Four-Legged Clients

... and the bodyworkers who care for them

By Rebecca Jones

Most bodywork clients appreciate the serenity of a darkened room, with soothing music playing quietly in the background and a touch of scented oil in the air. Then, there are Kathi Soukup’s clients.


Like a growing number of massage therapists and bodyworkers, Soukup has become a family practitioner in the broadest sense of the term. An avid endurance rider, she began her career working on horses and later learned to work on humans. Now, she’s just as comfortable providing massage and acupressure to four-legged family members as two-legged ones. 

“I’ve been in a veterinarian’s office with a massage table set up in the middle and a dozen dogs barking in the background,” says Soukup, a massage therapist in Freeport, Illinois, who also plies her trade in barns, tack rooms, and anywhere else her clients call home. “I just try to find a level spot to work.”

As a result, her clientele are as diverse as the venues in which she practices. “I have the trifecta,” she says. “I work on people, their horses, and their dogs. Typically, I work on the horse every month, the human two to three times a year, and the dog whenever an issue comes up.”

Denise Theobald, who has a massage practice in suburban Chicago, went the opposite route. Ten years into her (human) massage career, she thought she was approaching burnout. About the same time, one of her three dogs began limping, and a light bulb went on. “I’m surprised it took me that long to think of it,” Theobald says. “I always wanted to work with animals, but bodywork was my life. It just made sense that I would take everything that I learned in the human world and apply it to cats and dogs.”

For the next 14 years, Theobald’s human clientele filled the bulk of her time, but she made more and more house calls to see animal clients. “While I was at the house for the animal, the owner would ask, ‘While you’re here, could you work on my wife?’” Three years ago, Theobald closed her human practice and opened Canine Massage Chicago, an office where people can bring their pets. 

“I’d say 70–80 percent of the dogs I work on are on a mat on the floor,” Theobald says. “But if a smaller dog is comfortable up on the table, I use sheets and change them, just like with humans.” Plus, if a human wants a massage, she’ll oblige. “People typically don’t come here looking to get a massage for themselves, but they know I’m licensed and qualified to give human massages. There’s just some dog hair in the room.”

Learning the Right Techniques

Such blended animal-human practices are familiar to animal acupressure pioneer Amy Snow. Snow and her partner Nancy Zidonis are cofounders of Tallgrass Animal Acupressure Institute in Castle Pines, Colorado, and the authors of eight textbooks on animal acupressure. Snow estimates about one-third of the roughly 300 graduates of the Tallgrass program now have blended practices. 

“We have quite a few licensed massage therapists in our program,” says Snow, who originally trained in Chinese medicine nearly 40 years ago and teamed with Zidonis 15 years ago. “They come because they want to expand to serve the whole family, not just people and not just horses.”

Tallgrass has lately begun promoting tui na, an ancient form of Chinese acupressure massage, as especially appropriate for animals. Snow says animals are highly responsive to the tui na techniques of “dredging,” or clearing the meridians through grasping, holding, kneading, pressing, pounding, pushing, rolling, rubbing, and other manual manipulations.

At Tallgrass, Snow teaches a set of 11 different hand techniques, each with a subset of at least three different movements. “You’re not doing massage in the same way, but working with meridians and specific acupoints,” she says. “The movement and techniques are very soothing and repetitive. In some ways, it’s like massage, but tui na is specific to working with meridians.”

Expanding Your Market

From a business standpoint, it makes a lot of sense for massage therapists and other bodyworkers to expand their practices to include animals, as it substantially broadens the pool of potential clients. 

What’s more, many pet owners willingly invest in services to enhance their animal’s well-being, even when they won’t spend the money on themselves. That’s why US spending on pets in 2013 is expected to top $55 billion, up nearly 28 percent since 2008. Last year, Inc. magazine declared pet care one of the best industries for starting a new business. 

But working with animals isn’t for every bodyworker. “You do have to know about animals,” Snow says. “You have to have a background in animals, and you have to love them. You also have to have enough knowledge to keep yourself safe.”

Snow has worked on everything from cats and dogs to ferrets, minks, and rabbits, and Zidonis has worked on a variety of larger animals, including goats and sheep. “She’s helped deliver baby goats by using acupressure points to help the contractions,” Snow says. “It’s amazing how receptive any animal is when they’re not feeling good.”

Certain animals are well-suited for different kinds of bodywork. For example, Snow finds that cats, who may not enjoy massage as much as dogs or horses, especially enjoy tui na. “I find cats and horses to be the most energetically connected animals,” she says. “They have personalities. Some will like one thing and not another. You have to use your educated intuition.”

Reaching All Clients

Therapists experienced in both animal and human massage and bodywork techniques say they’re amazed at how often pets and their owners seem to suffer from the same maladies. It’s usually not coincidence.

“It is pretty funny how they mirror each other,” Theobald says. “Many times, if you have an active dog coming in for a sports massage, the owners are fit and active themselves.”

“With horse and rider teams, if the human has a stiff neck, the horse may develop a stiff neck as well,” Soukup says. “When we ride them and we’re not in balance, we may cause them to be out of balance.” Sympathy pains are also common. “I see more emotional things with dogs. Dogs live in the house with humans, and they pick up on those things, like anxiety and grief, which can manifest in physical issues like allergies.” 

It’s clear that both humans and animals can benefit from receiving bodywork, and these practitioners are proof that bodyworkers, through working with both humans and animals, can benefit, too. 

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

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