What to Expect from Therapeutic Pet Massage
Injured pets don't let on when they're hurting. They often compensate by shifting their weight and making things worse. Massage can help. After Sandy, an 11 year-old Golden Retriever, had surgery to remove mast cell tumors from his left rear leg, he began showing signs of weakness in both back legs.
Sandy is a therapy dog and his problem didn't become apparent until after he'd been walking a lot, visiting local schools and a veterans' hospital.
His owner, Joanne Yates of St. Helena, California, took him to physical therapy, where his program includes pet massage.
Older dogs lose the connection between the brain and paws, especially the hind legs. "The impulses from the brain don't go through so well and massage keeps the connection alive," says Yates, who was shown how to augment the work done by Sandy's therapists, Jackie Woelz , DPT of UC Davis, and Kay Lafranconi, founder of Belly Rub in Yountville, CA.
"I only work on his paws and toes to help keep the connections alive and I don't do a full-on massage because I don't want to screw things up," says Yates. "Professional massage therapists spend hundreds of hours studying musculature and doing practical hands-on work. It's not as simple as giving a neck rub."
Pain Management and More
Dogs don't let on when they're hurting, which can complicate their condition because they compensate by putting weight elsewhere, thereby straining themselves, says Lafranconi. One problem can thus create another.
"Massage restores function," says Lafranconi. "It gets the synovial fluid moving in the joints."
In addition to alleviating some of the effects of arthritis, massage can help digestion, relieve boredom and provide mental stimulation, especially for an inactive older dog.
Post-surgically, massage helps the healing process.
"I know how the dog is responding by the look on his face and how he's holding his body," says Lafranconi." They just kind of melt and push themselves into your hand a little bit. If they move away, it may mean it's uncomfortable or painful and I'll try to work in a way so I can eventually get that spot to relax." Massage doesn't cure, stresses Lafranconi, but it makes the pet feel better. Show dogs sometimes get massages before performing to loosen them up and after, to calm them down.
According to Lola Michelin, Director of Education and founder of Northwest School of Animal Massage in Seattle, WA, during first appointments the animal is evaluated by observing how he walks and interacts as well as via hands-on examination. Sometimes it takes a little longer for the dog to get used to massage on the first visit.
"We plan treatment according to how the dog is doing that day." Sessions can last anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour, depending on the dog. Some animals get what they need in thirty minutes.
"Within a session, you see the responses and the effects of the massage can last for hours or days," says Michelin "For animals that are recovering from injury or illness, it depends on the specifics, and could range from weekly to daily sessions."
Maintenance visits are recommended at least once or twice a month.
The practitioner will talk with the pet owner about a specific problem the dog might be having (i.e. restlessness and/ or discomfort) and schedule accordingly. In addition, Michelin always encourages clients to do some massage work on their own between sessions and will often show them how to do certain strokes and stretches so they can participate.
Even brushing your pet between visits is good for their circulation and their immune system. At-home massages supplant the work done by the professionals, "much as you brush your teeth at home, but still see a hygienist for a professional cleaning," adds Michelin
After four weeks of therapy, Sandy was able to stretch and put more weight on his leg. "The UC Davis vets said he had made a remarkable recovery," says Yates. "After six weeks, he's able to walk for up to 25 minutes again."