Who doesn’t love a great massage? After all, massage benefits us physically and psychologically. The same is true for our dogs. Through massage, you’ll see anxious or nervous energy melt away, and tightly held muscles relax. Whether you set aside time every week to massage your dog yourself, or look for a certified canine massage therapist, it’s helpful to know which techniques work best.
As with any therapy, you should consult your veterinarian and/or a professional canine massage therapist to ensure your dog is a good candidate for massage. Most dogs thrive on it, but there are a few cases when massage is contraindicated (see sidebar).
Start at a young age
While massage is therapeutic at any age, the sooner you can start massaging your puppy the better. Exposing her body to touch and manipulation in a positive environment helps prepare your dog for veterinary visits, grooming appointments, and human touch. Plus, it’s a great bonding experience.
What you’ll need:
- A willing canine volunteer
- A quiet space free from distraction
- A comfortable place for your dog to lie or sit
- Towel – to catch loosened dog hair)
- Treats – just in case a little bribery needs to take place
What you DON’T need:
- Long nails – make sure your nails are short enough that you don’t inadvertently scratch your pet.
- Lotions or oils – they’re not necessary, though an aromatherapy infuser is always pleasant
Basic massage strokes
When performing canine massage, start at the neck, move to the shoulder on the side the animal presents to you first, then progress down the leg, the back, over the abdomen and down the rear haunches and inner groin. Repeat on the other side. Complete all strokes in one area before moving to the next. When working with a puppy, toy, or small breed dog you can massage each side simultaneously — sit the dog on your lap and adapt the strokes by using just fingertips on her small frame.
Pay close attention to the feedback your dog gives you, from sitting at attention (negative), to flat out eyes closed, loving every minute (positive). Your dog may be sensitive to an area that has had surgery or a prior injury, so respect her boundaries. When she’s had enough, don’t force it. If your dog seems opposed to massage, start slowly with just petting and work your way up to longer sessions.
Here are a few base strokes suitable for homecare mini-massages.
Using a flat hand with fingers together, gently stroke one hand after the other continuously to help the dog relax and prepare the muscles for massage. You will be able to feel the area heat up as blood flow increases. This has a calming and soothing effect.
Using splayed fingers with flat finger tips (ensure your nails are short enough that they can’t scratch), “rake” along the area with slight pressure in the same direction as the coat. This is very relaxing over areas of tension as the pressure is diffused.
Using the ball of the thumb, apply slight pressure as you go “thumb over thumb” to smooth and stretch the muscle fibres to release tension and remove toxins from the cells.
Benefits of canine massage
- Eases physical tension
- Relieves pain
- Increases range of motion
- Improves mobility
- Helps/prevents postural deformities, especially in young dogs
- Lubricates and nourishes joints
- Increases circulation and blood flow, cleanses toxins
- Improves lung condition
- Helps keep skin soft and supple, and improves hair’s shine and texture
- Stimulates or soothes sensory nerve endings, which helps with phantom limb syndrome following amputation
- Helps with compensation and counterbalance issues
Why use a canine massage therapist?
Massage manipulates the muscles, sinews and joints to increase circulation and improve elasticity and range of motion. Through massage and feedback from the animal, a therapist can detect pain, tension, mobility restriction, sensitivities and areas of concern while using her hands to provide relief and relaxation.
Massage is not reserved only for animals in need of rehabilitation or increased mobility. Everyday living can be hard on pups’ bodies – running, jumping, playing, sprinting to sudden stops, even the act of growing can cause discomfort. Massage is a great way to ease some of the demands placed on their busy bodies. A canine massage therapist will work with you and your pup, and in some cases your veterinarian, to form a treatment plan best suited to the individual needs of the dog.
Animals who suffer from cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, fever, circulatory problems, compromised kidneys, certain dermatological conditions, heart conditions, females in heat or expecting puppies, and certain other conditions that are affected by increasing circulation and pressure, should be evaluated by a professional massage therapist BEFORE undergoing any kind of massage. It is important to remember that massage is not a replacement for veterinary care but a complementary therapy to aid in animal wellness.
Penny Kittlitz is a Canine Massage Therapist in Edmonton. She graduated from the diploma program in Canine Massage Therapy through Treetops Animal Massage (based in Ontario), which is recognized both nationally and internationally for its comprehensive courses. She is also certified in Pet First Aid. Animal health and well-being have always been top of mind for Penny, who has a special desire to help dogs rehabilitate, relax and rejuvenate. When she is not elbow deep in dog hair, she can be found near water, either in her kayak or throwing balls for her two chocolate Labs. You can reach her at therapawtic.com.