Posted: February 27, 2009

Massage therapy goes to the dogs

Vet clinic touts services for $60 a pop

Mike Taylor

I’ve never paid for a massage for myself, let alone one for my dog, so when a flyer arrived in my mailbox from my vet announcing this new service and listing the therapeutic benefits of canine massage, I initially viewed it as a case of extreme anthropomorphism.
 
Right up there with sunglasses for dogs. Or Frosty Paws frozen treats for dogs. Or baseball caps for dogs. Or dog food in tantalizing shapes and colors for dogs – which really only entices the humans paying for it.

Just because people like massages, does that mean our four-legged best friends do, too? I mean, how can you tell if a dog is enjoying having his shoulders and legs rubbed in a vet clinic, as opposed to merely tolerating it?

“When they fall asleep on me I figure that’s a good sign,” said Chris Houghton, the massage therapist at Campus Veterinary Clinic in Southeast Denver.

Houghton, who first became certified to give horse massages 12 years ago, explained that the purpose behind her massages for horses and dogs is different than massages for most people.

“It tends to be more of a therapy than, like, with people who go and listen to the waterfall with the candles and all of that,” Houghton said.

Houghton, 38, has been a certified veterinary technician at Campus Vet Clinic for 11 years. She became certified in equine massage therapy through the Equine Sports Massage Center while attending Bel Rea Institute of Animal Technology, where she earned an associate’s degree in 1997.

Houghton, who has a horse and three dogs of her own, says she worked her way from horse massage to canines from continuing education through Colorado State University and the Canine Rehab Institute.

Eight weeks into the new dog-massage service at Campus Vet Clinic, Houghton had seven massage-therapy clients, plus a few clients that she sees on her own. Some come once a week, some every other week. She’s trying to get one dog who is recovering from knee surgery down to a visit every three weeks. Another recent patient was a dog recovering from a stroke.

“You can see a difference when dogs go too long (between visits) and then the owners are calling,” Houghton says. “If I can get them out to every three weeks or so we’d like to do it, because it is an expense, but that third week is when you start seeing them slowing back down again.”

Houghton says another niche that could use her services are dogs that participate in organized athletics such as flyball and agility events, so she’s planning to attend a flyball tournament in the next few weeks to prospect for clients.

The cost for a dog massage seems to be about in line with what it costs a human: $60 per visit. A session lasts 45 minutes to an hour. Houghton performs the massages in a room with a big dog bed, and she says, “I’ve got a CD for animal healing that we play during it, and we use essential oils and flower essence as well.”

I asked Houghton about giving massages to dogs that are resistant to the therapy, especially aggressive dogs.

“Those you pretty much don’t do,” she said. “Because when you get to the ones that don’t want to be there and that are that set against having it done, you’re not accomplishing anything. It’s just not worth it. When it comes a point that you have to muzzle the dog to give it the massage, it’s kind of lost the therapeutic benefit you’re going to be giving to it, because now it’s stressed out and fighting. You’re not making any progress with it.”

Getting owners to fork over $60 for their dog to get a massage would seem to be an even harder sell in this recession. But that could work both ways. Could dogs be feeling their owners stress of this economic uncertainty and hardship?

“Oh yeah, Houghton said. “Have you ever owned a dog? They can tell when you’ve had a bad day. They know. They’ll take on whatever you’re feeling. So sometimes you have to say, ‘OK is this really what the dog’s projecting, or is this what I’m projecting onto the dog?’”

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Mike Taylor is the managing editor of ColoradoBiz. He writes about small-business money issues and how startups are launched. Email him at mtaylor@cobizmag.com.

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