Massage has always been a “cornerstone” treatment for physical therapists.
It is one of the first courses a PT student takes when beginning their professional coursework.
The benefits of massage to human beings having various medical conditions has been acknowledged for decades and is now being utilized more in the animal world. The benefits dogs receive from massage are many of the same benefits that humans do such as decreased tension, pain and inflammation, increased blood flow and healing, decreased swelling and reducing fibrous adhesions.
And you can never underestimate those non-tangible benefits of the healing touch that calm, sooth and allow the body to heal itself.
The technical definition of massage is “soft tissue manipulation or mobilization” and involves moving the hands along the skin and moving the underlying tissues, directed toward a specific purpose, aimed at achieving a physiological and psychological change.
In animals it is generally done in direction of hair or coat, but sometimes done in the direction of the heart.
There are 4 basic types of massage:
1. Effleurage or Stroking: which utilize gliding motions using the therapist’s palm and fingers.
This technique is excellent for removal of swelling and increased lymph drainage. It improves circulation and produces a “flushing out” effect. Bear in mind that the weather plays a role in affecting the soft tissues. When the barometric pressure in the atmosphere is low, tissues tend to swell and become more tender.
If your dog is arthritic you may notice their symptoms seem worse on low barometer/humid/damp days and better in dry or high barometric conditions. Massage can be used to combat the uncontrollable effects that the weather has on your dog. Therapists may be likely to use this type of massage technique for swollen, tender tissues.
2. Petrissage: kneading, compression, and skin rolling using thumbs and fingers.
This technique is best for soft tissue tension, commonly referred to as “spasm” or “guarding” and nodules, etc. They form from repeated strain, injury and micro trauma that cause muscle tightening.
This tightening is the body’s natural reaction to trauma, shifting from a relaxed to a protective mode. If the tightened, protective mode continues for very long without relief, the muscle becomes overused and fatigued, and changes start to occur within the cells.
Within skeletal muscle cells are protein molecules called actin and myosin. These are small filaments that are organized into units of muscle tissue called sarcomeres .In turn, they are arranged in series, overlapping each other, like a ratchet system. This is the mechanics behind muscle contraction.
Mild to moderate tightening that can be relieved by applying gentle pressure is called “guarding”. Harder tightening that tends to feel very hard and worsens with pressure is “spasm”. Guarding and spasm usually occur in an entire muscle belly and it can’t relax without intervention.
Small concentrated formations of tightness can occur within the muscle called “nodules” or knots. They can also be called “trigger” or stress points.
So, how to cure this problem?
From a physiological standpoint you want to flush out the excess protein and elongate the sarcomeres. This can be accomplished by the use of physical modalities like heat or cold, ultrasound or laser, massage, stretching and muscle length rebalancing. The muscle also needs rest.
This is why it sometimes seems to take longer to heal a muscle injury than a broken bone!
A bone can fairly readily be rested through casts and splints, but muscles can be “flexed” even with restricted movement from a cast or sling, via isometric contractions. In severe instances medication may be needed such as muscle relaxers, injections or dry needling techniques.
3. Tapotement: tapping, cupping, vibration and shaking using sides of hands, fist, or heel of hand.
It can include gentle squeezing and wringing. These techniques are used on more dense, thicker areas of muscle tissue such as the thigh and hip or buttock area. It is generally used to relax very tense areas and sometimes used over the ribcage in respiratory conditions.
4. Cross Friction or Transverse friction: for adhesions or scarring.
It uses the thumbs and index fingers perpendicularly across the direction of the fibers. It can be uncomfortable for your dog but usually yields fast and good results.
Who should do animal massage?
Veterinarians, Physical therapists, Massage Therapists and other health professionals who have received massage training and instructions.
Giving a proper massage requires study of animal anatomy, medical background and where/how to apply the various therapeutic techniques and maneuvers. It also takes practice. As a pet owner, your health care professional /Vet can show you some basics for your particular dog’s needs and issues.
Please understand that without prior basic instruction, massaging your dog can do more harm than good.
I have often been asked to give mini lessons to groups on animal massage but have declined the invitations for this very reason. In addition, you can never fool an animal and they really know when the hands touching them are trained or not.
The dog should be relaxed and trusting for the “healing touch” to have the best effect and they will not fully relax if they sense you are not prepared.
I cannot stress enough that a dog always knows “trained hands’. A trained practitioner should pay close attention and listen for the feedback dogs give.
When should massage be avoided?
During fever, shock, active bacterial or viral infections, distemper, neuralgia, fungal sin conditions, open wounds, conditions where there is acute and severe inflammation (need to wait a day or 2 for the inflammation to be less acute).
For the last 3 years she has been providing PT services to dogs and other animals through her entity Joycare Onsite, LLC in pet’s homes and in vet clinics.
She also provides pro bono services each week to a shelter and sanctuary for neglected and abused animals. Sue is the proud “dog mommy” to Penelope, a miniature Dachshund with “attitude”. For more information see her website www.joycareonsite.com , or follow on Twitter @animalPTsue.
For further information:
Tallgrass Animal Acupressure and Massage Institute
National Board of Certification Animal Acupressure and Massage
Articles by Susan E. Davis:
Functional Strengthening Exercises: the What, Why and How
One Thing Leads To Another: Why The Second ACL Often Goes Too
Compensation: An Attempt To Restore Harmony
Paring Down to the Canine Core