Massage & Bodywork with Animals - a 1 1/2 year Independent Study

Massage & Bodywork with Animals - a 1 1/2 year Independent Study
by Selena Belisle, Founder/Instructor of CE Institute LLC
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Throughout the years, students have constantly asked us about working with animals.  Anything from hot stone massage, aromatherapy, stretching to lymphatic drainage has been requested to adapt and apply towards our fur babies and more.  This is a largely underserved market which has the potential to explode into a booming business opportunity.
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While self-isolated during the COVID 19 pandemic started, I spent some time to learn about the possibilities of working with our mammalian counterparts primarily in St. Albans, Vermont, USA.  While there is plentiful equestrian massage education, other animal breeds such as cows, bulls, goats, sheep, pigs, canines, felines and even cold blooded breeds of aviary practice are largely unstudied.
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To start our study in March 2019, I bottle fed baby goats on a daily basis, multiple times per day from 2-days to 2+ months old.  What was determined early on as a practitioner was that if you did not have a relationship with an animal, it was less likely to trust you while it was in need of care or in medical distress at any age.  We tested if early nursing and care could establish a potential long-term trust between the practitioner and animal. With this theory, daily nursing and care was provided for almost 80 newborns.  These newborns had great trust for their caretaker and usually allowed the caretaker to do anything to them, including positioning the animal at various angles to gain access to various joints and muscles throughout their body with a willing and docile result.
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Over one year passed before I was able to return to care for the newborns that I had extensively nursed 16 months prior.  What was found was that without perpetual care, the animals became less trusting and cooperative, despite being their primary newborn care provider.  Moreso, when an animal is in medical distress, unless exhausted and dying, most animals are likely to be extremely alert and defensive, shying away from any possible practitioner care.  As such, it was determined that to work on mammals such as farm animals, it would be best if the full-time farm hand/caretaker was trained to administer massage or bodywork techniques for pain relief or other medical requirements rather than have a trained bodywork practitioner attempt to work on a strange animal with no established relationship, especially when the animal is alert and able to engage physical defense mechanisms.
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A Brief Synopsis of Massage and Bodywork Care for Animal Species that were Studied for the past 1 1/2 years:
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Goats
The goats were the primary target of this study.  Tame goats can be extremely friendly - none were considered aggressive.  Baby goats who received constant human care from an early age were easiest to provide massage and orthopedic bodywork.  The best position for this care was when a practitioner was in a seated position with the baby goat lying across the practitioner's legs. The goat's front legs should be over one side of the practitioner's lap and the rear legs should be over the opposite side of the practitioner's lap.  The baby goat is usually a willing and flexible participant if the practitioner administers bottle nursing with simultaneous massage modality while in the practitioner's lap.  Couple day old heifer and bull calves may also be manipulated with the same approach, depending on the animal's nature and personality.
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Dogs
Puppies have little attention span so older dogs may be better candidates for massage and bodywork care.  Depending on the breed, most working dogs will lie still enough to enjoy hands-on practice while smaller toy breeds may become distracted and want something different. 
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Cats
Cats have little to no attention span at any age - and their personalities will vary greatly.  Tame geriatric cats might be the best candidate for massage and bodywork. 
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Cows and Bulls
Full grown bulls are typically much more aggressive than a cow; however, all of them have the potential to harm or kill the practitioner when working underneath the specimen.  Bulls may even charge or buck the practitioner.  It would be wise to work on this specimen's lower extremities in an elevated milking parlor station where the animal could be placed high above the practitioner in an enclosed stall to curtail their physical movement.  
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Horses
Almost all horses at any age are skittish.  In this study, I had the opportunity to work on a 5 year old male Clydesdale, a 2 year old female Clydesdale and a geriatric paint.  The geriatric paint was interesting because she had severe arthritis and would often lie down in open fields and would appear dead.  However, if you approached her she would get up onto her arthritic legs, no matter how much it would hurt.  Working on a horse's lower extremities would be advised similar to cows - such as to place them in a milking station where the animal could be placed high above the practitioner in an enclosed stall to curtail their physical movement. Working on a large animal's hips could be opposite - by placing the practitioner in the elevated stall and the animal below where a practitioner would usually stand or work within the milking parlor. This opposite placement will allow a practitioner to reach over or through the milking stall to access the animal's hips and spine in a safer position rather than next to the animal where a practitioner might be more easily stepped on, bucked or crushed.  Additionally working on an inflexible concrete structure of a milking parlor may be more stable than working with a ladder that is movable and collapsable.
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Getting any animal, especially large animals such as a horse, cow or bull to lie down for treatment would be the best possible scenario, but most of these animals will not lie down with human command unless they are extremely well trained.
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Obviously the practitioner will need to adapt their treatment to their surroundings and available equipment or environment to provide the safest and most effective possible treatment for themselves and the animal.  Working in advanced farming situations such as in a milking parlor would require farm-hand training to ensure proper safety measures are taken for both the practitioner and animal.  Further education about each animal species is required prior to any attempt to administer massage or bodywork modalities to it.
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Aviary
When trying to separate day-old ducklings from their mother on a farm where there is regular human presence, the mother would attack the human and the ducklings would squeal.  Most mothers will continue to sleep on top of their hatchlings after they've hatched so gaining safe access to the hatchlings (to tame or care for them) can be difficult.  An aviary mothers' instinct to protect their babies was a common response amongst the aviary farming community which in this study included:  turkeys, geese, chickens and ducks.  It would be important to note that where this study was conducted, the birds had a hen house that they occupied at night for safety; however wild foxes, bears and panthers roamed the grounds during the day which put the birds at extreme risk for maiming or death.  These birds were not caged and could roam the grounds freely.  As such, attempting to tame the birds for human care could be detrimental to their survival instincts of living in an open country scenario.
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Working with different species will vary greatly upon the particular animal, breed, size, injury and their disposition towards humans or the practitioner.  Even a neutered animal may behave differently than one that is not.  The one consistency amongst all of these species is that most animals usually do not provide a welcome mat for human intervention when they are in medical distress or injured, especially to human strangers.  The animals we had the greatest success with were baby goats and calves when providing daily newborn care and geriatric working dogs.
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Working on stray or feral animals is usually pointless given their distress when handled by humans.  The likeliness to sustain bodily injury from scratches or bites is great and the practitioner could be additionally infected with rabies and other disease.
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There are indeed some practitioners who could be more soothing to animals than others.  However, it is important to remember that most mammals have an extremely strong flight or fight mechanism that they will engage whenever they are in medical distress.  As such, massage and bodywork services may be best administered as prophylactic care and for general wellness and physical performance improvement instead of an attempt to work on strange animals in medical distress.
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To further illustrate how bodywork is not always easily adapted to animals, modalities such as lymphatic drainage would require shaving prior to application.  Shaving an animal in medical distress to apply a modality to relieve their swelling is not an option given this will likely cause greater emotional distress to the animal.  Applying gentle light-touch lymphatic drainage techniques through animal fur seemed to be ineffective, hence the need for shaving to work directly on the animal's skin.
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Tranquilizers are often administered in veterinary medicine; however, as holistic practitioners engaging in massage and bodywork, we did not feel this was a prudent option given the whole point of administering holistic care was to naturally heal the animal, not chemically drug it.
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1-day Old Duckling
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We did find that some mammals and birds at any age were more trusting of human care than others.  They had different personalities.  Some were extremely shy and some were extremely loving, sometimes irregardless to the amount of human attention provided to them throughout their life.  However even the most trusting animal in medical distress can become alarmed with the most soothing human techniques given most animal instincts are to run and hide to further protect themselves when they are injured.  We noticed that with joint displacement, the animal was less likely to approach or be interested in human care after the displacement regardless of how it was achieved with a stranger/practitioner.
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It is important to keep in mind that when working with animals, there is various zoonotic disease that could be easily transmitted from one animal to the next.  Proper hand washing and precautionary measures used for human care should be similarly exercised with animals - although there are veterinary techniques and tricks that are more efficient for animal care when properly trained.  Over half the baby goats that were nursed in Spring 2020 had visible effects from the orf virus, and while rare, one of the full time goat caregivers visibly contracted the virus on their hand as well.  The caregiver never wore gloves when handling the animals which likely led to the infection.
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The easiest massage or bodywork modality to administer to all healthy mammals seemed to be vigorous sports and circular style massage.  Once trust was established, a common response was the animal would lean into the practitioners hand for additional pressure and contact.  This action helped verify that the animal enjoyed the therapy and was seeking more.
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The hardest massage and bodywork modalities to administer to animals were services such as thermal or cryotherapy, lymphatic drainage and other techniques to relieve musculoskeletal pain or swelling.  While these modalities could likely help the animal, it was fairly pointless to administer if the animal did not have total trust or obedience for the practitioner.  Once the animal was injured, regardless of how, the animal was regularly not interested in human intervention unless the practitioner was an already established caretaker.  Of course, if the animal was approaching death and motionless, then it could receive practitioner care from a stranger which usually resulted in emotional distress even if the animal could no longer physically move or leave the treatment area.  That type of death-on-doorstep therapy is ill advised given further engaging the animal's fight or flight mechanism with seriously elevated heart beat and blood pressure is likely not healthy for an injured animal.  At the same time, daily nursed newborn goats with broken legs were more apt to seek human care for their comfort and injuries when that practitioner was also their full-time nurse and primary caretaker.
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In summary, we do feel that massage and bodywork techniques could be very helpful for animal health, and are even found to be enjoyable by most animals when they are friendly and healthy.  However, administering massage and bodywork techniques to sick and strange animals as an on-call or independent practitioner may not be the best approach to improve their well being.  
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This is an ongoing study which will hopefully span more than a decade of working with various animal species that are not regularly considered for human administered massage and bodywork.  We feel that show and race animals could gain a competitive advantage with speed and agility from therapeutic massage and bodywork.  We also feel that show animals such as cats may become more friendly with human massage which could be an advantage when handled by a judge for inspection during competition. 
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It may be possible that pain relief and orthopedic dysfunction could be improved with overall increased circulation and therapeutic massage modalities. This could possibly improve an animal's quality of life and extend their life expectancy. According to americanpetproducts.org, in 2020, $103.6 billion was spent on our pets in the U.S. For 2021, it estimated that $109.6 billion will be spent on our pets in the U.S. Furthermore, Ibis.com reported the massage industry will be $16.2bn in 2021 which is primarily comprised of services for humans alone.  Both the pet care and massage industries continue to rapidly expand and will continue to do so when greater applications are explored and expanded.
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Overall, we feel there is place for human administered massage and bodywork for a variety of animals and purposes that should be further studied and published.  Written protocols and techniques for how to treat various animal species at various ages and environments should be developed for further research, education and potential industry use.
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