Saturday, August 20, 2011

Canine Massage: Every Dog ‘Kneads’ It”

by Susan E. Davis, PT

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.

Upon injury with muscle guarding and spasm, the cells simply start to run out of energy, they secrete excess protein and the sarcomeres tighten upon each other (think of those bright colored little woven Chinese torture tubes you may have played with as a kid, where you insert your fingers on each end and as you pull apart the tube gets tighter and tighter.)

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).


Susan E. Davis (Sue) is a licensed Physical Therapist with over 30 years of practice in the human field, who transitioned into the animal world after taking courses at the UT Canine Rehabilitation program.  She is located in Red Bank, New Jersey.

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 since 2008.

She also provides pro bono services at the Monmouth County SPCA in Eatontown, NJ.  Sue is the proud “dog mommy” to Penelope, a miniature Dachshund with “attitude”.  For more information see her website , or follow on Twitter @animalPTsue.

Sue is also the author of a fantastic book on physical therapy, Physical Therapy And Rehabilitation For Animals: A Guide For The Consumer.  

Physical therapy can do so many great things for your dog. Understanding all the possibilities physical therapy can offer will change your dog's life. This book definitely belongs on the shelf of every dog lover.

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
Canine Massage: Every Dog ‘Kneads’ It”
Photon Power: Can Laser Therapy Help Your Dog?  
Physical Therapy in the Veterinary World  
Reiki: Is it real? 
Dog Lessons: Cooper  
The Essentials Of Canine Injury Prevention: 7 Tips For Keeping Your Dog Safer 
It's Not Just Walking, It's Therapy! 
Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part I)
Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part II Physical Therapy)
Range Of Motion: It’s A Matter Of Degree…
The Weight Of Water And How It Helps Dogs 
By Land or By Sea? A Comparison of Canine Treadmills 
Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part I)
Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part II) 
Scar Tissue: Is it Too Much of a Good Thing? 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Ramps! 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Indoor Duo Dog Exercises!
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Best Practices After Your Dog’s Surgery

For further information:
Tallgrass Animal Acupressure and Massage Institute
National Board of Certification Animal Acupressure and Massage


  1. Hello there - Thanks for an interesting article. I I have an 8 year old bitch who is displaying the symptoms of syringomyelia; i.e. lip-smacking, scratching the air - and more recently - some 'fits' that last a few minutes. I don't want the rest of her life to be on medication and I'm looking at natural remedies. Could massage help ease the pressure for her? I also live in Scotland, UK and have heard of cold laser/acupuncture treatment. Do you think these would be a better alternative - and if so, can you recommend anyone from the UK?

    1. Hi Amanda. Things like acupuncture or laser might help her feel better but you need to know exactly what is going on in there, before you can make treatment decisions. I'd recommend getting an MRI to find out what exactly your dealing with and go from there.

    2. Anecdotally, acupuncture and ultrasonic treatments have been reported to be useful adjunctive therapy in some cases. In some cases chartered physiotherapists are able to help alleviate signs., . Care should be taken however as the response to these treatments is very individual and some dogs may actually be more painful afterwards. Spinal manipulation is contraindicated.

    3. Hi again Jana - thanks for your response. I think the next port of call is to take her to the vets again and find out about an MRI then. As she is a King Charles Cavalier though, and she's had her ears checked out, I'm pretty sure that will sadly be the diagnosis. I'm lucky, in that we are attached to a veterinary hospital in Stirling (Broadleys) who have a fantastic reputation. I suppose I'm just scared to think about her having an operation and being 'doped up' all the time afterwards. I would rather treat the pain/condition naturally, however, I do understand I may not have that option and time may be of the essence. By the way, she doesn't seem in pain at the moment; apart from when she has a 'fit'. Even then, it's more how someone would act if a fly flew in their blouse and wanted it out type of thing; rather than pain. However, I'm sure it is still quite distressing for her (and indeed to witness). I'll let you know in due course how she is fairing - thanks again, Amanda :)

    4. Well, the MRI is not only to confirm the diagnosis but, more importantly, to see the extent of the problem. That is the information which is important to have prior any treatment decision.

      Typically the first drugs used for treatment of CM/SM are (unlicensed) drugs that reduce CSF pressure e.g. furosemide, cimetidine or omeprazole. The principle of this therapy is that reducing CSF pressure reduces the driving force contributing to the syringomyelia. Some owners report a reduction in signs of apparent pain.

  2. Dogs are also need to be pampered with good massage sometimes.

  3. That was some of the most to the point educational and concise advice I have found the comment about "healing hands" is , I believe , the very essence of the healing. Of course correct and proper manipulation is important but it is like a piano, many can be taught to play but not all are pianists,it is the touch of..well, hmm God, Spirit or as I have put it, intention.

    When I was a child, and had the flu, my Mom would sit at my bedside and hold my hand and the fever would go into her hand. The hand holding was not ordinary in other words one may go through the motion of therapeutic massage but if the intent is not there the healing doesn't happen. I believe all humans have the gift to heal and it has merely been suppressed.
    I am treating my beloved Cocker/Terrier, Mr B. aka Mr Biscuit aka The B aka Mr Great Big Wonderful B aka B aka my friend, who recently was diagnosed with ruptured discs of the 11th and 12th thoracic vertebrae and spurs on the first 2 lumbar vertebra.
    I so deeply felt his pain and the swelling of his abdomen made the tension in his muscles all the worse. I try to "feel" what must be
    When lifting him off the bed to go outside and then carried down the steps I placed my hand between the front legs under the chest,placed the back hand under the hind legs then I would try deer style the way one would carry a goat or calf or my arms encircle him. Still not sure which is best and most comfortable.

    I have wondered about a brace for the area. Any thoughts and or avice on that would be greatly appreciated.

    A ramp down the stairs is going to have to be made but what angle? IF too much of an angle would the ramp add to compression and put stress on an already overcompensating cervical??

  4. Thank you for writing this article. As a Certified Canine Massage Therapist I love to share articles written by other reliable sources. It shows my potential clients that I'm not just a "crazy dog lady"! Canine massage is a new concept to most people but those who buy in are rewarded with healthier dogs with less pain!

    Well-Pup Canine Therapies: