If you’re new to the world of dog massage therapy, you probably have some questions, especially if you want to give your pup a spa day at home. After all, the benefits of massage have been well documented for humans, but what can this alternative therapy do for your canine companion? Are there any potential complications? What should you know before you try massage at home?
The good news is that animal massage – particularly canine massage – has been around for quite some time, and its effects are just as well documented and proven as those on the human side.
What is dog massage therapy?
Like many of the medical practices seen today, animal massage has ties to ancient times, with techniques depicted in early Egyptian hieroglyphics, Chinese holistic records, and historical accounts of Julius Caesar, who allowed a travelling masseuse to work on his personal war dogs. Even then, at the dawn of medical innovation, the power of human touch was undeniable and invaluable.
Fast forward to the modern age, we are still enamored with the amazing benefits of massage therapy, so much so that we want to make sure our pets enjoy the same benefits as we do.
According to the American Animal Hospital Association, animal massage is “the manipulation of body soft tissues to restore or maintain health,” and while this is a very accurate and concise definition, it leaves us still asking, “Well, what does that mean?” In truth, massage can be used to describe a number of techniques and movements. There are more than seventy human massage techniques, many of which have been adapted to canine practice, though the most common styles of massage in use today are:
Sports Massage: A variety of massage techniques used specifically in relation to sports injury prevention and rehabilitation. Sports massage aims to help animals perform at their best by encouraging soft tissue recovery before, during, and after high intensity activities.
Shiatsu: Often compared to acupuncture, Shiatsu massage uses finger pressure and tissue stretching along traditional Chinese meridians, or channels, identified throughout the body. These meridians are associated with energy flow, and traditional practitioners believe massage is critical to keeping these energy channels in the body open.
Myotherapy: This form of massage therapy consists of focusing on trigger points to treat musculoskeletal pain under the belief that targeting one area of the body will help alleviate pain in another area. Trigger points receive strong finger pressure to force blood flow away from the area, and once the pressure is removed, the blood may come rushing back, initiating a healing response.
- Swedish Massage: Perhaps the most well-known style of massage, Swedish massage focuses on utilization of both light and heavy pressure, long and short movements, and often gentle manipulation of the joints to help relieve tension and stress.
These techniques of soft-tissue stimulation in animals include everything from dog pressure point massage to nerve stimulation, and each one has a time and a place for proper use in a therapy setting. The ultimate goal of animal massage, or massage in any species, is to improve circulation of blood and lymph fluid, which in turn helps enhance tissue recovery, healing, and efficiency.
What are the benefits of dog massage therapy?
Pampering is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to dog massage therapy. Sure, it feels wonderful to give back to our pets when they do so much for us, but massage is about so much more than feeling relaxed for an hour.
The International Association of Animal Therapists indicates animal massage therapy’s primary benefits include:
- Muscle tone enhancement
- Increased and improved circulation
- Muscle spasm relaxation
- Increased range of motion
- Prevention and relief of adhesions
Dog massage therapy is particularly beneficial for canines that need help dealing with orthopedic issues such as spondylosis, hip dysplasia, and arthritis. It is an excellent way to supplement pharmaceutical pain management and has the potential to decrease a pet’s reliance on medication.
Outside of the realm of medical recovery, dog massage therapy is often used to help a stressed dog, or to help a dog with anxieties become used to human touch and connection again. Massage therapy can be a viable option for owners who need a go-to when they are at a loss on how to calm a dog down in a stressful situation.
Can I do dog massage therapy at home?
The subject of performing dog massage therapy at home is a tricky one. Massage is considered an alternative form of medical treatment, and as such, it should be given the respect it deserves. All forms of therapy can have a negative impact if they are performed incorrectly; just because massage appears simple at first glance doesn’t mean you should hold your dog down and start kneading your fingers into his back.
There are times when dog massage therapy isn’t appropriate, and unless you are a knowledgeable animal professional, you will always want to stay on the side of caution.
Most canine massage therapy practitioners have obtained some level of higher education to be able to practice their skill set. There are a number canine massage therapy online courses in the United States, as well as dog massage courses in the United Kingdom (UK). These courses can provide the basic anatomy and physiology knowledge needed to perform canine massage safely, and they give owners an option of making some extra money while helping more pets in their local areas. Dog massage therapy can be a great way for veterinary professionals to expand their skill set, as the journal of Innovative Veterinary Care notes there are no veterinary schools currently teaching animal massage in their main programs.
That being said, you don’t have to be a massage therapist to give your dog a basic massage at home.
Before you begin, speak with your veterinarian about your pet’s current health state. Fever, internal organ issues, bone abnormalities, and tumor growth are all contraindications of dog massage therapy. Make sure your pet has a clean bill of health from your veterinarian before you decide to try massage at home.
A basic dog massage
If you want to steer clear of any major complications, the easiest way to give your dog a massage at home is to start with regular petting and always keep your pressure light to moderate, never heavy.
Step One: Stroke your pet as you normally would with light, long movements. You can vary the speed and the pattern of your petting, but assess how your dog responds to this process and what areas he/she doesn’t appreciate to be touched.
Step Two: Continue your same touch patterns but focus on certain areas of the body, occasionally increasing your pressure slightly but never enough to cause discomfort. The most common areas of targeted focus are:
Remember, many dogs are sensitive to having their paws touched, and older dogs often have pain in the hips; take your time and make sure your dog is comfortable every step of the way. There is no need for dog massage therapy at home to be intense.
Step Three: Once your dog is accepting and interested in the canine massage process, apply any targeted massage movements indicated by your veterinarian. Some dogs may come home from a trip to the veterinary clinic with therapy requirements, and these should only be applied to the affected area under the care and direction of the veterinarian.
Step Four: End as you began by going over the entire body in light movements. Slower, longer massage movements will elicit calm, while faster, choppier movements will invigorate. You know your dog well enough to know which of these options is best to end your session.
Bonus dog massage therapy options
As owners, we all want to make our dog’s experiences the best they can be, and canine massage therapy is no exception. If you’re looking for a way to enhance the alternative therapy experience, consider these options:
Pet CBD: There has been much interest in the use of CBD (Cannabidiol, the nonpsychoactive molecule derived from cannabis) in veterinary medicine. While most practices are using CBD primarily for seizure and pain control, there has been a significant shift toward its efficacy in dogs with arthritis, making it a potential partner to use with canine massage.
Relaxing music for dogs: Who doesn’t like to listen to some calming music when getting a massage? Research shows animals are similar to humans in this respect. In 2017, the Scottish SPCA found music was particularly relaxing to dogs in high-stress situations, with a preference toward softer, classical sounds.
- Aromatherapy: Significant research supports the use of aromatherapy for positive health outcomes; however, essential oils should be placed in the environment rather than on the pet to avoid accidental ingestion.
Still worried about dog massage therapy? Consult with your veterinarian and find a plan that works for you. Your dog will love the attention at home, even if all you do is set longer times for play and cuddling. Massage is a powerful alternative therapy option, but nothing is as powerful as genuine care and affection received at home.