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Who Can Give a Dog a Massage?

It may take more skill than a belly rub, but should massage only be allowed with veterinary supervision? California is the latest state to propose regulating the field of animal rehabilitation, and it could put many kinds of practitioners out of work.

With preventive health care booming, the state’s veterinary board wants to rein in non-veterinary businesses that cater to wellness, saying they “pose a grave danger” to pets and can increase costs for owners. The rule would mean only veterinarians, or physical therapists and registered vet techs, if supervised, could perform animal rehabilitation..

Opponents of the rule say the board has defined the field so broadly, it nets the use of electricity or biofeedback right along with exercise and simple massage used to soothe aching seniors, relax dogs that play sports, and socialize shelter pups.

“It is about defining everything as rehab, even swim facilities and pet certified fitness training,” says Linda Lyman, who attended a recent public hearing in Sacramento to air her concerns. Lyman says she has a PhD in physical education, has taken a canine medical massage course, and for seven years has operated Pawssage, a canine massage practice.

 “I go to agility trials every weekend and massage dogs before, between, and after they run. My goal is always to make sure my client’s dogs can hike, walk, and do things with their owners while and when they quit agility.”

As the board’s proposal would have it, Lyman is practicing veterinary medicine without a license. Aside from the hands-on, she makes suggestions that could get her in trouble under the new law. At her recommendation, three clients bought pools for their dogs, for example.

In many states, a background like Lyman’s isn’t needed. Anyone can provide animal massage, including evaluation, treatment, instruction, and consultation. That currently includes California, where only “musculoskeletal manipulation” by the layperson is forbid. Other states call for direct veterinary supervision of the work, or allow it with a vet’s referral. Some require certification, like the state of Washington, where a 300-hour training course in general animal massage, first aid and more is needed.

Whether body workers massage humans, which calls for state licensing but not doctor supervision, or pets, “the good ones survive and thrive and the rest fall by the wayside, certification or not,” Lyman says.

In a few cases, lawsuits have accused vet boards that restrict massage of stifling competition. In Maryland, providers of horse massage successfully challenged the state vet board, and a recent Arizona lawsuit argues that massage is not a veterinary service.

Another meeting will be held on October 20-21, when the board will discuss comments received so far, and possibly vote on the final rule.

Lyman sees more at stake than massage, or any one service, she says. “This is about a pet’s access to all practitioners who can help it maintain a healthy lifestyle.”

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Sheila Pell is a journalist and contributor to The Bark.

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