Providers of animal massage in legal battle with state vet board
Celeste Kelly moves her hands over the back leg of Bend N’ Snap, or Bend, a 12-year-old jumping horse that sustained an injury a few years ago, pressing her fingertips on his sore muscles. The horse closes his eyes and lowers his head, as if to say he is enjoying the massage.
Bend’s owner has hired Kelly for the past four years to give the horse massages as part of his recovery plan, similar to how an injured athlete might receive massage therapy.
“A sore, tight muscle is a sore, tight muscle whether it’s on a person, a horse, a cat, a dog, whatever,” Kelly said.
The Tucson resident has been making a living as a horse massager for more than a decade and is certified by three private schools as an equine massager, but 18 months ago the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board sent her a cease-and-desist letter for diagnosing and treating an animal without a veterinary license.
According to state statute, any person who diagnoses or treats animals for a fee must have a veterinary license. Treating an animal without a license is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and fines up to $2,500.
“The way the statutes are currently written, only someone with a veterinary license may do anything to a horse for a fee,” Kelly said.
Kelly completed about 360 hours of training over the course of a year at two equine massage schools, Aspen Equine Studies in Colorado and Galen Equestrian Academy in Connecticut. She also completed 40 hours of training in myofascial release, an alternative form of physical therapy, from an instructor in Sedona.
The question facing Kelly and many other massagers in Arizona and the U.S. is whether or not animal massage qualifies as veterinary practice.
After receiving a second letter from the board in May, Kelly decided to do something about it and reached out to the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm.
In March, the firm filed a lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court against the board on behalf of Kelly and two other animal massagers, Grace Granatelli of Scottsdale and Stacey Kollman of Tucson. Granatelli received a cease-and-desist letter from the board in September for practicing canine massage. Kollman, who is an equine massager, hasn’t received a letter from the board.
Diana Simpson, the lead attorney on the case, said the wording of the state law is too broad and goes against the U.S. and Arizona constitutions.
“One of the most important rights our Constitution protects is the right to earn an honest living,” she said at a news conference in March near the courthouse. “Unfortunately for Arizona entrepreneurs, this right is being violated by a government protecting veterinary industry insiders.”
The Institute for Justice won a similar lawsuit in Maryland in 2009 when a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge declared that there were no laws in the state requiring an animal massager to have a license.
Victoria Whitmore, executive director of the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board, declined an interview request but sent an email on behalf of the board, saying members can’t comment because of the pending lawsuit.
“Protecting the health and safety of the general public and animals in our state in accordance with Arizona statutes is the board’s primary role,” the statement said. “The board considers each case and circumstance individually, with our mission in mind.”
In response to a public records request, the board provided copies of emails raising concerns about Kelly and Granatelli. The copies removed the email addresses and names of the senders.
The email about Kelly said she used an electro-medical device called an Electro-Acuscope on horses without the supervision of a licensed veterinarian. That device is used on both horses and humans to reduce pain by stimulating the nervous system without puncturing the skin.
Kelly said she wouldn’t comment on the complaint. “Something that is so cowardly to remain anonymous doesn’t deserve a response,” she said.
The email about Granatelli said her website mentions treating dogs for cuts and sores, suggesting that she provides veterinary treatment.
Granatelli said she doesn’t treat or diagnose dogs but works with veterinarians to provide complementary therapy, including massage, essential oils and Reiki, a traditional Japanese method of healing.
“For them to think I’m just going around treating dogs is way inaccurate,” she said.
Martin Carbo, an equine veterinarian in Scottsdale and a partner at Chaparral Veterinary Medical Center, said animal massage isn’t something that falls under the category of veterinary medicine.
“I don’t know a single veterinarian who would be either interested in doing massage nor qualified to do massage,” he said.
Carbo, who said he knows Kelly but has never worked with her, said massage therapists should work with veterinarians but shouldn’t try to cure or diagnose a problem on their own. That is where he could see a problem arising with the veterinary board.
Autum Busarow, a veterinarian at the Southwest Equine Medical and Surgical Center and has worked with equine massagers, said massage can be beneficial for horses. However, she said she is skeptical of some of the certification processes.
“Some of those certifications are like two days long, so I have a hard time feeling like they’ve learned enough about the horses anatomy or function and really know properly how to do it with that short of time,” she said.
For Kelly, winning this case isn’t just about winning the right to work. It’s about giving horses a pain-free life, she said.
“If we can clear the air and clear it for every other therapist in the state, then it will be a good thing and it will be a good for horse owners and horses because horse owners should be free to be able to choose whatever services they want for their horse,” she said. “And these horses have a right, in my mind, to do the things we ask them to do without pain.”