Getting paid to pet horses, dogs or cats all day long – who hasn’t thought that would be the perfect way to make a living? In reality though, did you know that animal massage requires as much study and knowledge as human massage and can be even more physically demanding?!
Animal Massage in History
Just as massage therapy has been utilized throughout history, so too has massage been utilized in the care of animals, both companion animals and livestock, throughout history. References to massage in general and animal massage specifically have been found in ancient India, Egypt and China. Experiments involving the physiological effects of massage have been done as early as the 1800s. And, in the 1970s, Jack Meagher began experimenting with massage therapy on race horses, even working with those in the Olympics in 1976. By 1985 he had written his book Beating Muscle Injuries, addressing the prevention and treatment of muscle injuries in horses.
Knowledge of Each Species Is Critical
When working on animals, it is important to have a thorough knowledge of the systems of the body in each species of animal you are massaging. This means that having a working knowledge of the cardiovascular, muscular, skeletal, digestive, respiratory, nervous and integumentary systems of each species of animal you work on. It is also important to note that animals can be much more sensitive than humans, especially their respiratory, digestive and integumentary systems as their senses may be more acute. This means that they may not tolerate strong scents, changes in diet, extreme heat or ointments and topical treatments as well as we might.
As in humans, massage on animals can benefit them at any time, but massage can also be utilized pre- and post-event to improve performance in those animals that perform in sporting events such as dog and horse racing. It is also important to have a working knowledge of the terms used for each type of animal you are working with. For example, withers (highest point of horse’s back), throatlatch (strap that passes under throat), fetlock (ankles) and tarsus (hock). Each animal has its own terms, which can also be breed-specific.
Because animals cannot speak, they must be evaluated by other means: palpation, gait analysis, conformation analysis (how they stand and hold themselves) and observation of their movements. Experience with the type of animal you are working with is vital as you cannot know if an animal is moving incorrectly without first knowing what correct movement looks like in that species. For example, elephants have a slow, lumbering gate that is quite normal for them and when they run, they simply move faster. (I always imagine a large person trying to run in high heels when I see an elephant running and it makes me laugh!) Dogs, however, have a much faster, shorter stride when walking, but when they run they extend their whole body and cover ground much, much more quickly. Similarly, cows get up back end first, while horses get up front end first. If you don’t know what normal movement looks like, you cannot detect problems in the animal.
Massage Techniques in Action
Massage techniques also mirror those utilized in human massage: compression, direct pressure, effleurage, petrissage, friction, vibration and tapotement, or percussion. Compression may be used to increase circulation through a “pumping” action. Direct pressure, like compression, relieves hypertonic muscle tissue and increases circulation, re-oxygenating and eliminating trigger points. Effleurage is used to “warm up” muscle tissue and aid in recovery from fatigue. This is also used to soothe and calm animals that may be experiencing some stress. Petrissage strokes can be used to feel and evaluate the tissue underlying the area, to roll the skin breaking up restrictions in fascia and to increase circulation, bringing in fresh nutrients for recovery and removing accumulation of fluids and waste for removal. Friction affects deeper layers of muscle by compressing the tissue against the bone, freeing adhesions and breaking up areas of restrictions. Finally, tapotement (percussion) and vibration can be used to decrease nerve sensation before deeper techniques are utilized or to loosen tissue and joints, allowing for greater range of motion.
11 Benefits of Animal Massage
Much as in humans, massage therapy for animals has been shown to:
- Relieve muscular tension, spasms and pain
- Reduce trigger point formation
- Reduce scar tissue
- Increase range of motion
- Improve tone in weak muscles
- Relieve intestinal gas and aid in digestion
- Interrupt the pain cycle by activating sensory receptors
- Increase circulation
- Increase lymphatic circulation and immunity
- Decrease blood pressure and reduce heart rate
- Calm animals – massage increases dopamine and serotonin levels and is linked to decreased stress levels
As with humans, there are some cautions and contraindications to keep in mind with animal massage. If an animal is in shock, they may experience low blood pressure, and massage might lower it further thus putting the animal at further risk. Also, fever may be a sign of infection and should be addressed by a vet before massage is administered. If an animal has cancer, a vet should clear them for massage. Open wounds, ringworm and other skin conditions are also contraindicated for massage therapy. Torn muscles, tendons and ligaments or acute diseases such as influenza or coughs also contraindicate massage.
State Laws on Animal Massage
Animal massage is covered under veterinary licensing laws in about 40 states, and you should check with local laws before beginning a practice. The International Association of Animal Massage & Bodywork / Association of Canine Water Therapy offers information about state laws (http://www.iaamb.org/laws-by-state.php), but you should always check with your state laws to confirm they have not changed. Also, just as massage therapists refer people to physicians when necessary, it is important to have good working relationships with local veterinarians and know when to refer clients to them.
While you may not be able to offer animal massage as a professional service in your state, there is no reason you cannot give loving massage to your own animals! Even gentle petting offers a wide range of health benefits, both to you and your furry friends!