When I returned from a recent trip and went to pick up for my dogs Mina and Greco from the pet hotel where they had stayed they seemed unusually quiet. Despite showing joy at seeing me, as they always do, my cocker spaniel and my Dalmatian were not so eager to run to the car and return home.
I asked Barbara, the hotel director, why they were acting differently this time. “I gave them a massage twice a day,” she explained. She described in detail how my dogs — whom I thought I knew so well — had enjoyed their messages. She said that, because they seemed to suffer from stiffness, she had massaged over those areas, and that my Dalmatian had enjoyed it so much, he often sighed with pleasure.
I was impressed, but also skeptical. Then I decided to do some research and find out what animal behavior specialists think on the subject. I was surprised to discover they agreed that a pet massage can considerably reduce anxiety in dogs.
It has long been known that physical contact is soothing for people and animals, and now, there is data to prove it. A recent study conducted in kennels in Dayton, Ohio, showed that petting avoided an increase of cortisol (an indicator of stress) in the blood of animals. So if caresses reduce their stress, wouldn’t it be even better to give them a massage?
In my research, I learned that many individuals licensed in human massage techniques have applied them not only in dogs but also in cats and even horses. Experts say that massages improve circulation, reducing tension and muscle spasms, and also help with recovery after surgery. They further explain that a massage may help reduce chronic pain as well as hip dysplasia and arthritis, two common ailments in domestic animals.
I’ve watched dog owners massage their animals before and after dog shows and contests. I am not sure if medical claims about animal massages can be confirmed, but I was impressed to see how comfortable they seemed after receiving one. Another benefit of massage therapy is that it gives the owners a pleasant way to check the health of their pets. Many veterinarians recommend that once a week, the owners should examine the animal’s body by slightly touching all areas.
How to do it? Make the massage fun, showing affection to the animal. Start with the head and observe the response as you move through the body. Gently touch the skull and jaws. Check his eyes and examine his ears inside and out. Open his mouth and check the teeth and gums. Run a finger along the gums of your pet. Then turn your hands around his neck and spine, ribs and belly, and continue towards the legs. Stroking your pet’s body will not only make him feel good, but you’ll learn to spot the early signs of medical problems. As you examine the animal’s skin, you could detect if there are any fleas or ticks.
If you decide to try the massage therapy, it would be a good idea to ask your veterinarian to examine your pet beforehand. He can find some sensitive areas you should avoid preventing the animal from becoming irritated due to pain and even biting you.
There are several types of massages for animals. But regardless of which technique you use, always look out for your pet’s reactions.
Pay close attention to the eyes. If he shows fear, stop. A relaxed and sleepy look means you may continue.
Never force an animal to undergo a massage. The sessions should only last as long as your pet enjoys them. If he shows resistance, stop.
If an animal has shown aggressive tendencies when held or petted, be extra cautious. Proceed slowly to avoid even the slightest cause of an aggressive response.
As a rule, cats are less inclined to receive massages than dogs, so you should watch more carefully to see if they are enjoying it.
Finally, if you think your pet may benefit from a massage but feel unable to do it yourself, hire an experienced animal massage therapist. You can ask for references from your vet or dog trainer. ■