By Paula Fitzsimmons
Massage therapy is associated with a myriad of health benefits in people, including reduced pain, lowered blood pressure and stress relief. But can cats and dogs benefit from touch, too? The research is limited, but veterinary experts say yes.
Working with a certified veterinary massage therapist is your best option, but that doesn’t mean your cat or dog can’t benefit from a gentle at-home massage, too. Here, find out how to give your pet a massage.
How Cats and Dogs Benefit from Massage
There isn’t a lot of scientific data to confirm whether or not massage benefits animals, but veterinary experts still recommend it.
“Their circulation is analogous to ours and their nervous systems are also analogous to ours, which means the benefits that are seen humans can be expected to be similar in [pets],” says Dr. Robin Downing, hospital director at The Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colorado.
Pet massage can increase range of motion and flexibility, aid in digestion, reduce scar tissue, improve muscle tone and increase lymphatic circulation, says Trish Houser, owner of Smiling Dog Pet Services in Anchorage, Alaska and board-certified canine massage practitioner. “Massage is also beneficial to older pets experiencing pain with inflammation, dysplastic conditions and arthritic issues.”
It can also alleviate anxiety in pets, says Stacy Litzky, a board-certified canine massage practitioner and owner of South Paw Massage and Wellness in Vero Beach, Florida. “It helps dogs by decreasing blood pressure, relieving tension, calming the nervous system and boosting the immune system, which is unable to function effectively when the nervous system is chronically or excessively stressed.”
You’ll also strengthen your bond and be attuned to problems that may arise, says Houser. For example, “You might notice a new lump pop up or soreness in the body that you didn't realize was there until you touch and massage them,” she says.
Start with a relatively calm animal, says Houser. Try to choose a time when your pet is already relaxed (i.e. don’t do massage after a vigorous play session) and allow your pet to calm down as much as possible before beginning, Houser adds.
In addition, massage should be given on the animal’s terms. Your session can last anywhere from ten minutes to an hour, but ultimately your best friend will let you know when he’s had enough, says Amber Lane, owner of Denver, Colorado-based Olympic Haven.
Next, find a quiet, comfortable area in your home. “A yoga mat and towel can be placed on the floor for comfort,” Lane says. “Pet massage music is one of my favorite ways to add immediate comfort to both owner and pet.”
“Let your dog or cat decide what position is most comfortable. They might lay down, sit, or even stand up. This is supposed to be relaxing and pleasurable, so don't pressure them,” adds Houser.
Unless you’re trained in massage, experts recommend avoiding complicated techniques like acupressure and range of motion therapy and just focusing on the basics. Additionally, check with your veterinarian before you massage your animal, especially if your best friend has health issues.
“You don't want to massage an animal with a fever, severe infection or one that is suffering from shock,” says Houser. “And you don't want to massage a dog with bacterial or fungal skin conditions, as massage can spread them and make them worse.”
In addition, animals are experts at masking pain, so recognizing the signs are essential.
“Dogs in pain typically are more depressed and not as active. They might limp or cry out in pain when touched. They may not eat as much and can act agitated or anxious, possibly pacing or showing other restless behavior,” Houser says.
If you believe your animal is experiencing new, as-of-yet undiagnosed symptoms (including pain), call your veterinarian in lieu of attempting massage.
How to Give Your Pet a Massage
The best way to massage your pet is with a gentle touch, particularly when working on a cat.
“Cats mostly prefer a much gentler massage. I think with cats, everything has to be on their own timing,” says Rachael Davis, a registered veterinary technician and certified canine massage therapist with Georgia Veterinary Rehabilitation, Fitness and Pain Management. “I think they can benefit just the same as dogs, but a lot of time their personalities hinder them from being receptive.”
Lane recommends starting the massage with slow, gentle strokes along your pet’s body to relieve tension, keeping in mind your animal’s size (using small motions for small animals and larger motions for larger animals). Don’t forget about the face, head, neck and ears, she adds, and use soft, circular motions around the muzzle.
“Then, use broad and gentle strokes on his hind quarters and soft squeezing compression down his legs, taking care to be extra gentle on boney areas and the backs of the thighs, as there are very sensitive hairs there that can cause irritation if brushed the wrong way,” Houser says.
You can incorporate brushing or combing your pet in the massage if your pet enjoys being groomed but be careful about using any other products.
“Products aren't really necessary for massage, although some essential oils are becoming more common in helping to calm and reduce anxiety,” Houser says, but keep in mind that some are toxic to pets. “Oils vary greatly in their purity, safety and efficacy, so talk with your vet about what to use, how often to use it and dosage.”
To determine whether or not your pet is enjoying the massage, take note of their reaction. Your companion may be so relaxed that he falls asleep, says Lane.
“Their eyes may get heavy, they may drool, and they may let out long exhales or groans. These are all signs that your pet is benefitting from your touch,” she says.
As for the frequency of your pet’s massages, Houser recommends gentle massage as often as needed, while intensive massages can be more occasional.
“Passive-touch massage [using very light pressure] for relaxation and anxiety can be given as often as needed over the animal’s lifetime,” she says. “Deeper muscle massages will be less frequent, once or twice a week depending on the issue, and under veterinary or massage practitioner guidance to prevent overworking muscles and causing damage to soft tissues.”