Oh, My Aching Cat!

A lot of the house pets that arrive at Morningstar Healing Arts are like aging athletes with sports injuries. They come in limping after chasing a rabbit to the end of their tethered leashes, or suffering hip dysplasia and joint malfunction from jumping in and out of cars and climbing on and off furniture. “Ergonomically, they’re living in a world designed for people, whose legs are a lot longer,” Christine Grams explains.
While Grams mostly does chiropractic work on humans from her South Minneapolis clinic, she also takes several massage appointments a week for dogs, cats, horses, hamsters, cows, sheep, goats, llamas, hedgehogs, ferrets, and even chickens (she charges more for “barn calls”). A genial, animated redhead in her late forties, she uses her hands (size XL) to communicate as well as to heal. They fly about vigorously when she speaks, sculpting the air like those of an orchestra conductor.
Her clinic offers a decidedly soothing environment, with a bubbling fountain, tubular chimes, and lamps fashioned from pumpkin-sized salt crystals. A soundtrack of what Grams calls “new-age woo-woo music” calms man and beast alike. While the place is outfitted with the usual massage tables for two-legged clients, pets get their rubdowns either on the reception-area sofa or a rug spread on the floor. “It’s just the same as I do with toddlers,” she says.
Some twenty years ago, when Grams was working as a registered nurse, an injury from lifting a patient left her with an unstable, constantly painful hip that was resistant to conventional therapy. “I shouldn’t say this,” a colleague whispered to her, “but see a chiropractor.” She did, and the damage was swiftly put right. Grams then soon left nursing to study chiropractic health care. Her animal specialty came about as a happier sort of accident: She was trying to find babies on whom she could practice infant massage, but discovered that few parents were willing to volunteer their offspring to be manipulated by a neophyte. Then she realized that cats, dogs, and even goats were of comparable size—and almost infinitely willing to put themselves in her hands.
Having spent her childhood clutching piglets and chickens on farms that her relatives owned around Hutchinson, Grams was at ease with her practice patients. Once she earned her degree, she continued to practice massage on animals, and soon began receiving calls to “help out” animals belonging to friends, and then friends of friends. Now, her animal clients come entirely through referrals, and in most cases they arrive eager for the treat. “When they realize I’m not the vet and I don’t give shots, dogs will drag people in the door,” she says.
While Grams’ hands-on therapy is rehabilitative, she notes that she is not a chiropractor for animals: In Minnesota, those practitioners are accredited veterinarians, while animal bodyworkers are unlicensed. Still, her therapy has achieved remarkable results, restoring even animals injured in car accidents to tail-wagging good health. Services like hers are growing in popularity. According to the American Animal Hospital Association’s 2003 National Pet Owner Survey, twenty-one percent of pet owners have used some form of complementary medicine on their pets, up from six percent in the 1996 survey.
Animal masseurs face many unique challenges, Grams says. For instance, it’s rare that an animal will remain still for an entire session. For that reason, it is “important to be still within your own body,” to soothe them, she says. “Animals are essentially captives in our lives. We let them know when it’s OK to eat, drink, go to the bathroom, and go outside. Animals are very much the psychological receptors of whatever is going on within the house. This is true of children also, but more so of animals because they are at our mercy. If the household is busy, as many modern households are, the animals tend to get nervous, irritable, or depressed, and these emotions can quite easily mutate into antisocial behaviors, or physical ailments.”
Though she sometimes works with fighting breeds like pit bulls and mastiffs, Grams has never been bitten by a client. “It’s about being comfortable around them,” she explains. “If you’re scared, they’ll be on the defensive and wondering what’s wrong. A gentle touch helps their nervous system to unclench.”
She has also found that pet therapy can be a two-way street. “Animals have taught me I don’t have to be a workaholic. I can have an awful day after a client tells me they’ve been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. But when I go home, my animals are completely in the moment. At the end of the day I’m attacked by a dog and two cats that say, feed me, love me, take care of me. If I’m blue, they always snap me out of it.”