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Updated Jul 27, 2014 - 11:47 am

Arizona lawsuit claims animal massage isn't veterinarians' work

PHOENIX -- Animal massage therapy is not veterinary medicine, insist a group of Arizona animal massage therapists who are suing the state.

Three animal massage practitioners jointly filed a lawsuit against the Arizona State Veterinary Medical Examining Board in March, arguing that state regulators are unconstitutionally preventing them from doing their jobs.

The board filed a motion for the lawsuit's dismissal, and both sides presented arguments July 16 in Maricopa County Superior Court. The judge has yet to make a decision.

The case has raised the issue of whether animal massage should be considered veterinary medicine. The practitioners who filed the lawsuit argue that the statute defining veterinary medicine is overly broad and that animal massage is a separate discipline.

Celeste Kelly, a plaintiff, said she is privately certified and has been practicing equine massage therapy for nearly a decade in Tucson. Kelly said someone reported her to the board, and she received a cease-and-desist letter in 2012. Despite receiving another one, she continues to practice. It's her job and a primary source of income, she said.

Kelly said her work isn't advertised as a replacement for veterinary care. Veterinarians have even referred patients to her, Kelly added.

``This is not prescribing medicine. This is not setting bones. This is not diagnosing diseases,'' Kelly said. ``As far as they're concerned, it's not the practice of veterinary medicine.''

But the board maintains that it can act regulate animal-care practices such as massage because the board has a legitimate interest in public health and safety, according to arguments made in court documents.

In the motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Assistant Attorney General Mary Williams, who is representing the board, said the law allows the board to regulate most animal-care practices. The state Legislature ``broadly defined the practice of veterinary medicine to include administering any treatment, method or practice and performing any manipulation'' for an animal, she said in the motion.

Williams also argued in the motion that the plaintiffs should bring their grievance to the Arizona Legislature, not the court system. Williams declined comment to The Associated Press.

Diana Simpson, an attorney for the nonprofit law firm Institute for Justice, is representing the massage practitioners. Simpson said her clients have a constitutional right to do their jobs. They are being treated unfairly, especially given that the field of equine dentistry is exempt from Arizona licensing but not animal massage, she said.

``Equine dentistry is just like animal massage in the sense that they're both traditional animal husbandry,'' Simpson said. ``They not this thing that you need a four-year degree and hundreds of thousands of dollars to do, especially when veterinary schools don't teach you to do either of these things.''

Jonathan Rudinger, president of the International Association of Animal Massage & Bodywork, agreed. ``Why would I want to learn to take care of tons of cows when all I want to do is massage dogs?'' Rudinger said.

But the American Veterinary Medical Association, which tracks policies state to state, considers alternative animal therapies to be veterinary medicine.

Adrian Hochstadt, an assistant director of the association, said there are laws in other states where veterinarians and non-veterinarians who care for animals work together.

``There are other options out there too,'' Hochstadt said. ``There are several are models where the legislature has passed laws to make this work. The key is oversight, just like other professions.''

Rudinger said he thinks state veterinary boards and the American Veterinary Medical Association are worried about losing business.

``It's not our intention to take away their business or take away their sense of control and authority with their patients. They're still the primary-care providers for the animals,'' he said.

Hochstadt said it's not about competition, but accountability if any animals are harmed.

``It's about qualifications, training and protecting of animal health,'' Hochstadt said. ``That should be the bottom line.''

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