The ancient healing practice of massage is based on solid science - a fact many people aren't aware of. It is prescribed for certain medical conditions and the results achieved are readily identifiable and measurable.
Understanding how medical massage acts on an animal's body allows practitioners to target specific areas of weakness, for example, problems with the fibrous tissue that encloses and separates layers of muscle, or with the nervous system.
An understanding of the nervous system can explain how and why appropriate manipulation of soft tissue - massage - improves a number of bodily processes including:
- Emotional state
- Weight regulation
- Pain control
- Immune function
Medical massage has been shown to lower a patient's heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels, which means it is able to make changes within the autonomic nervous system.
According to Narda Robinson, DVM, writing for Veterinary Practice News:
“Eventually, investigations [into how and why massage works] led to the vagal nerve network as the final common pathway. This 10th cranial nerve and associated brainstem nuclei affect nearly every bodily function, serving as a neural expressway mediating the tightly orchestrated, restorative, parasympathetic nervous system.”
The vagus nerve, also called the 'Wanderer' or the 'Rambler,' travels from the brain's medulla down past the neck and chest to the abdomen, where it provides stimulation to internal organs and sends information about the condition of those organs to the central nervous system.
When many people think of massage, they think of guilty pleasure - something they might be willing to splurge on only occasionally, perhaps on vacation. And for themselves, not the family pet!
Even those who appreciate the ability of massage to improve musculoskeletal pain and range of motion issues don't realize its potential to restore health on other, deeper levels.
That's why a basic understanding of the science of why and how medical massage helps bodies heal is so important for owners and other caretakers of animals suffering from acute or chronic illnesses.
Veterinary massage isn't just about 'getting out the kinks' in your pet or helping him rehab from injury or surgery. Certainly, massage therapy is tremendously useful in those applications, but you might be surprised to learn how many other ways it can help your beloved dog, cat or other pet achieve glowing good health.
The Mechanics of Medical Massage
Just as acupuncture stimulates body systems and alters function of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the moderate pressure applied during massage can create similar changes inside the body.
Pressure massage of the skin which also reaches underlying subcutaneous tissue and myofascia (the fibrous tissue that encloses and separates layers of muscle) stimulates vagal nerve endings. These in turn send signals to the brain that improve homeostasis (equilibrium or balance) of the autonomic nervous system.
Balance between the activity of the two subsystems of the ANS - the sympathetic (fight-or-flight) and parasympathetic (calming) nervous systems - improves blood flow throughout the body and reduces inflammation, muscle tension, spinal cord wind-up (sensitization) and pain.
Massage and Improved Digestion
Digestion is one of the most important functions of the human or animal body. It can determine whether life continues, or is extinguished.
Research indicates the vagal stimulation resulting from massage is significantly beneficial to premature infants. It has been shown to positively impact digestive function by:
- Improving gastric motility
- Decreasing gut permeability ('leaky gut')
- Increasing availability of nutrients from food
- Regulating blood insulin levels
- Promoting weight gain and growth rate
When these benefits to premature babies are translated to veterinary medicine, it can be assumed massage has the potential to similarly improve the outlook for puppies and kittens suffering from failure to thrive after birth.
Massage also has the potential to help older pets with digestive problems such as:
- Postoperative ileus - temporary paralysis of a portion of the intestines after abdominal surgery
- Megaesophagus - a condition in which the muscles of the esophagus simply don't work and don't move food or liquid into the stomach
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) - which encompasses the majority of GI-related disorders pets suffer from
Massage and Weight Loss
Studies of obese rats indicate long-term vagal stimulation through massage can lead to a reduction in food intake.
This suggests the vagal nerve network is capable of sending satiety ('I'm full') signals to the brain, effectively reducing appetite.
From this we can assume regular massage has the potential to:
- Reduce food cravings in your pet
- Stimulate desire for more physical activity because his or her body feels better
Other Benefits of Veterinary Medical Massage
In the same way veterinary acupuncture is used to enhance the comfort and healing of animals that undergo surgical procedures, medical massage can provide similar benefits, particularly in the area of stress reduction.