Understanding the benefits of massage for pets

Massage isn’t just for people. Dogs and cats can also benefit – and they will love the extra attention!

After twenty-five years at a corporate job, Lynne Flanagan was the epitome of the status quo. She had a fine career in corporate training and business communications, and was collecting a respectable salary and good benefits. She wasn’t entirely charmed by her longevity in a career that she’d planned for the short-term, but practicality told her to stay where she was.

Then in 2000, everything changed. The company Flanagan worked for merged with another, and she was offered a separation package. Freed from the corporate world, Flanagan jumped at the chance of a mid-life career change and decided to follow her dream to work with animals. Over the next four years, she obtained certification as an animal massage therapist from PetMassage Institute in Toledo, Ohio, and started her own business, Paws That Matter. Since then, she has been helping countless animals throughout the suburbs of Boston. As the popularity of pet massage grows, Flanagan and others like her are increasingly passionate about the field’s expanded presence and healing potential.

A few years ago, pet massage was virtually unheard of. It was considered extravagant at best, designed only for the occasional pampered pooch or kitty. PetMassage Institute’s founder and director, Jonathan Rudinger, says that though the idea was slow to catch on at first, he has since seen a dramatic rise in the interest and respect that the institute — and pet massage in general — has garnered since PetMassage’s inception in 1998. “Our influence is growing,” he says. “People don’t point at us and giggle anymore.” Rudinger compares the initial five or six weekly hits on his website to the current count of 1,600, and attributes the growth to an enhanced interest in alternative treatments.

“More people have become convinced that drugs or surgery are not always the answer,” agrees Dee Schreiber of Equissage, an equine and canine massage institute in Round Hill, Virginia. Since 1989, over 7,500 people have graduated from their week-long intensive curriculum, which generally requires a three-month advance booking. They now offer a home study certification program in concert with instructional videotapes.

Flanagan also has noticed greater acceptance and interest from the public. “At first, reactions ranged from blank stares to comments that massage for animals was wasteful,” she says. “There was only a small group that instantly understood and said how great it was.” Today, a more captivated audience inquires about her business, and e-mails pour in from across the country asking for advice on how to get started.

While studying at PetMassage, Flanagan was required to attend several workshops, complete take-home tests, and perform massages. Although she says the program granted a solid foundation upon which to further study, she warns that technique alone will not suffice. “You need to understand how animals think and interpret your behaviors,” she says. “You also need to be aware of any health conditions, so some medical familiarity is important. The learning process is ongoing and really fascinating.”

Massage is especially important when you consider the shortcomings of some of today’s medical technologies. Schreiber points out that X-ray machines are incapable of detecting muscular disorders, inhibiting the chances for a correct diagnosis. “Most muscle problems will go undiagnosed by a veterinarian,” he says. “If a horse has a limp, for example, the problem won’t show up on X-rays.”

One of the advantages of massage is that you don’t need to train and study extensively to learn and apply the basics to your animal. If you don’t have time for week-long workshops, instructional videos such as Pet Your Pet Massage from TV therapist Christine Sutherland, are helpful starting points that introduce you to the basics and lead the way to more advanced instruction.

Massage can be administered in a number of ways, depending on the patient’s condition. Based on her experiences, Flanagan has developed a sequence of four traditional massage techniques: Swedish (long stroke), Shiatsu (pressure point), T-Touch (circular motion), and Petrissage (kneading). While working, she speaks to the animals and plays soothing music. “It’s been scientifically validated that animals respond to classical music,” she notes, adding that communication is key to a successful therapy session. “When you have an animal you can’t communicate with or relate to, that animal is not going to relax. That defeats the purpose of what massage is all about.”

Flanagan’s clients attest to her understanding of animals and are grateful for the physical and psychological improvements they observe in their companions. Kathleen Allspaw saw an immediate response in her arthritic 13-year-old terrier mix, Lucy: “After her first visit with Lynne, she was able to actually leap into the air.”

Massage also has psychological benefits. While mostly sought out for physical ailments such as arthritis or hip dysplasia, Flanagan has also witnessed a substantial growth in patients who have suffered from trauma. “The animals feel the energy of love and honor that is transferred from the hands of a masseuse. Massage is an excellent and subtle way for a rescue cat or dog to regain trust when coming from an environment of mistreatment. It builds social skills and helps overcome certain fears.”

In other cases, massage may be used simply for relaxation. It also increases blood circulation, enhances nutrient absorption, and improves immunity. In fact, many sicknesses and conditions can be alleviated by massage because it reaches and improves the function of all organs, tissues, and body systems.

Massage therapists are enjoying a growing demand for their services as more people see first-hand how it can help their animal companions. But there are still those who mistakenly view it as an extravagance. “The problem with massage is that it is looked at as a luxury,” says Kathy Deschenes, whose eight-year-old English springer spaniel Alex receives a massage every three weeks. “It’s like you’re being pampered,” she says. “If people thought about what they are paying for traditional veterinary care, they would at least try it. I am a big fan of holistic approaches to my own health and know how much massage has helped my own ailments.” Allspaw agrees. “I was not surprised that massage could have such a great effect on Lucy, because I know what various body work methods have done for me. But I have never seen such immediate and lasting results as I have from massage therapy.”

Flanagan and Rudinger both believe that in the not-too-distant future, pet massage therapists will emerge at the rate that groomers are popping up today. “The demand is growing as the concept is accepted,” Flanagan says. For now, though, she’s content with her uniqueness in a role that humans may still not fully understand, but that animals comprehend all too well. “I get the best greetings,” she laughs. “I’ve had more than one person say to me, ‘She knew you were coming today.’ The animals are always happy to see me. That’s one of the most gratifying aspects of this job.”

A massage by any other name

A number of techniques can be used to tailor massage treatments to an individual’s needs.

Deep Muscle Massage: addresses specific muscular problems; offers quick results for pain and stress

Deep Tissue Massage: works deep parts of thicker muscles and unsticks their fibers to release toxins and tension

Myotherapy: relaxes muscle spasms, enhances circulation and eases pain when employed on “trigger points” (knots)

Naprapathy: used on connective tissue to achieve a healthy flow of energy through the body

Neuromuscular Therapy: acute and chronic pain treatment; promotes balance between the musculoskeletal and nervous systems

Shiatsu: rhythmic pressure applied to specific points to increase energy flow and decrease pain; may include gentle stretching

Swedish Massage: “traditional” massage that is effective for most ailments

Tellington Touch: health and behavioral therapy for pets; designed to create a calm, focused, and attentive state of being

For more on these techniques and others, visit www.aboutmassage.com

Massage resources

Animal Dynamics (equine),
Fairfield, FL (352) 591-6025, animaldynamics.com

Equissage (equine, canine, feline),
Round Hill, VA (800) 843-0224, equissage.com

Healing Touch for Animals (small and large animal),
Highlands Ranch, CO (866) 470-6572, healingtouchforanimals.com

Integrated Touch Therapy (canine and equine),
(800)251-0007, integratedtouchtherapy.com

Joyful Touch (small and large animal),
North Las Vegas, NV (866) JOY-TOUCH, joyful-touch.com

PetMassage Institute (canine),
Toledo, OH (800) 779-1001, petmassage.com

Tellington Touch Training (equine, canine, feline, etc.),
various locations (800) 854-8326, ttouch.com