By Dr. Becker
In past articles, I've written about both medical massage and end of life care for dying pets and their families.
Today I'd like to discuss the benefits of massage for terminally ill pets. According to Dr. Narda Robinson, who oversees complementary veterinary education at Colorado State University, "Massage is establishing a foothold as a critical piece of hospice. It has received widespread acclaim from staff, patients and families in the human hospice setting."
Benefits of Massage for Terminally Ill Pets
In an article for Veterinary Practice News, Dr. Robinson notes a number of benefits of massage for end-of-life patients, including:
Reduces pain and pain medication requirements
Lessens feelings of isolation
Increases feelings of peace and comfort
Calms the nervous system
Relieves constipation; promotes elimination of metabolic end products from tissue
In a study published five years ago in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, medical massage coupled with aromatherapy reduced both anxiety and depression in human patients for up to two weeks.1
The veterinary hospice movement borrows principles and practices from human hospice work and applies them in animal hospice settings. A five-minute massage delivered on a regular basis – either daily or several times a week – is something veterinary hospice personnel and pet owners can often easily manage. And regular hands-on treatment can help a pet's caretakers pick up on the sudden decline in quality of life often seen in animals with cancer.
Pet Owners are Often Eager to Learn Massage Techniques
Sadly, many terminally ill pets spend most of their time in a crate or bed, often in near-constant pain – sometimes for weeks or months. Painkilling agents and fluid therapy ease discomfort, but as is often the case with humans as well, emotional, physical and psychological needs for touch and movement are overlooked.
Families of dying pets often feel helpless and are eager to learn simple, beneficial massage techniques -- for example, a gentle backrub or neck massage. This gives owners a way to help their animal relax and rest more comfortably. It gives them the sense they are doing something useful for their pet beyond medicating him when he seems upset or frustrated.
Massage also helps maintain a powerful physical connection between owner and pet.
According to Dr. Robinson:
"Learning how to massage appropriately alleviates their fear of touching a sick cat or dog, afraid that they will hurt them. Educated about where and how to touch, for how long and with what pressure can go far in removing barriers to physical connection and revitalizing the bond."
Hospice Home Visits
Families of terminally ill pets can also enlist the help of a veterinary caregiver trained in massage to step in from time to time to give the pet owner an emotional break.
An added benefit of this arrangement is that someone visiting your home can more easily identify potential environmental stressors for your pet such as loud noises, hygiene or skin and coat issues, or problems with bedding or mobility.
It's also good to have a second pair of hands on your pet that can identify new areas of pain or physical dysfunction that signal a need to re-evaluate the animal's medication protocol.
I think regular massage of a terminally ill pet – especially performed by the pet's owner – can provide an invaluable healing experience for both the animal and human family members. I hope it becomes an integral part of palliative and hospice care for every beloved pet at the end of his or her life.