Massage is a healing art that has been practiced for hundreds of years. While it may seem like massage is a luxury reserved for elite athletes and spa attendees, massage can be a great form of preventive care for all, including your pet.
If you’ve had a massage before, you probably remember feeling relaxed and perhaps a little sore, depending on the type of massage you received. There are numerous types
of massage styles for pets as well, each with different goals. This article will focus on a therapeutic and relaxing massage that you can perform on your dog at home.
The Benefits of Massage
While massage may seem like a fancy way to pet your dog, there are in fact numerous health benefits to this practice, and it can also be a great way for you to bond with your pup.
Soothing Sore Muscles and Joints
While younger dogs can certainly reap the benefits of massage, an older, more arthritic, dog will definitely benefit from your therapeutic touch. The act of moving your hand along the body creates a small amount of friction which increases heat and blood flow to the area that is targeted. Increased blood flow helps flush out inflammation and supply anti-inflammatory cells to the area. This increased blood flow also brings in nourishment to areas that may not have had much blood flow, due to a chronic diseased state like arthritis. Increasing blood flow, decreasing inflammation, and increasing nutrition all aid in decreasing pain through synergistic action.
Massage can provide your dog with a sense of calm and relaxation. It can certainly be stimulating and invigorating if you are rushed and stroking against the fur. However, if done at a gentle, relaxed pace, it will serve the purpose of relaxing your dog. Regular massage can relieve anxiety and stress for both you and your pup. In addition to relaxation, massage can aid in reducing blood pressure and stress hormone levels.
What to Watch Out For When Massaging
While it is not uncommon for human patients to be sore after receiving a massage, this is not the outcome of massage that we are aiming for in pets. A massage should be a positive and calming experience, therefore it is important to be mindful about checking on your pup’s reactions and being careful not to apply pressure to the point of pain or discomfort. One sign that a pet is not enjoying the massage is if they try to move that body part away from you or turn their head suddenly towards that area or you. An even bigger hint is that your pet simply gets up and walks away. If you touch an area that causes your pet to growl or snap, do not continue and seek the help of a veterinary professional, as your pet is clearly letting you know about a very sensitive area that may need to be addressed.
Some senior dogs may have conditions that preclude them from being able to tell you if the pressure is too strong, thus erring on the side of caution concerning pressure is always in your pet’s best interest. Never massage over an open wound, a bruise, fracture, or recent surgical site. If you have any doubts about an area, do not attempt and ask your veterinarian first.
Massage Set Up and Techniques
It is important that your dog is resting in a comfortable spot, perhaps their favorite bed or on the sofa. For larger dogs, a blanket or quilt on the floor will suffice. It is also important that you are in a comfortable spot and relaxed as well. Be mindful of your positioning and be careful not to stress your lower back by leaning over your dog too much. Remember that you will be in this position for a long period of time, so it is imperative to not cause injury or strain yourself.
This technique applies long flowing strokes using the flat and palm of the hand. For relaxation, stroke in the direction of the coat, as it is more activating to go against the direction of hair growth. Use light to moderate pressure. This stroke is ideal for beginning a massage session, initiating focus on a certain area of the body (for example, beginning massage on the front leg), and for finishing a session.
This technique is similar to “kneading.” Using the pads of your fingers, make small circular strokes. This is an ideal technique to use when massaging ‘meaty’ areas and along the spine. For massaging along the spine, amend by using your thumb and forefinger and travel down the sides of the spine, making little circles with both your thumb and forefinger simultaneously.
Form the shape of a claw with the fingers of one hand. Using your “claw,” rake along the body using light pressure. You can do this down the spine and along the sides of the body. This technique is more invigorating.
This technique is exactly as it sounds and is ideal for limbs to help with circulation and lymphatic flow. Starting from the paw or just above the paw, place one palm on the top and one on the opposite side so that the leg is in between both hands. Gently squeeze the leg by pressing your hands closer together, hold for 3 seconds then release. Repeat as you continue up the leg, moving closer to the body. For smaller dogs, use your thumb and first few fingers to achieve the same effect. It is important that this technique starts at the paw end and moves up towards the body to aid in lymphatic drainage and circulation.
Basic Treatment Flow
Start with taking a few deep breaths to calm yourself and set the tone for your pet’s massage. Next, introduce the massage session by using three gentle, long effleurage strokes along the length of your dog, starting at the neck and moving to the base of the tail using light pressure. These initial strokes aid to communicate that you are beginning massage and will start to calm your dog. Gently massage your dog’s head around the base of the ears, the forehead, and down the front and back of the neck, utilizing the small ‘kneading’ circular motion. After this, do some long strokes down one of the front legs, mixing in some kneading of the ‘meaty’ muscle area of both the lower and upper leg and, lastly, the shoulder area. If your dog allows, try some compression technique, going from the paw up to the body. Focus on this leg for about two to three minutes.
Move on to massage the thoracic spine, which is the area of your pup’s spine that is over their ribs. Start this area with a couple of long strokes, then work your way down the sides of the spine doing little circles using the thumb and index finger, mixed with a few moderate pressure effleurage strokes. After massaging the thoracic spine, continue down the lower back until you are at where the tail meets the body. Add in some long strokes and gentle raking along the side of the body.
Once at the rear legs, gently massage the thigh muscles (both inner and outer thigh). Make sure to massage the soft tissues of the lower leg (below the knee) in addition to the thigh muscles. Lastly, try to gently massage the fascia of the hip and butt. Do not forget the area in front of the inner leg and hip, as dogs can have extra strain of their iliopsoas muscle that starts in the lower back, and attaches inside the thigh.
After completing one side, see if your dog will lie on their opposite side for you. If they do not want to lie on their side, that is fine. Do whatever is comfortable for them. Once you have completed both sides, finish your massage session with a few effleurage strokes down the body and legs and thank your dog for being such a good patient.
Recommended Length of Massage
I recommend massage for 15 minutes two to three times weekly, if possible. You will see that after a few sessions, giving your dog a massage will become second nature and hopefully a new way to spoil your fur baby.
Author: Alett Mekler MA (Econ), DVM, CCRP, CVMA