Bodywork for Animals

Counting Critters Among Clientele

By Rebecca Jones
[ten for today ]

1. Become Nationally Certified

Animal massage is not only gaining public recognition; now there are opportunities for national certification. “For years, animal massage practitioners have had to practice without legal recognition or protection from their states,” says Lola Michelin, director of education for the Northwest School of Animal Massage ( in Seattle, Washington. “All that is changing as organizations form to promote higher standards of practice and lobby for legislation recognizing the valuable service animal massage practitioners provide.” Two organizations worth checking out: the National Board of Certification for Animal Acupressure & Massage ( and the International Association of Animal Massage and Bodywork (IAAMB,

2. Learn the Laws

Before ever putting a therapeutic finger to fur, find out what the laws are in your state, as they vary dramatically. In some states, animal massage is legal only under the supervision of a veterinarian. Others require specific licensure, while some have no regulations at all. If you’re not sure, a good place to start is the IAAMB, which keeps a list of the laws in each state, and a link to the state legislative scopes of practice.

3. Recession-Proof Clients

One bonus of providing animal massage is that the companion animal industry is somewhat immune to difficult economic times. “Animals get a lot of disposable income sent their way,” Michelin says. “In times when people are making choices about how often they’ll get massages for themselves, they haven’t shown any reluctance to provide for their pet. If anything, they turn their focus back more to the home, and [their] pet’s health and well-being becomes an even bigger concern. It’s definitely a growth market.”

4. Sympathetic Response

When animals receive bodywork, their owners get part of the benefit. “When owners see their beloved animals relaxing, that in turn increases their own satisfaction and relaxation,” says Nancy Zidonis, cofounder of Tallgrass Animal Acupressure Institute ( in Castle Pines, Colorado, and a pioneer in the field of animal acupressure. “They go in tandem.”

5. Train Your Touch

Animals aren’t people, and what’s good for humans isn’t necessarily good for animals. “Animals are much more sensitive,” says Carol Komitor, founder of Healing Touch for Animals ( in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. “You have to be softer when you approach them.” Komitor cautions against touching them in a way that tickles or makes their skin ruffle. “Your hand can’t be pushy, but must find that nice edge between too light and too much pressure. Speak with a voice that is understanding to let them know you are the leader.”

6. Read Body Language Cues

It’s important to understand animal body language and not misread the signals animals send about their levels of discomfort. “Some dogs’ response to distress is to get really excited,” says Robyn Hood, senior instructor of
the Tellington TTouch Method
( “People think they like what you’re doing, but that’s not always the case.” Hood recommends the book On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals (Dogwise Publishing, 2005) by Turid Rugaas to help decipher just what that licking, looking away, or panting might mean.

7. Unusual Clientele

Dogs and horses make up the bulk of animal massage and bodywork clients, but they’re by no means the only clients. Hood recently worked on a boa constrictor that was having trouble shedding its skin. (Relaxation helps the shedding process.) She’s also worked with meerkats and skunks. Michelin has worked on a hairless coatimundi, a reticulated giraffe, a three-legged horse, a guide dog for the blind who was also blind, and a three-toed sloth. “If you’re tired of the same clients week after week, maybe it’s time you considered adding animals to your practice,” Michelin says.

8. Home Visits Create Comfort

Some therapists do have the animals come to them for massage, but most experts say making house calls is better for several reasons. Lots of animals associate car trips with going to the vet, which makes them anxious. Plus, they’re usually just more comfortable in their own environment. Home visits also cut down on the practitioner’s overhead. But if you’re determined to do the work in your own studio, make sure it’s in a separate room from your human clients. Clients with pet allergies will thank you.

9. Essential Oil Safety

Essential oils can be used to enhance animal massage, but be wary of using them around cats. While cats express an interest in aromatherapy, Michelin says their livers are ill equipped to metabolize some of the elements found in essential oils. “Some oils even present a risk of fatal toxicity, so use caution when using oils around your household if you share it with a feline, and never apply oils directly to a cat without training first. Hydrosols can be a nice and effective alternative.”

10. Caring for Owners

It’s a good idea to network with veterinarians, grief counselors, and other human care providers if you work with animals, because pet massage is never just about the pet. “That pet has a guardian who has sought you out, and who loves that animal so much she wants to invest in a not-so-common modality,” says Cindy Horsfall, owner of La Paw Spa ( in Sequim, Washington, and a pioneer in canine aquatic massage. “[The owner] comes in with this unconditional love for this animal, and if you’re providing geriatric canine massage, you will probably be the person who is providing therapy and comfort to both of them right up until the passing of that animal. It can be very emotional. And deep. And wonderful.”



Specifically educated animal massage and bodywork practitioners can expect to earn anywhere from $40–$70 per session, with sessions lasting 40 to 50 minutes. If a particular owner- or trainer-client has previously been exposed to the benefits of animal bodywork, fees in the higher range are acceptable. Where an owner or trainer is new to the work, a lower fee or introductory rate may be useful. Know that some animal clients may not tolerate sessions longer than 20 to 30 minutes.

Rebecca Jones is a tenured Massage & Bodywork freelance writer. She lives and writes in Denver, Colorado. Contact her at