Margaret Taormina’s massage therapy clients can’t say thanks with a glowing Yelp review. But they give her feedback in other ways.
Take 8-year-old Buddy, for example: He twitches his stubby bulldog legs. He yawns. Occasionally, his eyes roll back into his head because he’s fallen into a deep sleep. And he farts — a lot.
“Gas is good when it comes to dog massage,” Taormina says. “It shows the dog is relaxed, and also that the toxins are working their way out.”
Taormina is the owner of the Tampa, Florida-based Healing Effects Animal Massage and a certified small animal massage practitioner. That means she can treat any animal smaller than a horse, although almost all her clients are dogs.
In 2017, she was paid to treat 207 clients, all dogs. She massaged another 97 dogs as a volunteer for the Humane Society of Tampa Bay.
Her clients include canines recovering from injury or illness, and dogs in pain. Some need help improving their mobility, and others get massages because they seriously need to chill. And quite a few are simply good doggies whose owners think they deserve a treat.
If you’re shaking your head at the idea of paying for your dog to get a massage, go ahead.
“Most people roll their eyes when they hear what I do, and they don’t believe that this is a real thing,” Taormina says.
People who have rescue dogs tend to get it, though. Taormina estimates at least 90% of the clients she massages for pay are rescues.
“When you have a rescue, you’re trying so hard to provide for them,” she says. “It’s just something nice you can do for the dog.”
Yes, Dog Massage Is a Real Profession
Taormina has volunteered with animals ever since the death of her Boston terrier “granddog,” Peatie, in April 2009. She signed up to help out at the Humane Society of Tampa Bay the morning her beloved Peatie died because she knew she had a huge void to fill.
But for most of her career, she worked with people, not pets. Taormina was hired in sales by The Tampa Tribune, a now-shuttered newspaper, fresh out of high school and worked her way to management. She spent 31 years in advertising with the Tribune before accepting a voluntary buyout in 2012.
Soon after, Taormina started helping out in the office of a friend’s massage therapy practice for humans. As she shuffled between the practice and her volunteer gig, it occurred to her that massage could help animals. She did some research and discovered that animal massage was, indeed, an actual profession.
She enrolled in a six-month online program through the Northwest School of Animal Massage in Vashon, Washington. She now holds two certifications, both of which required in-person practicals in Portland, Oregon.
Occasionally, people ask her why she opted to massage pets instead of people.
“I felt like my gift was better served on animals because I had that bond and connection with them,” Taormina says.“And I really didn’t want to be around a bunch of people talking. [Animals] can’t talk. The only thing I have to worry about is getting bitten, and I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Taormina has been in business for about five years. Her practice is 100% mobile because animals feel more at ease on their own turf. Plus, how many animals are super chill after a ride in the car?
Her clients find her in two primary ways: through her website, which she optimizes with Google AdWords, and through the free sessions that she donates as prizes at Humane Society fundraisers.
Usually, dogs have some apprehension during their first massage, so Taormina does her best to put them at ease.
“Sometimes I’ll even yawn to help them know that I’m not here to hurt them, because that’s a calming signal on my part,” Taormina says.
Within 10 to 15 minutes, “they’re like putty in my hands,” she adds.
Taormina has been peed on, pooped on and shedded on during her five years on the job. But it’s OK, because all that stuff washes off. (And she always carries a change of clothes, just in case.)
She says the best part of the job is knowing she has helped a dog feel better.
Taormina has even given massages to dogs right before they’ve been euthanized to put them at ease in their final moments.
“Even though it’s really hard, it’s rewarding that the owner trusts me to be part of such a sad and intimate moment,” she says.
One of her current clients is Soldier, a German shepherd who’s grieving the death of his sister, Sky, whom Taormina also treated. She massaged Soldier right after Sky was euthanized.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but he greeted me like he normally does,” she says during a recent session. “You could see the sadness in his handsome face, but within two sessions he was back to falling asleep again. Which he’s almost ready to do right now.”
Why the Perks Go Way Beyond the Paycheck
As an animal massage therapist, Taormina will never be able to earn close to what she made in advertising. But her second career has other benefits: After a stressful job that came with frequent 12-hour days and weekend work, she finally has flexibility. She has time to swim every morning and pick up her grandkids from school.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t have specific salary information for animal massage therapists. However, the median salary for all nonfarm animal caretakers was $21,010 as of May 2015.
Taormina charges $45 an hour for regular clients. Physically and logistically, she can handle no more than three clients during a typical day.
“I’m not in this to get rich, because Lord knows, that’s never going to happen,” Taormina says.
But the perks go well beyond the paycheck when she sees the impact of her healing touch.
Back to 8-year-old Buddy the bulldog: Just a year-and-a-half ago, he was a scared and malnourished rescue dog who had just found his forever home.
His new owner, Tracey Ballard, asked Taormina to work with Buddy on his range of motion.
Today he’s 30 pounds heavier. He now helps others heal as a volunteer hospital therapy dog — a job that requires him to stay calm while countless strangers pet him.
“He can have eight kids come over, and he doesn’t mind,” Ballard says. “He likes the touch because he’s used to being massaged.”
She still gets you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me looks when she tells people her dog has a standing weekly massage.
“He doesn’t need a massage every week, but I know it helps him with his therapy work,” Ballard says.
Buddy can’t thank Taormina in words at the end of his session, but he shows her his gratitude in his own bulldog way: with a flurry of kisses.
Robin Hartill is a senior editor at Codetic and the proud mom of the world’s oldest puppy, a 12-year-old golden retriever rescue named Oscar.