By Dr. Laura Hady
“You want me to give my pet daily massages as part of his therapy?” This is a common question from my physical rehabilitation clients. Yet, I believe that massage is the most underutilized therapy that we have to treat animals in pain.
The health benefits of massage are great for all pets, whether or not they are experiencing pain. These include nerve stimulation, increased blood and lymph flow, the release of natural endorphins and muscle trigger points, improved immune function, and increased flexibility. Daily or weekly massages can also help to identify lumps, bumps, and rashes that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Here are some tips for conducting basic massage on your pets:
- Do your homework. Ask your family veterinarian if your pet is a candidate for massage. Some animals do not have the temperament or may have a medical condition such as cancer or a skin infection that can be stimulated by massage. Veterinarians can often palpate and diagnose issues such as fractures or end stage arthritis causing joint restrictions that need medical attention first.
- Set the mood. I suggest that owners pick a time of day when they are not in a hurry. Sometimes early morning or late evening works well. Soothing background music and a calm, warm environment is conducive to relaxation. I get on the floor or bed with my pet and make sure that we are both are in a comfortable position.
- Get the layout of the territory with your hands. I typically start by brushing the haircoat in long strokes and then continue with long strokes down the back and legs with my hands. I check for areas of muscle tightness or flinching from my pet. Typical places for muscle trigger points include the muscles just behind the shoulder, along the paraspinal muscles in the mid-back and the muscles that run deeper just in front of the hips. My patients and pets also enjoy small circles starting from behind the ears and moving to either side of the spine. When I get behind the shoulders and in front of the hips, I do larger circles.
- Move down the limbs and back up again. Massaging back up the limb helps bring fluid trapped in the tissues to move toward the lymph nodes for proper drainage. I will massage the legs using my thumbs in front and my other four fingers on the inside, all the way down to the toes and extend them out for a good stretch; dogs that have difficulty walking on tile or wood floors often have tight and flexed toes. Approach these areas with caution, as some herding breeds, such as heelers, are very protective of their feet.
- Determining the right amount of pressure. Most pet owners are going to be tentative about applying deep pressure, and I believe that is a good thing. There are various types of massage that employ different techniques. Some animals may prefer one over the other. Linda Tellington-Jones created the T-touch method to effect posture changes and behaviors in animals. Several books, videos, and seminars can help you learn this technique, which employs circles using your fingertips. Reiki massage helps to provide a sense of calm and uses the practitioner’s own meditation to help the animal with stress relief and deep relaxation. Look for a certified Reiki therapist for pets in your area. Also, be wary of massage practitioners without formal veterinary training or supervision, and make sure to research state laws for pet massage. Keep in mind, too, that when humans are sore the day after a massage, we can reason why we feel that way. If an animal is sore the day of or day after a massage, they may associate that person or situation with pain.
- Bring in the pros. I have spent almost 20 years of my veterinary career massaging animals with varying neurological and musculoskeletal issues. Getting a diagnosis before massage is key to locating the specific anatomical locations and proper massage technique for your pet. If you are in doubt, contact me at [email protected]. I can direct you to the appropriate professional and technique that will be most beneficial for your beloved pet. My greatest joy is when a pet owner says that their pet seeks them out for their daily massage and bonding time.