Animal Massage During the Coronavirus Pandemic
By Lola Michelin
In a world where everything has been impacted by the current global pandemic, the massage profession has had its share of challenges. Closures, threat of infection, and a changing landscape related to long-term health implications of this particular coronavirus have many massage therapists seeking guidance.
One segment of our field was uniquely impacted, and in some aspects may have even gotten an unforeseen boost from our altered reality. That segment is the lesser known but ever-growing market for animal massage.
Animal massage practitioners, like most, saw their practices screech to a halt in early 2020, with the call to stay at home and the uncertainty of visiting “clients” in people’s homes or barns. But early on, creative approaches and client demand saw these professionals returning to work well ahead of the curve. In some cases, business is now booming.
For therapists, working with animal clients did not pose the same risks as working with human clients in terms of infections. While animals do get coronavirus, there is no evidence that this particular virus is zoonotic (one that can pass between pets or livestock and people). Animals could serve as a fomite, however, meaning the virus could potentially be transmitted on their fur or skin, requiring added precautions in hygiene. For many therapists, the risks to them or their clients’ owners were too great to consider practicing.
Speaking for myself, my client base is mixed. I work on horses, pets, people, and zoo animals. While I stopped seeing people when COVID-19 hit, I was able to visit the horses I care for by scheduling times when other people would not be in the stable. And since most riding stables were observing protocols and limiting foot traffic, the aisleways of my clients’ barns were less hazardous than the aisleways I encountered at the grocery store. Clients started calling for appointments pretty early on in the pandemic. They were spending more time at home with their pets and, in some cases, unable to visit their veterinary or chiropractic offices for regular pain or mobility management.
Because I work closely with several veterinary clinics, I have seen a substantial increase in the number of veterinary referrals to help aging pets or pets recovering from pre-pandemic procedures. Typically, my “house calls” have turned into “yard calls,” where the owner will put their dog out in the yard shortly before my arrival. This allowed me to provide my service outside and safely distanced, while also being masked and gloved. Sometimes owners talked to me through their front windows or sat on their porches. While it was awkward at first, for many it provided a social connection they were sorely missing.
After a session, I wipe the pet down with a non-irritating disinfecting wipe. I now carry water jugs and hand soap/sanitizer in my trunk, or schedule sessions far enough apart to rush home for a shower and change of clothes. At home, I correspond through digital charts and automated invoicing and payment software. I have done some Zoom calls to teach my higher-risk clients some basic massage they can provide their pets until we can be together again.
I’ve kept in touch with our Northwest School of Animal Massage students and graduates throughout this time to hear how they are dealing with the challenges:
“I do massage at a dog-boarding kennel. Because people are traveling and boarding their dogs so little, my business has fallen off by about 95 percent.” —Paige Jones
“I notice people are spending more time with their dogs, giving them more exercise, noticing more, and researching more. Many people retained their jobs, and now with travel out the window, they seem to have a bit more cash to spend on other things. After being closed for almost three months, things have been very busy!” —Marta Banat, All Paws Massage
Equine massage practitioners were impacted by the cancellation of the shows and events that made up a large part of their business, though, in many cases, it resulted in more frequent home visits for athletes without an outlet for their energy:
“With most of the rodeos and gaming, barrel events being canceled, it was slow. Finally starting to pick back up.” —Treana Storie
A number of practitioners commented on the fact that pets seemed to be impacted emotionally or psychologically by the added stress in the home and directed their massage work to these concerns, as much as physical ones:
“I have been very fortunate; the business I work at was closed for two months, but we have been really busy since we reopened. I feel like the dogs have been absorbing their people’s emotions quite a bit.” —Katy Hayes
With people working and studying from home more, pets have taken on a more prominent role in many lives. We all recognize the comfort our pets can provide us in troubled times, particularly when we are feeling so separate from our own friends and families. Returning the favor through a massage doesn’t really sound like a luxury anymore, even to those who had never before considered it:
“If there was any question as to massage being beneficial, it is! Getting back to clients after a three-month hiatus, it was completely noticeable. Had to start from scratch for bodywork!” —Anne Morrison, SAMP
“For me, it really showed how valued this work is to our clients and their humans. I had many who basically said, ‘I consider you essential to my horses’ care—so you’re an essential worker’.” —Kara Kristine O’Laughlin, LAMP
Crystal balls are pretty murky these days, so who knows what the future holds. When I went back to see my massage practitioner for the first time after quarantine, it was a blessed relief. I couldn’t imagine life without massage. It also made me sad for those who I know won’t be returning anytime soon—on either side of the table. As a massage therapist myself, I feel blessed to have a diverse practice where I can work with people and animals. The animal side of my practice is booming and I feel it is where I can be of most help to people at the moment, while keeping us both safe.
Lola Michelin is an animal massage practitioner, and the director of education at the Northwest School of Animal Massage in Washington State. For more information on animal massage, visit www.nwsam.com.