Lawmakers took a step Monday toward making New Jersey the first state in the nation to require that pet groomers be licensed.

Saying it's time for New Jersey to put "pets over profits," Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle  (D-Bergen) saw a legislative committee advance her measure that would make it illegal for someone to bathe, brush or style your pet, for compensation, without a proper license.

"By requiring individuals within the profession to pass an exam and register as groomers, we can then provide, hopefully, the necessary oversight that will ultimately save the lives of many of our pets," Vainieri Huttle said before the Assembly Regulated Professions Committee voted on the measure.

A dog dropped off at a PetSmart for grooming in early April became the third to die at one of the chain's Garden State locations in less than five months.

The series of deaths reignited a years-old measure — Bijou's Law — crafted in response to the death of a 6-year-old Shih Tzu who died unexpectedly while being groomed at a big-box pet salon in 2011.

"Bringing your dog to a groomer was, in my case, a death sentence," Rosemary Marchetto, Bijou's owner, told the Assembly committee.

Marchetto's online petition in favor of a pet-groomer license law has gathered more than 11,000 signatures in New Jersey alone, and over 160,000 worldwide, Marchetto said.

Under the measure, a licensed pet groomer must be at least 18 years old and "of good moral character." An identical bill was introduced in the state Senate in April.

Lisa Correia, a mobile dog groomer based in Toms River, said the legislation as is does not enforce the safety of animals. At this point, she said, the legislation is a "punitive bill."

"I am for licensing and I am for weeding out bad apples, 100 percent, but on the back of this bill, we're not coming up with the right way to create a license," Correia said.

The owner of Planet Poodle, which has three locations in Monmouth County, said the bill presents another financial burden in an "already not-highly-profitable" industry.

An initial license would cost an individual $75. The cost to renew every two years is $50.

Responding to concerns, bill sponsor Assemblyman Paul Moriarty (D-Gloucester) said the bill is not intended to be seen as punitive, or as an insult to those who do their job so well.

"I see this as a way to elevate your industry and your talents," Moriarty told groomers.

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