Does Your Dog Need a Massage?

Story at-a-glance -

  • Canine therapeutic massage offers benefits such as increased muscle flexibility, reduced pain in stiff joints and muscles, stress relief, improved circulation and better performance in competitive animals
  • Depending on your pet’s needs, massages can be offered for maintenance and general well-being, lymphatic drainage, rehabilitation, palliative care and more
  • Massage serves as a tool for stress relief and relaxation and can bring about significant improvements in pain
  • Massage can even help alleviate problem behaviors such as sensitivity to touch, fear-biters, food- or dog-aggressive, or separation anxiety

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

You probably pet your dog daily, scratch behind his ears and maybe rub his belly for a treat. Massaging your dog, on the other hand, may sound a bit more like a luxury reserved for human members of the family — but, in reality, massage therapy offers tremendous healing power to dogs and humans alike.

“Animals have performed massage on themselves or others since the dawn of time through natural grooming behaviors,” according to the Northwest School of Animal Massage. “Any animal's quality of life can be enhanced with massage.”1

They note benefits such as increased muscle flexibility, reduced pain in stiff joints and muscles, stress relief, improved circulation and better performance in competitive animals, which are similar to those expressed by Kim Tews, a certified small-animal massage practitioner who offers in-home massage therapy for pets in the Portland, Oregon area. Depending on your pet’s needs, massages can be offered for maintenance and general well-being, lymphatic drainage, rehabilitation and more.

How Dogs Benefit From Therapeutic Massage

Even if your dog is healthy and in the prime of life, maintenance massages can be an ideal tool to support well-being. Tews told The Daily Astorian, “Maintenance massage is great for helping your pet stay at their peak level of health for as long as possible … It’s also a great tool for monitoring and early detection.”2

Jonathan Rudinger, an RN and licensed massage therapist who is also an authority on canine massage, explained in our past interview that massages helps with oxygen exchange, helping animals to breathe more deeply and even encourage coughing to loosen phlegm and debris in the lungs.

Increasing circulation, both blood circulation and lymphatic circulation, is another tremendous benefit. “Manual lymphatic drainage massage is a great immune booster and benefits pets of all breeds and ages,” Tews explained.3 Indeed, this is one reason why massage is so important for post-operative pets, as the movement of lymphatic fluids strengthens the immune system, which can also shorten recovery time.

Further, after surgery massage helps decrease inflammation and pain while lowering blood pressure, restoring normal breathing patterns and helping the digestive tract get moving again.

Meanwhile, massage serves as a tool for stress relief and relaxation and can bring about significant improvements in pain. For dogs with arthritis, for instance, Rudinger noted that massage works to increase the natural fluids within the dog's body while also improving lymph and blood circulation, and hormone and energy flow through all the meridians in the body.

If your dog takes part in sporting events, massage can be used both prior to and after the event to increase blood flow to muscles beforehand and reduce muscle soreness afterward. Rudinger describes massage as great conditioning for sporting dogs, helping them prepare mentally, physically and energetically for competition.

Also, if your dog is nearing the end of life, either receiving treatment for a terminal illness or receiving palliative care (comfort care), massage can be invaluable during this time, offering such benefits as:

Reduced pain and pain medication requirements

Improved circulation

Fewer feelings of isolation

Relaxed muscles

Increased feelings of peace and comfort

Calm to the nervous system

Constipation relief; promotes elimination of metabolic end products from tissue

Relieved anxiety

Massage May Even Help With Behavioral Issues

There’s a place for massage at all stages of life, including for dogs facing behavioral issues. According to Michelle Rivera, in Integrative Veterinary Care journal, “It was in China that I learned that many behavioral problems can also be alleviated or eliminated with the addition of massage therapy. In my own practice, the majority of issues I successfully work with using massage are behavior problems and seizures.”4

Animals who are sensitive to being touched may find that therapeutic massage makes touch more tolerable, for instance. Rudinger explains that massage may also improve problem behaviors by clearing physiologic energy blocks. His approach with dogs is to work on the stomach meridian, which flows down around the mouth, down both sides of the midline of the body and underneath on the ventral side of the body.

It ends up around the anus, beneath the animal's tail. The stomach meridian is associated with the emotional brain or the limbic system, and working on this area is particularly useful for dogs who are fear-biters, food- or dog-aggressive, have separation anxiety or disturbance of the GI tract.

How to Find the Right Canine Massage Therapist

There are various ways to get your dog the therapeutic massage he deserves. Some canine massage therapists will come into your home while others work out of veterinary clinics. Sessions may last anywhere from 30 to 80 minutes. Ask your integrative veterinarian for a recommendation for a canine massage therapist who is experienced in the area you’re seeking, whether that be lymphatic massage, rehabilitation, maintenance, palliative care or pre/post-surgery.

You may also like the idea of massaging your pet yourself, and this can have additional calming and bonding benefits, especially when used during palliative care. If you’d like to go this route, consider taking a workshop or continuing education course to learn basic hands-on massage skills — programs are offered at all levels, for pet parents simply looking to massage their own pets to those interested in becoming licensed animal massage practitioners.

Whichever avenue you choose, offering the benefits of therapeutic massage to your dog is one of the greatest gifts you can give him to support his happiness and quality of life. And, for those of you wondering, massage can also work wonders for cats.

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