Downeast Dog News
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Canine Comfort: The Many Benefits of Massage for Dogs

By Jill Cournoyer | Jul 01, 2015

Rusty is an old Lab with scar tissue, stiffness, and aches from an old hip injury. After several weekly massage sessions, he not only moves more fluidly, but feels peppy enough to start retrieving toys he hasn’t touched in months. Randy is a very high-strung poodle. Regular massage lowers her anxiety and her owners find her notably more relaxed and less clingy. Rikki is a regular at agility trials and receives massage after each run to calm down her muscles and keep them loose.

These three lucky dogs have owners who realize that massage can offer the same benefits for dogs as it can for people. After all, like humans, dogs are vertebrates with joints, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia (connective tissue). They can benefit from the ancient art of massage – manipulation of soft tissue – in the same ways humans can.

Some people say they pet their dog often, so why would massage be valuable? Just as massage in humans is not simply the act of touching, massage in dogs is not simply the act of petting. Massage is touching with intention, a specific intention to facilitate healing while remaining neutral. A trained massage therapist is acquainted with a variety of strokes, from the flowing Swedish style to facilitate calmness to vigorous chops to increase blood circulation, and they are trained to apply them. The therapist is also skilled in the art of palpation to discover areas of tension, adhesions, and knots, and knows how to work them out. Also, getting a dog used to positive prolonged touching from a stranger can help a more fearful dog overcome trust issues with different people.

Which Dogs Will Benefit Most?

What types of dogs would benefit from a massage? Some of the major beneficiaries are dogs with anxiety, dogs with stiffness and soreness from long-term injuries or chronic conditions, geriatric dogs, especially those with arthritis, and performing or working dogs to prevent or treat stress injuries.

Reducing Stress and Anxiety: Research has proven that even brief massage in humans lowers blood pressure and the production of cortisol, the stress hormone, while raising levels of dopamine and oxytocin, two “feel-good” chemicals. Dogs produce cortisol, oxytocin, and dopamine, as well as melatonin, a hormone related to sleep cycles that massage can also affect. Anecdotal evidence supports the role touch therapy can play in calming dogs, including naturally high-strung breeds like Chihuahuas, dogs who become situationally anxious due to household changes, thunderstorms, etc., and dogs who are anxious due to abuse or neglect. A relaxation massage featuring smooth, flowing strokes can lower blood pressure and respiration to induce calmness, while providing a rush of mood-enhancing dopamine and oxytocin. As with people, these physiologic changes may also enhance sleep later on so that it is deeper and more refreshing.

Reducing Chronic Stiffness and Soreness: Dogs with old injuries often have painful scar tissue or residual tight musculature, or they may even be psychologically sensitive in an area of past trauma. Massage can help break down the scar tissue and lengthen contracted muscles, helping restore flexibility and ease of movement. Receiving positive touch in an area of past trauma can also aid the dog in overcoming its sensitivity in that area. Especially for dogs who associate touch with being poked and prodded for medical interventions, a soothing massage can reorient them to feeling good about human touch again.

Massage can also aid in treating symptoms associated with hip dysplasia, a common ailment in many breeds where one hip bone does not fit tightly into the socket. Dysplasia is the most common cause of hip arthritis in canines. Dysplasia produces not just hip pain but an uneven gait, which results in shortening the muscles of one leg and hip, producing tightness and pain. Massage has been proven effective in lengthening muscles by manipulation of the muscle and surrounding tissues, kneading and stroking them into softness so they elongate. When muscles are at their proper length, this, in turn, allows the joints to which they attach to also move properly. In fact, the ultimate goal of massage is to increase joint flexibility so that the body is properly aligned and moving fluidly, and hence less prone to injury.

Preventing Injuries in Performing and Working Dogs: Many dogs lead active lives in search and rescue, police work, aiding the disabled, and performing in shows and trials such as for agility and obedience. As with human athletes, constant running and jumping requires fit muscles to help prevent injuries. A vigorous pre-performance warm-up massage to increase circulation and enliven muscle receptors helps ready the body for activity. After performance, a cool-down massage helps restores blood pressure and respiration to normal levels and softens muscles to prevent tightening and spasms. Recently, The Wall Street Journal reported that agility dogs and handlers showed increased levels of cortisol, the stress-producing hormone, immediately after their runs. Hence, after-trial massage would benefit both dogs and their handlers!

As with people, regular massage can also be part of a health maintenance routine to reduce stress, keep muscles and connective tissue loose and less injury-prone, and provide an opportunity to discover problem areas and address them with massage or other interventions before they become bigger problems.

Enhancing Comfort in Geriatric Dogs:  Many older dogs have scar tissue and problems from old injuries as noted above. They may also have arthritis and associated inflexibility and inflammation, as well as bodily discomfort simply from the aging process. The digestive system and sleep cycles, for example, are two areas that often deteriorate with aging. As noted above, massage can provide relief from the symptoms of old injuries. Massage is also especially good for arthritis by improving circulation, softening tight areas, and reducing inflammation. Anecdotal evidence shows that aging dogs given regular massage can regain a youthful friskiness, such as wanting to jump and bringing long-neglected toys to play with again. Lipomas (fatty deposits under the skin) common in older dogs can also be reduced by massage. Since dogs can't relate all that is bothering them, a comfort massage is a natural, non-harmful way to generally address the aches and pains of aging.

Finally, since massage provides comfort, relaxed feelings, and relief from pain, it is a way of giving love to our dogs. And what value can be put on that?

It is also important to note that massage therapists are not trained to diagnose medical issues or to specifically treat medical problems. They work to loosen muscles and soft tissue and to induce relaxation. Massage therapy is a complementary therapy to medical treatment with a veterinarian, similar to so-called alternative therapies such as chiropractic care, acupuncture, and homeopathy. Always consult a veterinarian for proper diagnosis of pain and other symptoms in your dog before seeking massage.

 

Jill Cournoyer is a state-licensed massage therapist who completed a canine massage course with the Rocky Mountain School of Animal Acupuncture and Massage. She has a mobile massage service in Greater Portland. Contact her at: athomemassage@massagetherapy.com, 207-878-8896.