Animal massage therapy is one of those careers that will cause people to stop and clarify they heard you correctly.
I have been an animal massage practitioner and instructor for the past eight years, and joke about getting the “doggie head tilt” from people when I tell them what I do.
I found my way to a career in animal massage while I was starting an equine rehabilitation business, after deciding massage would be a great service to offer the horses as they recovered from injuries. Many horse people have dogs, so I chose to train in both equine and canine massage.
Roots of Animal Massage
Horse people are generally more familiar with massage; a sports massage therapist, Jack Meager, has been credited with bringing massage to high-level show horses in the mid-1970s. Canine massage seems to be somewhat behind equine massage in acceptance by veterinarians and the public; however, I’ve had people in class who were hiring massage practitioners for their agility dogs as many as 15 years ago.
Today, small-animal veterinarians are starting to realize the demand for complementary modalities that pair well with Western veterinary medicine. Animal massage pairs nicely, for example, with veterinary chiropractic and veterinary acupuncture. Dogs struggling with arthritis or sports injuries often see great benefits from massage.
Many pet owners who realize the benefits of massages they themselves receive will also hire a massage practitioner to do health-maintenance massage on their dogs.
What Makes a Good Animal Massage Therapist?
I work with students from all over the world and from many different backgrounds as they work their way through our animal massage courses. Many are embarking on a second or third career and are looking forward to giving back to animals. Sometimes they will tell me they are tired of working with people, and have to be reminded that as they become animal massage practitioners, they will still have to work with and for people, as most dogs and horses have a human who will be involved.
I truly believe that almost anyone can train to become a good animal massage practitioner; however, I think it’s critical that the prospective practitioner have an affinity for animals and the ability to tune in carefully to animals’ reactions and adjust behavior accordingly.
The legality of practicing animal massage varies from state to state. Some states are very rigorous and strict in their requirements for animal massage practitioners. Washington, for example, requires national certification, a license through the state health department, and completion of animal massage certification from an approved program. Montana, in contrast, is very lax.
Some states will not allow animal massage unless it is performed by a veterinarian; a massage therapist practicing via veterinarian referral; or in a veterinarian’s presence only. It’s also important to not assume an animal massage program in a certain state is recognized and approved by that state.
A Typical Canine Massage Session
I find that working on dogs can be a conditioning process, and initially they will often only sit for five to 10 minutes of massage. Usually after three or four sessions they are impatiently waiting for you to join them where the massage happens and want you to stop talking to their human!
Some practitioners will work on a massage or grooming table for some dogs, while other dogs are more comfortable being worked with on a mat on the floor.
I have a client who told her dog I was coming later for her massage, and a few minutes later when she looked down at the dog’s bed, the dog was gone—and was downstairs, staring out the window near where I normally came in. She refused to move from that location until I got there, three hours later.
The Market for Animal Massage
Many students are adding animal massage and acupressure to an existing animal-related career. Others are diving into animal massage as their primary endeavor.
I always suggest that students look at the animal demographic in their area and find out what fees animal massage practitioners are charging, and then think about how much they want to work. How many massages do they need to do in a week? How many can they do in a day? They would then determine what else, if anything, they will need to add to their business to make it succeed.
Marketing an animal massage practice has unique challenges. Many people find success by networking with people who own or service animals: reaching out to pet businesses such as veterinarians, groomers, trainers and sporting niches.
Most of our instructors, each of whom runs an animal massage practice, recommend focusing on both hard-copy print items like business cards and fliers first, and an online presence.
We often get human massage practitioners in class, and they are wise to add animal massage to their business. Many of their massage clients will own a dog, and some will own a horse—and any new animal massage therapy clients will have humans who could benefit from bodywork, too.
The best part of teaching animal massage is that I get to watch people dive into work they are passionate about. This work often really doesn’t feel like work—and I truly believe life is too short to live any other way.
Jenny Rukavina is owner and executive director of the Rocky Mountain School of Animal Acupressure and Massage (RMSAAM). She has taught animal massage practitioners from all over the world, written curriculum, helped train new instructors, and reviewed certification materials for RMSAAM students. She also owns and operates Acadia Equine Rehabilitation in Elizabeth, Colorado, where she lives with her daughter Ariel and husband, Joe.