Ep 43 – Animal Massage with Lola Michelin, founder of Northwest School of Animal Massage

A cat resting its head on a towel at a spa

What’s the difference between petting our dogs and cats versus offering them pet massage? Northwest School of Animal Massage founder Lola Michelin joins the podcast to discuss hands-on skills for working with animals, training, and contraindications. We also dip into communication strategies with our four-legged friends, as well as safety protocols. We finish by talking about marketing these services and what to charge.

Author Images: 
Lola Michelin, founder of Northwest School of Animal Massage
Author Bio: 

Lola Michelin founded the Northwest School of Animal Massage in 2001. She has practiced animal massage for over 30 years and massage for people for 17 of those years. A graduate of the animal science program at Michigan State University, she has work experience in both the veterinarian and zoological fields. For more information, visit www.nwsam.com.


This episode sponsored by Anatomy Trains.

Full Transcript: 

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01:00 Darren Buford: Welcome to The ABMP Podcast. My name is Darren Buford. I'm the Editor-in-Chief of Massage & Bodywork magazine, and Senior Director of Communications for ABMP. I'm joined by my co-host, Kristin Coverly, licensed massage therapist and Director of Professional Education for ABMP. Her goal is to connect with luminaries and experts in and around the massage, bodywork and wellness profession in order to talk about the topics, trends and techniques that affect our listeners' practices. Our guest today is Lola Michelin. Lola founded the Northwest School of Animal Massage in 2001. She has practiced animal massage for over 30 years and massage for people for 17 of those years. A graduate of the animal science program at Michigan State University, she has work experience in both the veterinarian and zoological fields. Hello, Lola.

01:48 Lola Michelin: Hello, thank you for having me. I'm very excited to be here today.

01:52 KC: Well, we are very excited to have you with us today. We have so many interesting questions we wanna ask you about animal massage. Let's dive right in. I think probably one of the most common questions you get, and I know animal, pet owners and also massage therapists have asked me about this so I'm sure you get it much more often, what's the difference between petting animals and therapeutic massage for animals?

02:16 LM: Yeah, it's a great question, and you're right, it's one I get all the time. And just let me start off by saying petting is a really important part of the pet ownership and pet relationships, and we strongly encourage our clients and our students to tell their clients, "This is a great tool that you can use and you still get many of the same benefits that you'll get from a massage when you're petting your pets." Massage is a sophisticated way of providing that touch, so it requires a much higher level of knowledge about the animal and also just the ability to determine the animal's needs. When you're petting your dog, it's as much about what it's providing you as it is what it's about for the pet. So the dog or cat really enjoys that attention, but you're also deriving a lot of pleasure from it, and sometimes that's even the main motivation. Whereas as an animal massage therapist, I'm taking into consideration everything the pet needs, I'm there for them. Whether it's a horse or a dog or a cat or a zoo animal, I'm providing massage in a way that's going to address their physical needs, their psychological needs. So we still strongly encourage the petting, but one of the ways I like to explain it to people is it's kind of like when you ask your boyfriend or your girlfriend for a massage and it feels great and it lasts about 45 seconds, and then you really wanna go get a massage. So that would be the difference to me.

03:43 KC: That's the perfect analogy.


03:47 LM: We all know that one.

03:49 DB: "That just wasn't enough."

03:51 LM: Right. "Now I know I need a massage."

03:55 DB: So Lola, can you tell me specifically for practitioners, our listeners out there, if they're trained as MTs, do their qualifications and skill sets transfer to animal massage or no?

04:07 LM: Well, I would say no, but it certainly helps. Our student body is roughly divided into three groups. We have massage therapists who come for the animal massage training, we have veterinarians and veterinarian technicians that come to train in animal massage, and then we have pet owners or pet enthusiasts, horse owners who have no background in either massage or veterinary care and they're coming to it fresh. And really, they're all learning an important skill set, so while having familiarity with massage techniques is gonna give you some helpful background, it's not gonna replace the training specific to the animal.

04:48 LM: There's many different subjects that we cover that are very different from how we approach our human clients. I'm a human massage therapist as well, and it's just a very different arena. The behavior of the animal is different, we have to study animal behavior. It's species-specific, so whatever species you're working on, you need to know about their social structure, their social needs, how they develop behavior and their intellect. There's also a lot of pathology that's different. Cats don't get torticollis, but they do get ringworm. So there's things we have to be aware of in terms of their disease processes and how we can address that.

05:32 LM: Anatomy is hugely different. Most of the animals that I work on are what we call quadrupeds, they walk on four feet. So that means the gravitational forces on their body are different, how they navigate is different, how they see their world is very different. So the training includes all of those aspects, learning about their behavior and their social needs, their anatomical needs and their pathology.

06:00 KC: Yeah, so interesting when you start thinking about what you said, species-specific. So when we're thinking about animals, we've got small animals to large animals, chihuahuas to giraffes, really. So how do those techniques translate? Do they translate? I guess is a better question.

06:15 LM: Yeah, and like I said, I think the skills definitely provide a good background, and a lot of the techniques and strokes are gonna be the same, but some of the differences are, animals don't often tolerate the types of pressures that people like or even want. And you're also dealing with coat, so you have to know, "How do I work with the hair and the coat of a horse versus a dog?" Different types of dogs, different breeds of dogs have different coats. Does the animal have hooves or do they have paws? All of those things play into how we design their session. One thing I often tell the massage therapists who might call to inquire about our programs and say, "Well, I have this training and I've already been massaging my dogs," that's great, but it would kind of be like me taking my dog to my doctor or me going to my veterinarian to ask for help. They're different trainings. They're both medical professionals, but my veterinarian doesn't have the scope of knowledge that my general practitioner has, but he's great for my dogs and horses.

07:24 DB: Lola, let me ask, let me build on that a little bit. So if somebody was to become interested in animal massage, is there a place that you recommend they start? I wonder that because the anatomies can be so different, large animal, small animal, like Kristin mentioned, or just different anatomy structures, is there a place that you recommend? Is it with most common dogs or cats? Or is it because certain interests they may have with certain animals?

07:52 LM: Well, early on at my school, we developed two tracks of studies 'cause we recognized that small animal massage is very different animal or beast than large animal massage. So those people that are interested in working with horses and livestock, they pursue a large animal track, and that means they're gonna be learning more about that type of species' anatomy, behavior, challenges, pathologies. Whereas the small animal track, similar to veterinarian medicine, how it's divided between small animal and large animal, they're gonna be focusing more on dogs, cats, companion pets. And then there are species that fall into that no man's land. Is it a large animal? Is it a small animal? I have a miniature horse, but I have Bouvier who's 120 pounds. So we just try to follow the same guidelines that the veterinarian medicine follows in terms of species. And then I do a lot of work with zoo animals, so that's kind of... There is no place to go for zoo animal massage training, but you have to build on the knowledge you have of other similar species, and then learn as much as you can about each of the species that you're gonna work with.

09:07 DB: And building on that, I'm guessing there are specific contraindications to each animal, correct?

09:14 LM: Correct. Some of the contraindications for our work are gonna be similar to what you would consider if you were working with people. If the person has a fever, if there's an infection, you're gonna take special considerations or avoid massaging all together, and that's true for animals as well. Probably the biggest contraindication we face with animals is what we call zoonotics, and zoonotics are just diseases that can pass between humans and animals. So earlier I mentioned ringworm, that's a classic example. If I have a client come in and I suspect that they have ringworm, I'm not gonna massage that animal because I can catch it. So we have to have that knowledge to what are the common zoonotic diseases we need to be concerned about?

10:01 LM: And then just looking at the animal's health in general. If they have skin conditions that are either infectious or contagious, they might be uncomfortable for them to get massaged, so that might be a contraindication. The primary ones are fever and infection and the presence of a zoonotic. We also look at things like if they have a diagnosis of cancer, what type of cancer is it, what things are they gonna tolerate? A lot of dogs are prone to some mast cell tumors, and mast cell tumors are very sensitive to histamine levels. And histamine, if you stimulate histamine, it can stimulate the mast cell tumors, so we have to walk that road very, very carefully. It's conversations with the veterinarian about what stage the cancer's at, what treatments are being used. Is it quality of life? In many cases, there might be a contraindication or even a site contraindication present, but the quality of life for the animal or the comfort level for an older animal or an animal that's terminal is more important to the owner. And so we have close conversations with the veterinarians and the caregivers to make sure that we're doing the right thing for the pet, but also keeping them comfortable.

11:17 KC: Yeah, let's talk a little bit about how a therapist would communicate with their animal client during a session. Obviously, they don't speak back to us in the traditional verbal sense. I'm guessing it's a lot of non-verbal cues. But in my head, and I could be completely wrong with this, I liken it almost to, and a lot of therapists will have more experience with this, sort of learning infant massage for the first time. So we're picking up on the non-verbal cues. They may not sit still, it may be a shorter session. I'm not sure. Tell me a little bit more about how that communication goes.

11:48 LM: Yeah, it's definitely different communication styles. We pull in a lot of different skill sets, and every therapist of course is unique, so how they communicate with the animals may be different than how I do, but we'd spend a lot of time reading and learning about body language. What are the postures and the gestures that individual species use to communicate with one another, and how do we read those? Dogs are a great example, they use a set of skills that we call calming signals, and so we can tell a lot about the facial gestures they're making, the body position. Are they yawning? Are they looking away? Are they showing you the whites of their eyes? Those are gonna be negative, positive types of feedback. So you can adjust your speed, your pressure, your position over their body, accordingly.

12:39 LM: Cats... I often tell our students, "Cats are just these wonderful evolutionary magical creatures." And dogs have a thousand facial muscles, they can do all sorts of things with their eyebrows, with their ears, with their lips, to tell us how they feel. Cats, not so much. They have evolved to have far fewer facial muscles because they're stealth hunters, they don't wanna give themselves away when they're stalking their prey. They hunt on their own, so they don't have to communicate with the dog next door about whose job it is to corral an animal, and so they've evolved to have far fewer facial expressions. We have to really watch the posture of their body, the position of their hair. Is the hair raised? Is the hair flat? Where are their ears? Where's their tail?

13:30 DB: So Lola, I'm going to approach... I'm a practitioner, I am being trained or I have been trained in animal massage, and I'm approaching an animal for the first time. How do you establish that rapport? It's easier with human clients so I'm curious. They may not know who you are, you're not the owner, how do you establish that safe zone?

13:55 LM: Yeah, so it's really important that in those early sessions with an animal you are developing the trust and the rapport with them, and it may be in certain situations that your entire first session with an animal is just mostly hands-off and just about getting them comfortable with you allowing them to approach you. Ideally, I have the animal make the first contact. If they're shy, if they're scared, that might be more challenging, and so I might introduce touch through offering a toy or offering a treat or having something familiar for them to come over to me. Just like you would meet a dog on the street, or if you went to your friend's house and they have a new dog, you wouldn't just barge in and grab the dog. So we do a lot of trust building in those early sessions, but in many cases, the animals we're working with are used to social interaction, and we try to educate the owner as much as possible before the session of what to expect. People will often think that their animals are going to have the same experience with massage that they have, and so I often tell them in the beginning, "Hey, massaging an animal, it's like a moving target. I'm not worried about your dog laying down or I'm not gonna be positioning your dog, telling them when to roll over the same way that you might know from massages that you've received. It's gonna be more of a conversation."

15:26 LM: I have to accept the dog's comfort level. If they wanna be standing during a massage, that's fine, I'll massage them while they're standing. Oftentimes that first five or 10 minutes, they're gonna move around quite a bit, and I'm just gonna take what's offered, and then they start to relax and settle down, then they probably sit down, lay down. Some of the animals that I work with, they never lay down. The giraffe never lays down when I massage it, the rhinoceros doesn't lay down. I have to be super alert and aware, especially if I'm working on a horse or a zoo animal, so I don't like any kind of distractions in the environment. And I'm really providing a service for two people because the animal of course, but also usually the owner is there, and so I have to also be bringing them into the picture. I think that probably got a little off track, but... [chuckle]

16:24 DB: No, actually, the rapport question is so interesting because the next question I would follow up with was, you potentially have to be conscientious of being injured potentially with a very large animal. Correct?

16:41 LM: Yeah, we are always... Safety is key, we're always making sure that both the animal and us, and if there's other people there, that everybody is safe. Yeah, we don't wanna get bit. We don't wanna get kicked. And generally speaking, that's a pretty low risk because, as I said, you're familiar with the behavior, you're familiar with the animal's body language, you're watching for those things and you're setting yourself up going into the session to keep everybody safe. But it is an animal, there is always the risk that they get scared or they get fearful or something startles them. You have to be ready for that, and you have to have flexibility and a skill set to keep yourself safe and to keep others safe.

17:28 KC: Yeah, following up on that safety piece, Lola, I'm envisioning the variety of animals that a practitioner might work with, so from a family pet, dog or cat, all the way to maybe a really expensive professional racehorse. Where's the stress level in those different types of situations in thinking, "I'm going to work on this million dollar horse, am I panicked? Or am I feeling good?"

17:54 LM: Yeah, yeah, that's a great question. One of the missions for the Northwest School of Animal Massage has always been bringing massage to the animals that need it most, so we do a lot of work with shelters. We teach classes at humane societies and shelters, places like Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah. And so sometimes you are going into an environment where you have very little information about the animal, their background. If they've landed in a shelter, it may have been because of behavioral issues. So in that case, we're really careful about our safety and knowing as much as we can about the animal. So lots of health intake, get as much information as we can from anybody involved in caring for the animal, and then creating an environment where the animal is gonna be comfortable, but also we either have an exit or we're minimizing the liability to everybody involved.

18:56 DB: Now, I'm trained as an animal practitioner, can you tell me a little bit about marketing your services, is it referrals and connections with vets, animal shelters, groomers, training centers? Can you tell me, how does that work? How do I go and market and then build my practice?

19:12 LM: All of the above. It's very similar in a human massage practice, you're making decisions, am I gonna go work in an environment where I'm an employee providing massage? Or am I doing a private practice? Am I gonna be responsible for all my marketing or am I getting help through relationships that I'm working in a day care center and the day care center is helping me market my skills to their clients? So a lot of the same decisions that any private practitioner makes. Word of mouth is king, so as soon as you have clients, you wanna get them talking to their friends about how great your dog feels after his massage. And I think as service providers, it's a very different marketing approach than if I were selling products. So if I were selling dog bowls or horse feed, then I would be taking a different approach to my marketing.

20:07 LM: As a service provider, it's all about the relationship and the perception. So I do a lot of consultations, I do a lot of public speaking, educating people about the benefits and the value of animal massage. And yes, I have veterinarian relationships, I go and I speak at clinics so that the whole staff knows what's the benefit of massage, when is it ideal to recommend massage for your clients. I'm also in relationship with trainers, chiropractors, acupuncturists, people that are also providing services for horse owners and pet owners, 'cause they're gonna also have that same mindset of, it takes a village to attend to the health and well-being of this animal. And give certificates, packages, things like that all the things that we do for our human clients.

21:01 KC: I'm curious, Lola, about the massage therapists who've gone through your program and are now trained in animal massage too. Do the majority, off the top of your head, continue to do both human and animal massage? Or do a lot of them focus solely on animal massage?

21:18 LM: Well, like I said, really only about a third of our student body are already practicing massage, and so many, many of them will combine the two. I focus primarily on animals, my human practice has gotten pretty small because of my teaching obligations and because my animal practice is so big, but many of our students, they're doing it as their sole revenue, or they might be combining it with another non-animal-related job. I would say probably close to 60% of our graduates are doing animal massage on a part-time basis and getting revenue from another source as well, but a fair amount, 40%-50%, are eventually moving into full-time practice.

22:09 DB: We know that animal adoptions are incredibly high right now because people are home, they have time to train, to be with their new puppy or new pet, are there any increased or specific safety protocols related to animal massage in COVID right now?

22:28 LM: Definitely. And like in every aspect of life, it's just been a very interesting year indeed, but there have been some silver linings, and I think one of them is that people are spending so much more time with their pets, and that's great for them, it's great for the pets. It has meant that I've been getting a lot more calls for appointments, and so yes, we do have to take certain measures. Initially for many animal massage practitioners, it meant not doing any massage, but many of us do yard calls instead of house calls, so I might schedule a client dog or cat, and the owner might put the dog in the yard before I arrive and then I can arrive, there's no contact between us, we're safely distanced.

23:18 LM: Of course, I'm masked and lots of hygiene, so I always carry hand sanitizer, hand wipes, which I did before, but now I make sure that in case I can't get somewhere to wash my hands, I can at least clean my hands. A lot of times I wipe the animal down with a towel that's just got witch hazel or some very non-drying, but anti-bacterial, anti-microbial element on it just in case. Animals can't transmit COVID-19 specifically. They do get coronavirus though, many animals do get different types of coronavirus, they can act as what we call a fomite, where if the virus is on their body, on the hair, there's a short lifespan for that. But it is important to just kind of keep them clean, so we'll ask the owners maybe to wipe them down before they put them out in the yard.

24:14 KC: Yeah, that sounds great, really found some good solutions to make everything work during this time. That's great. And also, can I just say how much I love the term yard call?

24:24 LM: I know.

24:25 KC: That's great, I love that so much. So speaking of a yard call, let's talk a little bit about fees and structure, money, that type of thing. So how would an animal massage therapist structure their fee rate? How do those fees look different than, say, a human massage?

24:41 LM: Well, there's some similarity. So in some areas of the country, what you would pay for a massage for yourself is gonna be very similar to what you might pay for your animal, but it is somewhat geographical, so we encourage our students to look at what other similar services cost in their area, and also what are people paying for other types of services for their pet, like grooming or typical vet visit. So it starts to give them a sense of out-of-pocket expenses for pet owners in their area or horse owners. And there is a pretty big range of pricing across the country, small animal versus large animal, the small animal fees are gonna be a little bit lower, they're also probably a little bit shorter sessions, so your dogs, your cats, your companion animals, you're looking at anywhere from $45 a session up to $75, maybe a little bit more if you have really specialized services.

25:37 LM: Like we have a rehabilitation program for people that wanna work specifically with animals, they're recovering from injury or illness, so they have to do a lot more training in terms of pathology, in terms of safety protocols, and so those things might be at a premium to that. And that's gonna be a session. For a dog or a cat, you're looking at 30 minutes to an hour at the outset, but horses, it's gonna be very different 'cause it's gonna take longer, 60-90 minutes is an average horse session, sometimes it's longer, sometimes it's shorter depending on how often you're seeing that animal and what their needs are. And then of course, the price range is gonna be much different, it's probably starting at that $75 range and going anywhere up to 150. Some people's practices are... You're just towards the show environment, so they're following dog shows or agility shows around the country, or they're following horse shows up and down the coast, and so that's a very different environment, things are gonna cost more because there's more costs associated with us being there.

26:44 DB: Is there a disclaimer baked in to communicating with the pet owner there that... We may have set the fee structure here, but it didn't actually last 45 minutes. It may have only been 20 minutes. Does that situation ever arise?

27:00 LM: Sure, yeah, it can. There's usually a lot of things that you can do with an animal in the time that you're with them, and it might not all be hands-on, so we do make sure our clients are aware we're gonna probably do some gait analysis, we're gonna be assessing structure, we wanna see how the dog engages in certain activities, or I might need to see your horse doing whatever the job is that you do with your horse. So if I'm in a situation where the animal is maybe just hyperactive, young dog, lots of energy, maybe they're new to the home, then we might go for a walk, or we might go out in the yard so that I can watch the dog move. I might ask the person to show me what are some of the things you're doing in your training, what are some of the signals you're using. Can he do a sit? Can he do a down? Can we turn him in a circle and see how his back is moving? All the things that you would ask a person to do if you asked them to do active range of motion, we can do with dogs and horses and animals as well.

28:00 LM: We just have to create the environment that allows us to do those activities, and it's valuable time, it's information that we're using to create that animal's plan. So it might not all be hands-on time, but honestly, what we more often find is like we're running out of time, "Okay, we have an hour scheduled. I have to be at my next client, I'm gonna have to find a place to end." You might have a situation with a cat or an animal who's really fearful where they can only tolerate a certain amount of touch or they can only tolerate a certain amount of just presence. And so in those cases, I like to just educate my client that they're paying me for the quality of my work, not the quantity of my work, so there's many times when I can accomplish as much in 10 minutes or 15 minutes with some of the techniques that I have than if I just stayed there for 90 minutes and harassed your dog who doesn't want to be with me anymore. So we just try to make sure that we can make the best use of the time. I charge a flat fee so that if today's session is shorter, it's gonna make it up somewhere down the line when I'm here and your pet needs more from me, then we have a little bit longer session.

29:17 DB: I am sure you piqued all of our listeners' interest because in my mind, I have this massage session with this giraffe going on and I'm just like, "This is incredible." I wanna thank our guest today, Lola Michelin. Thank you so much for joining us, this was a super enlightening conversation, and it was completely delightful. Where can listeners find out more information about you and the school?

29:39 LM: Oh, well, thank you. I had a great time too. And I could talk about it for hours and hours. So thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my passion. So we have a website where people can go to find out more about our class programs, the website is nwsam.com, so Northwest School of Animal Massage, the acronym is NWSAM. We also have a Facebook page, so if you wanna talk to other students, find out what their experience was, that's a great place to check us out. We got all the Insta and Twitter and all the other things too, but I think the website is a great place to start, and we love to talk to people about animal massage and the program, so feel free to call the office and one of us is happy to answer your questions, and our toll free number is 877-836-3703.

30:31 DB: Thank you so much, Lola.

30:33 LM: My pleasure, thank you.

30:35 KC: Lola, thank you. You have given all of us so much more to think about. I can only imagine what's gonna run through people's heads the next time they go to pat their dog or cat in the best possible way. So thank you for that. This is wonderful.

30:45 LM: Thank you.

30:45 S4: This has been a production of Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals. ABMP is the leading association for massage therapists and bodywork professionals in the United States and beyond. From liability insurance to professional advocacy, award-winning publications to the world's largest continuing education library for massage, to this podcast, no organization provides more for its members and the profession than ABMP. ABMP works for you.


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