Bodywork has become increasingly popular as part of an owner’s wellness team to prevent injury and illness, and to increase mobility and performance.

However, in the United States there is no regulation for animal massage therapists and body workers. There is no governing body to oversee education or continuing education. Practitioners vary in experience, licensing and accreditation, and are limited by state animal laws and the American Veterinary Medical Association.

What this means for you is that anyone can call themselves a massage therapist without proper training. So, how do you protect yourself and your animal?

The muscles in the spine protect and support major nerves.

1. Education

One of the first questions to ask is whether the practitioner is certified, what certifications they hold, and from what educational institution. With the popularity of massage therapy growing, so are the number of educational programs handing out certifications. Is the program a week long, several months, or years? Is the education hands on and is anatomy involved? What type of massage techniques are taught?

Weekly programs are incredibly popular for their quick turnaround and lower price point, however it is hard to master technique in only a week. That being said, many programs are quite suited to animal owners for working on their pets or performance animals on a basic level or used as a starting point for someone who wants to know if bodywork is the right career for them.

2. Experience

While education is important, arguably experience over time with a variety of animals is more so, in my opinion. We all have to start somewhere and hands-on learning cannot be underestimated. How many years has the practitioner been in business? Are they well-respected and have references? Do they have a specialty or a focus? For example do they prefer track horses, performance horses, agility dogs, animals with special needs and mobility issues, rehabilitation, etc?

A great resource to find a provider that has received accredited education and over 300 hours of experience practicing, visit the International Association of Animal Massage and Bodywork/ Association of Canine Water Therapy.

3. Cost

Cost is always going to be a factor when it comes to hiring a bodywork right. Increasingly this is seen as a preventative, and necessary, part of owning an animal long-term rather than something to do only when the animal is injured. Is the practitioner accessible to you long-term?

Does the body worker offer a flat rate, sliding scale for multiple animals, periodic discounts, or a trainer rate? Don’t forget cost does not necessarily equal value. For an experienced massage therapist with multiple certifications, solid client base, and good reputation, the price will naturally be higher. A massage therapist just starting or with limited techniques will be on the lower range of the scale.

Choose what you can afford but keep in mind that a good body worker will work with you to help fit your budget and needs of your animal or help you find someone that better meets your needs.

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4. Technique

The type of massage is incredibly important. When meeting other “massage therapists” I often inquire what type of technique they incorporate. I love hearing the variety of answers and will often recommend someone when one of my client’s or potential client is looking for that specifically (if I don’t already provide it, of course!) However, there is nothing more bone chilling to me to ask someone what they do and hear, “just basic massage.” Huge red flag! Here are some types of massage techniques you will encounter:

  • Sports massage. Similar to deep tissue, the goal is to remove adhesions and knots, increase flexibility and reduce tension. Stretching is often incorporated into the session.
  • Myofascial release. The fascia encases the entire body. This technique removes adhesions, affects the body as a whole, and continues to work for days after the session if done properly.
  • Lymphatic drainage. While not technically a massage technique, it is often used in conjunction. The primary goal is to remove inflammation and reduce lymph in the body.
  • Craniosacral. Gentle manipulations of the skull to harmonize the Central Nervous System.
  • Trigger point therapy. There are trigger points threaded throughout the body. When pressure is applied to these areas the knots and tension unwind quickly in a domino pattern.
  • Acupressure. Following the meridian of the body mapped for thousands of years this is a technique to open the pressure points, increase blood flow, improve oxygen and improve the immune system. This is a wonderful but less invasive technique to acupuncture.

5. Tools of the Trade

A massage therapist’s greatest tool is their hands and the “feel” of the animal to detect tension, adhesions, and knots or swelling. Many massage therapists will also offer additional tools to compliment their work.

Kinesiotape is a wonderful addition to massage therapy.

Such tools may include:

  • Red light therapy: low level light used primarily for wounds and surface skin abrasions.
  • Cold laser therapy: UV light penetrating 3-4 inches into the deep tissue to aid cell regeneration and healing.
  • PEMF machine: low field magnetic stimulation stimulates the nervous system and increases blood flow.
  • Bemer devices. A type of low-level PEMF used in an isolated manner.
  • Theraplate. A vibrational plate that is customized to increase circulation, relax muscles, and act as a isotonic exercise.
  • Thermal imaging. One of my favorites to document areas of heat and inflammation or compression prior to working with an animal. This should not be used as a diagnostic tool but is a great non-invasive way to track improvement.

When it comes to tools, please use caution as not all practitioners are trained in the use of these items and if used improperly can cause damage to your animal. Horses and dogs are incredibly sensitive and have delicate nervous systems which can be overloaded easily by tools.

It is important to meet your massage therapist, watch them interact with your animal, ask questions, and be your pet’s advocate. Finding a massage therapist that you can trust can mean improving the quality of life for your animal, preventing injury and illness, and even potentially shaving a few seconds off their performance time.

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