The dog massage controversy

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The dog massage controversy

In many states, animal massage can only be done under veterinary supervision. It’s a requirement that has caused more than a few conflicts, but things are starting to change.

A few years ago, a wellness practitioner in Colorado received a letter from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) warning her that she was in violation of the law by doing acupressure (a form of massage) on animals, and that she must cease and desist. She is just one of many massage practitioners across the country who have found their hands tied when it comes to helping animal clients, unless they work through a veterinarian.

As the Executive Director of Rocky Mountain School of Animal Acupressure and Massage (www.rmsaam.com), I get asked about this controversy all the time. In 2007, the complexities of the issue prompted me to seek out a sponsor in the Colorado State Capital who would carry a bill legalizing animal massage without veterinary supervision. Representative Wes McKinley embraced the idea. As a cowboy, he could not understand why this law was so restrictive. He thought it was ironic that the law allowed for anyone to castrate a cow, but not massage a horse!

Unfortunately, the bill failed in the Senate after passing virtually unopposed in the House of Representatives. The reason it failed was because it was “too broad”. But it wasn’t nearly as broad as the wording in the AVMA Model Practice Act. This Act is a national guideline of regulations rolled out to each state. The state can then decide to adopt all or some of the Act. The Colorado Veterinary Practice Act reflects parts of this model that are so broadly worded that, if taken literally, no one would be allowed to hire a trainer to train their dog without veterinary supervision. This overly broad verbiage is a concern for practitioners in many states across the country, and rightly so.

I realized I needed more people “on my side” so I went to Ralph Johnson, the Executive Director of the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) and asked him what kind of a compromise would make state vets happy to work with animal massage practitioners. Their concern involved an educational requirement. Once Ralph and I ironed out the details of what that meant, I contacted a Senator who had helped kill the earlier bill but whom I admired. I knew if I could change his mind, he would help influence others in the Colorado Senate. Upon learning of the proposed changes to our legislation, Senator Greg Brophy agreed to be the Senate sponsor of the new bill, which was proposed in 2008. The bill flew through the House and Senate virtually unopposed and was signed into law by Governor Ritter in April of 2008.

This new law requires anyone who practices animal massage in Colorado to attend a certificate program at a school that is either accredited or approved by the Colorado Department of Education.

Similar legislation has been proposed in many other states across the country. Those interested in becomingan animal massage practitioner first have to find out their state’s animal massage laws, then find a school that will meet that state’s requirements. In the state of Washington, for example, an individual must complete 300 hours of training in either small or large animal massage, and apply for state certification through the Department of Health.

However, legalizing the practice of animal massage without direct veterinary supervision continues to be a struggle in many other regions. In Maine, massage is only allowed if administered by a veterinarian – regardless of whether or not the latter has any massage experience!

State laws change frequently, and may get better or worse for animal massage practitioners if they are not willing to take a stand. If I had not stood up for what I believed in, and spent two years trying to get the Colorado law passed, then it would still be illegal to massage an animal in this state without veterinary supervision. That being said, anyone could try to change the new law and we would have to fight the battle all over again. In some states, human massage organizations are trying to control animal massage; in others, veterinary associations are trying to control it.

It is important for people to stay abreast of the legislation in their states. There are many resources available. The International Association of Animal Massage and Bodyworkers (iaamb.org) has a list of state-bystate laws posted on their website. Several states, including Colorado, Florida, Arizona and Illinois, have “Alliance for Animal Owner’s Rights” organizations that focus on legislation.

Massage can have a very healing effect on animals. Making this modality more accessible and easily practiced across the country will improve the lives of dogs, cats, horses and other animals everywhere.

What About Canada?

Veterinary medicine is regulated at the provincial level in Canada, so it’s best to talk with your veterinarian,” says Kristin McEvoy, Manager, Communications and SCVMA Program of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.

In Manitoba, for instance the Veterinary Medical Act states that treatments such as massage fall solely under the jurisdiction of a licensed veterinarian (although it’s questionable if this legislation is being enforced). Ontario, on the other hand, has no such restrictions. “Unlike the U.S., Canada’s form of government makes it more difficult for one body to control animal massage,” says Sigle Skeries, founding president of the Canadian Animal Massage and Bodyworkers Association (CAMBA).

“At present the only individuals who can legally change the act are the MPPs (Members of Provincial Parliament), not the vets or veterinary colleges. In Canada the legislative process could take five to seven years. Currently, there are no indications that MPPS want to tackle this controversial issue, especially when dogs and cats remain chattel in the eyes of our government.”

Still, Canadian practitioners are preparing for the day when they may need to tackle the issue of licensing. “CA MBA’s members have adopted a code of conduct and carry appropriate insurance,” says Sigle. “We want to make sure we can present a legitimate voice in front of whatever MPPs we may have to face in the future.”