Law Rubs Massage Therapist The Wrong Way

August 1, 2008

Law Rubs Massage Therapist The Wrong Way

By Paul Sherman

IJ client Mercedes Clemens cannot practice animal massage without spending a small fortune on four years of veterinary school.

Mercedes Clemens is a massage therapist who works with some very special clients. Most of them weigh over 1,000 pounds and engage in physically demanding activities. Like people, they enjoy a good massage to relax at the end of the day and to loosen sore muscles after athletic activities. Mercedes is an animal massage therapist; her clients are horses.

At least they were, until her growing business caught the eye of Maryland bureaucrats.

Although it may sound like an unusual occupation, growing numbers of horse and small-animal owners are buying massage services for their animals. Animal massage was also the perfect change of pace for Mercedes who, after 15 years in the graphic-design and publishing industries, wanted a chance to combine her entrepreneurial spirit with a lifelong love of horses. In 2006, after successfully completing two courses in equine massage and being privately certified by an animal-massage school, Mercedes set up a website for her equine-massage business and began obtaining clients in Maryland. Since then, Mercedes has continued her education, become a Maryland-licensed massage therapist and has even taught others how to perform animal massage.

Up to this point, Mercedes’ story is a classic example of American entrepreneurship. So imagine her surprise when, this past February, the Maryland Board of Chiropractic Examiners—the group that licenses massage therapists who work on people—and the Maryland State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners ordered Mercedes to take down her website immediately and shut down her successful business.

According to these boards, by massaging horses Mercedes is practicing “veterinary medicine.” Unless Mercedes restricts her practice to massaging people, they have threatened her with thousands of dollars in fines, the revocation of her massage-therapist license and even criminal prosecution. Her only other option is to become a fully licensed veterinarian by spending $150,000 and four years at veterinary school. As a result, Mercedes has had to put her promising new career on hold.

Nobody thinks that only medical doctors should be allowed to massage people, and it is equally absurd to insist that only veterinarians can massage animals. Shutting out skilled practitioners like Mercedes is actually likely to result in worse care for animals; veterinary schools teach little to nothing about animal massage and few veterinarians even offer the service. The result is a lose-lose-lose proposition for entrepreneurs, horse owners and horses. It puts those with the experience and skill to care for horses out of work, while forcing Maryland horse owners to pay more for lower-quality care or go without care altogether.

Thankfully, Mercedes Clemens is fighting back. Represented by the Institute for Justice, Mercedes filed a lawsuit on June 10, 2008, challenging the constitutionality of the veterinarians’ animal-massage monopoly. Her fight is about more than just the right to perform animal massage. By taking on Maryland’s chiropractic and veterinary boards, Mercedes wants to strike a blow for all Maryland entrepreneurs who want nothing more than what the Maryland Constitution guarantees them: the right to pursue an honest calling free from unreasonable regulation.

Paul Sherman is an Institute for Justice staff attorney.

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