My cat, Grayson, loves massages. Every night, as I settle in to unwind and read my book, he jumps up next to me on the couch for his massage. I start by gently stroking his back, then around his neck, the top of his head and ears. He slowly drifts off to fantasy land as I get into the knots in his neck and up under his skull, before working my way down along his back to the base of his tail — that’s when the kneading starts. Occasionally he’ll get a little too carried away and his claws will dig into me. Ouch! But the second I stop, he starts purring loudly, head butting my hand and gently brushing up against my arm. Before long I give in and begin again. Like us humans, most pets enjoy a good massage. There are many physical benefits associated with massage, and it’s a great way to bond with your favorite furry friend. But there’s a right way and wrong way to do it, so you’ll want to make sure you are using proper technique.
The Benefits Of Massage
First and foremost, massage sessions can help you and your pet bond more thoroughly. And not only can massage help reduce your pet’s stress, but pet owners also feel a sense of stress relief from massaging their own pet. Massage may help you catch an injury earlier than you may have otherwise. Many pets are “stoic” and do not show obvious signs of pain. Massaging your pet can help you become more familiar with your pet and help you to recognize any early signs of distress. Massages are especially beneficial to pets who are athletic, or older, and have generalized stiffness and rigidity. Many pets with diagnosed musculoskeletal injuries could benefit as well. However, if your pet does have an injury, it is important that you consult your pet’s health care provider prior to attempting any home “treatments.” Other benefits of massage include:
- Improved circulation
- Reduced tightness in muscles
- Improved flexibility
- Reduced pain
Proper Massage Technique
Although most everyone loves a good massage, there is such a thing as a “bad massage.” Some of you may have experienced this yourself. A “good massage” results in you feeling better later (maybe even during). A “bad massage” actually causes tissue damage and may even result in an actual injury. Follow these basic guidelines to help give your pet a “good” massage:
- Make sure your pet is relaxed and comfortable before you begin.
- If you know of any actual injuries, avoid those areas, unless you are instructed on a specific technique by your pet’s health care provider.
- Use a lot less pressure than you think is necessary — then use even less.
- Begin with gentle petting, stroking and light scratching.
- Stay on areas that do not have internal organs that could be poked. (For example, don’t try to massage stomach muscles.)
- Focus on the back and neck muscles (but avoid the neck muscles near the throat — keep your fingers on the back of the neck behind the ears).
- Don’t forget about the muscles on the arms and legs, too, although many pets do not like their feet touched.
Once you have your pet relaxed and ready for the actual “massage part,” follow these steps:
- Gently place the pads of your fingers (don’t dig in with the tips of your fingers), on your pet’s fur.
- Try to feel through the layer of fur to your pet’s skin.
- Once you feel his or her skin, press very gently (then lighten up your pressure, because, usually, what you think is gentle is actually more pressure from your pet’s point of view).
- Try to feel the layer of tissue between the skin and the bones. Depending on the size of your pet, it will probably only be a few centimeters of tissue, at most.
- ONLY massage the tissue that feels “squishy” — if you press on something hard, it’s likely bone or another type of structure that will not benefit from massage (and if you “press your point”— pun intended — injury may result).
- Gently (then even more gently) move your fingers side to side and up and down along the muscles.
So how will you know if your pet likes the massage? Oh, you will know! If your pet moves away from you or finches, starts breathing heavier, licking his lips or shows any other signs of distress, stop the massage and consult your pet’s health care provider. It is still possible your pet would benefit from massage, but those signs of stress and/or pain may indicate that an actual injury is present. Therefore, receiving medical advice would be needed before you could safely massage your pet. Likely, your pet will show visible signs of pleasure… just like my Grayson.
By: Dr. Jan Steele