Over the decades, the regulatory picture surrounding animal massage in the United States has been a bit like an etch-a-sketch, constantly shifting and frequently unclear. Individual states generally associate animal massage either with veterinary care or human massage, neither of which truly provides a satisfactory legislative definition for either consumer or practitioner.
The precarious nature of “complementary” or “alternative” animal therapies (depending on who is doing the talking) was made evident again in recent weeks as California made one more attempt to propose new language into that state’s veterinary practice act. Before discussing the specifics revealed in a recent meeting of the California Veterinary Medical Board in Sacramento, a brief summary of the regulatory process would be appropriate.
Most people would agree that those who practice animal therapies are considered animal health care providers and complete some form of training in their given modality or technique. In the majority of states, health care providers are regulated by the Department of Health for that region. The Department of Health directs and oversees the activities of individual boards for the various health professions such as nursing, veterinary medicine, massage therapy and so on. There are a few exceptions, such as New York State, where massage is regulated by the Office of Professions. When a new profession is created, either a board must be assembled or an existing board must agree to adopt the new profession when there is a close relationship or association to the profession they already regulate. Those boards are responsible for establishing standards for practice and drafting legislation appropriate to the practice. Boards may choose to have a profession recognized through licensing, a registration or certification.
New professions are often hard to classify and may exist in the public domain for some period of time before they are actually regulated. This is especially true for many complementary or alternative therapies such as homeopathy, energy work, massage or bodywork modalities or holistic medicine practices. It is just this conundrum that the animal massage industry currently exists in. Although animal massage/acupressure has been in existence and in popular use by consumers for decades or longer, very few states actually regulate the professions or provide the protections that come with professional recognition. A few states have very specific training requirements (including Arizona / Texas / Colorado / Massachusetts); one state has a defined licensing program (Washington) and still another handful actually restrict massage to veterinary medicine practice (Pennsylvania / New York). The majorities of states have no formal language in their legislation and often leave the practice to interpretation by either the Veterinary Board or the Massage Board. This situation, of course, leads to a great deal of confusion for all involved as the interpretation can vary depending on the day and the individual. Increasingly, as the efficacy of these various modalities becomes more recognized and their popularity among animal-owners grows, unregulated states are pressed to take a position. This brings us back to California.
In 2010, the California Veterinary Board proposed a change to the Veterinary Practice Act that would have restricted animal massage (along with many other therapies) to veterinarians or to veterinary technicians under the direct supervision of a veterinarian only. The opposition to the change was significant and the proposal was abandoned at that time. However, in recent years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of paraprofessionals (qualified non-veterinary practitioners) offering services for rehabilitation of animals recovering from injury or illness. The subject of scope of practice for these complementary therapies was once again brought into question. The California chapter of the Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) created a task force to look into the question of how to define “animal rehabilitation”. The result of this task force was a recommendation to adopt language specifically claiming that a wide range of complementary therapies should be considered animal rehabilitation and restricted to veterinary practice or direct supervision (Regulation 2038.5).
To read the specifics of the proposed change visit https://www.change.org/p/annemarie-delmugnaio-dca-ca-gov-elizabeth-bynum-dca-ca-gov-ca-animal-owners-protect-your-right-to-choose-before-it-is-too-late?recruiter=366276196&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=copylink.
As a result, groups formed in opposition of the proposed change and a number of petitions were circulated. Numerous people underwent great efforts to educate the public and the animal therapy community about the proposed legislation and encourage people to sign petitions, write letters to the appropriate legislators and board members and appear to provide testimony at the public hearing held on September 10th in Sacramento. Many individuals, representing these groups or personal interests attended the hearing. With over 140 people in attendance, 4 individuals testified in support of the legislation while over 40 people testified in staunch opposition. Many of those attending spoke eloquently about the unfairness of the proposed legislation, the challenge it would create for the consumer in both access and affordability and the overreaching nature of the language, assuming that all veterinarians would be versed enough in such a wide array of modalities to provide direct supervision. Notably, a number of veterinarians spoke in opposition of the proposed language, claiming that they would not want the responsibility of oversight and that they valued the relationship they had with paraprofessionals who provided quality services outside of the clinical setting that they would not want their clients to go without.
The California Veterinary Board has agreed to review the proposed language based on the comments received and to revise the language before holding two additional public hearings on the matter in October of this year. This is a major victory that would have been impossible without the hard work of so many dedicated to the cause. However, it is important to recognize that the battle may be won, but the fight is far from over. Just as happened in 2010 and is happening now in 2015, without specific legislation in place to either protect animal owner’s rights or practitioner’s right to practice, nothing will prevent California from bringing the issue to bear again in a few years hence. Those interested should continue to follow the activities in California and should continue to lend their support in the form of communications, testimony or appearance at the future meetings. You can also receive updates directly from the Veterinary Medical Board by signing up at their LISTSERVE: https://www.dca.ca.gov/webapps/vmb/subscribe.php.
Most importantly, individuals within the animal massage community, practitioners and consumers alike, should be vigilant in tracking the legislative processes in their own regions to ensure that this does not happen in their own backyards. Getting involved in the legislative process in order to defend your right to practice or your right to access to complementary therapies does not have to be daunting. In fact, the legislative process is designed to encourage participation by those most affected by the laws and anyone can participate in ensuring that their state adopts sensible legislation in regards to animal care. For more information on the legislative process, you can visit the government website for your state or you can participate in a webinar offered by NBCAAM (National Board of Certification for Animal Acupressure and Massage).
There are challenges ahead to be sure. More and more states will begin to look at ways to regulate animal massage and related therapies. Some members of our community believe that there should be no regulations policing the practice of animal massage and that it should ultimately be the animal owner’s right to choose who they employ to care for their animals and what methods they use. Others within the industry feel that there are reasonable ways to provide legislative oversight of the profession that protect the consumer, ensure a standard level and scope of practice and provide protection recognition for providers. In either case, all agree that the services provided are valued and valuable and should be accessible. The challenge we face will not only come from those who would restrict therapies to veterinary practice. We also face the challenge of overcoming the differences within our own community so that together we can foster an environment where the consumer and practitioners can work together along with other animal health care providers to ultimately ensure the highest quality of care for the animals themselves.