clipped close when the dog has no tolerance for it, when I have a dog that is hyper-sensitive to everything and for dogs who have severely matted hair that we are going to have to remove with a very close blade.
I learned of that trick from a veterinarian I worked for once that had a theory that some dogs are just allergic to clipping or in some cases to the metal of the blade. On those dogs, we used prednisone or Metacalm to treat the dogs prior to clipping them and the irritation stopped in every single case. A groomer friend of mine said her incidence of clipper burn (which was high) went away after this practice was started at the clinic she worked in. Of course, the pets vet would have to prescribe this for the dog, but it is a trick that works. When you have a dog that ends up at the vet every time you clip them, do the shot before the groom to prevent it, rather than after to treat it.
Clipper irritation causes swelling, itching and redness that the dog then scratches at, or rubs on carpet, making it worse. The reason steroids work to stop it is that they stop the inflammation and the itching which actually cause more skin trauma and more damage to the dog.
I have also found that in most cases, trimming the dogs that are prone to “burning” on their faces and throats (like poodles and schnauzers) with the really short snap on combs (the rocker bottom ones) will eliminate the problem altogether. When used in reverse they leave a short clip that is not as smooth as a blade but will still work for most people. When the dog is irritated, like they get with allergies or fleas, I will use a plastic snap on comb to groom the dog (the shorter ones will usually go under mild matting with no problems). This minimizes the “scratching” that a blade can do and helps prevent grooming irritation on already damaged skin.
If you have a dog that is particularly sensitive you can groom them, even their faces and feet while they are wet. The water acts as a bit of a lubricant and will help keep blades form getting really close to the skin. The result will not be terribly smooth when dry, but it will prevent the blade from actually coming into direct contact with the skin (the water creates a barrier) and stop a lot of irritation.
As you can see there are many reasons a dog my get irritated, but now, when you hear the dreaded “YOU BURNED MY DOG!” you have some information to hand back to the owner to explain better what happened, how to treat it once it has happened and the knowledge of how you can avoid it in the future