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Close encounters of the four-legged kind

Massage therapy for animals is not a recent phenomenon. Historians trace its roots back thousands of years to Greeks who would massage both warriors and horses before battle.


July 21, 2015
By Jules Torti


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Massage therapy for animals is not a recent phenomenon. Historians trace its roots back thousands of years to Greeks who would massage both warriors and horses before battle. Massaging dogs and cats is a natural extension for even untrained hands. For registered massage therapists, it can be a unique whole-household approach to business. Establishing trust and success with human clientele can make for a smooth transfer of skills to a client’s arthritic French bulldog or horse, even.

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Anthony Guglielmo, a New York state licensed massage therapist and equine massage practitioner, was easily coaxed into the field of animal massage. A client’s mother called Guglielmo and asked, “Will you massage my horse?” She had bought Champ unaware of the history of physical abuse that he had suffered.

With little exposure to horses in his life, Guglielmo was hesitant, but his love of animals made the decision easy. He soon found himself driving to Synergy Farms in Ohio, to adapt his palpation skills for human muscles to a horse. Intimidated initially by his horse-friendly classmates, Guglielmo’s confidence was boosted by his solid knowledge of massage techniques and anatomy.

After successful sessions with Champ, other horses followed. Then there were calls from zoos and aquariums. Guglielmo’s burgeoning reputation led him to treating two senior dolphins and a 2,000-lb walrus named Nuka who could no longer swim after losing the use of her rear flippers.

In 2000, Guglielmo wrote The Walrus on My Table, Touching True Stories of Animal Healing. He colourfully outlines his years of practice treating not only humans, but a penguin with kyphosis, a shark with scoliosis, and one of the oldest beluga whales living in captivity.

Currently, animal massage is not a regulated practice; there is no governing body, no minimum requirements, or standardized testing.

Horsing around
At D’Arcy Lane Institute in London, Ont. (which offers both human and horse massage), only three or four students have completed both programs since the equine course was established in 1996. D’Arcy Lane is the only registered equine massage therapy program in North America. Students enrolled in the 2,200-hour program are taught to consider themselves as an extension of veterinary health care, not an alternative. The curriculum addresses equine behaviour, anatomy, pathology, kinesiology, hydrotherapy and research. The two-year course, including materials, registration fees and taxes, rings in at just over $22,000.  

Established equine therapists charge $90-$125 per one-hour treatment. Initial assessment costs (including assessment, preliminary massage and home care) can run upwards of $150.

There is still a fierce battle for acceptance of the merits of massage therapy and other non-traditional healing methods for animals by veterinarians and horse owners alike.

When I spoke with Nicole Robertson, an equestrian and owner of Caberneigh Farms in Uxbridge, her thoughts on equine massage were honest and informed. She trusts therapists who have extensive riding experience.

“Much like a human athlete and their support team, the more familiar a therapist is with the unique challenges the horses experience, the more effective their ability to resolve the issues and be part of the solution.”

The riding experience would facilitate a quicker diagnosis, treatment plan and preventative work.

Following a massage treatment, the therapist needs to ride the horse to assess the difference in gait. Detecting problems while riding the horse is the most effective method. Robertson found a U.S.-trained therapist who satisfied her criteria. She likes having massage therapy in her “toolkit” for the horses, especially when they are under the high stakes demands of an event.

Anne Turner, an equine therapist at Wit’s End Farms near Vancouver, B.C., has spent over 35 years working intimately with horses. She has been involved with rehabilitating retired racetrack horses that have lost perception of their hind ends and how to use them.  

In 2007, I took an introductory equine massage course under Turner’s tutelage. I was surprised how interchangeable massage skills were from human to horse. The unique anatomy of the horse is most evident in its skin. A horse can feel a fly land on its back, and the skin twitches in response to messages from a nervous system that independently controls the skin. Because a horse can feel the weight of a fly a lot of force may not be necessary when applying techniques.

Similar to human client assessment, a therapist can observe wear patterns on the horse’s shoes. Poor shoeing and a hoof imbalance can lead to incorrect weight-bearing and altered gait. The “withers” (the top of the horse’s back) can be easily stretched by a therapist using a carrot to entice the horse to move its head in certain directions. Carrot stretches are effective for the pectoralis group, posterior neck muscles and the latissimus.

Horses will naturally lean into you during a massage if they want you to stay in a particular area. If you move your hands they will step forward or back to relocate you back to that sweet spot. In this way, non-verbal communication with a horse is simple. Horses groom each other as a sign of affection. They will nibble, nuzzle, yawn and pass gas in appreciation of a
massage. Can it get any more rewarding than that?

A dogged approach
For Susan Repa, a massage therapist at The Social Club in Binbrook, Ont., her canine massage experience was spontaneous. A friend’s six-year-old cocker spaniel had lost all range of motion in his neck. After visiting a farm the previous day, Riley awoke unable to turn his head and was in severe pain. The vet he was taken to had no idea how to resolve the issue and suggested that her friend euthanize the dog. Repa asked her friend if she could attempt massaging him first. After consulting an equine chiropractor in Ancaster, Ont., Repa began with cold laser on Riley’s musculature. After two treatments, the pain was visibly reduced, but Riley still couldn’t move his head.

Repa had the initiative to research canine anatomy and was surprised at the similarities in the musculoskeletal system between dog and human – many of the muscles had the same names.

With the owner present, she began massaging Riley using effleurage and drainage techniques to reduce the swelling initially. On the second visit, she employed petrissage and noticed a decrease in pain, but still, zero movement.

After consulting a vet about using active release therapy, the vet was confident that the dog’s musculoskeletal system could handle it, but was worried about the dog’s discomfort and Repa’s safety. Following human protocol, she discussed treatment options with the dog owner and was given consent. With Riley lying on the floor, Repa prepared the tissue using typical effleurage and petrissage techniques.

“Once I felt the tissue loosening I grasped the SCM, held Riley’s head to prevent him from moving it and then had the owner stand on the opposite side of the dog and call him. As she called him he attempted to turn his head activating the muscle that I applied pressure to. Initially he yelped and cried but I had felt a change in the tissue. I asked her to call him again and she agreed. I put more pressure closer to the clavicular insertion of the SCM, held his head and had the owner call him. We repeated this three times, each time I moved my hand to grasp a different part of the SCM. As a final effort, I placed increased pressure on the SCM, held Riley’s head and had the owner call him. I could feel “the muscle release in my fingers. When I let him go he turned his head fully with no yelping.”

And the outcome? “Riley knocked me from my knees onto my back and licked my face repeatedly.”

There are no formal accrediting agencies in Canada or the U.S. for the canine massage profession. Online and distance learning options are available via Treetops Animal Massage Education in Simcoe County, Ont. Since 1991, Treetops has offered equine and canine rehab courses focusing on health promotion, convalescent care, herbal remedies, holistic care and aromatherapy.

Colorado-based E-Training for Dogs’ (a partner of Treetops) curricula covers canine biomechanics, kinesiology, Swedish techniques, lymph drainage, reflexology, colour therapy, client and business management and ethics. The self-directed course generally takes nine months to complete and equips graduates with the knowledge to begin private practice with a certificate from the International College of Canine Studies. E Training for Dogs programs cost $1,625 while the Treetops canine course is $1,050.

Shona Hunter, director of professional practice of the College of Massage Therapists of Ontario, informed me that because “equine massage is outside of the scope of practice for massage therapists in Ontario, CEUs are not granted for equine or canine massage courses. Massage therapists are only regulated to work on humans.”

If you are a motivated trailblazer and persistent with marketing or have a captive niche market, shifting to animal massage or integrating it into your practice could be a sustainable and
lucrative venture.

For those living in dog-centric cities like Toronto and Vancouver, the idea of canine massage might be an easier sell.

Maybe it’s not about money at all, just a driving love of animals and changing focus in a hands-on practice that appeals. As Guglielmo said, “the great divide between humans and the animal kingdom isn’t all that great.” Animals have emotions, intuitions and “they respond to and crave the same things we do, namely personal contact and interaction.”


Jules Torti has been a RMT since 1999 and a freelance writer since age six. In between massage engagements, she travels to Africa to be with chimpanzees and writes about her zany travels for Matador Network.


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