Pets and working animals are probably more similar than different when matched up to their human counterparts. When they are hungry they eat; when tired they sleep; and when overworked they have aches and pains. The one big difference perhaps is that they can’t verbalize in ways humans understand in order to voice their complaints.
Massage for both humans and animals goes back thousands of years. Touch is instinctive and required for healthy growth. A human mother cradles and coddles her newborn infant. A mother dog or cat licks, nudges and brings her babies close to her body for comfort and safety. A newborn foal presses its body against its mother. The more sentimental side of the news gives us adorable images of animal mothers and their babies cuddling in the wild or in zoos.
When a child is hurt or experiencing distress, the nurturing adult holds and pats to comfort. An animal may lick its wounds and retreat to a place of safety. A young animal may seek its mother. In our culture we take animals – cats, dogs, gerbils and more – into our homes and hearts. In some cases we take them out of a natural environment where they might have same-species companionship. Taking them in also means taking on the responsibility of caring for them and meeting their needs, not only feeding them and giving them shelter, but also nurturing them though the use of healthy touch. The very same massage techniques used on humans can be used on most animals and with very much the same results.
Benefits of Animal Massage
Most of the animals we take in to our lives are mammals. They are warm-blooded and share much of the same anatomy that humans do. They reap the same benefits from massage as humans do as well, such as improved circulation of blood and lymphatic fluid, plus a few more. Domesticated animals live in a human created environment. This alone can cause stress, which various studies show can be eased through the use of massage.
Just how does massage benefit a domesticated animal?
- Massage can reduce anxiety. In dogs this may mean a reduction in excessive barking and chewing. Cats may be less vocal and exhibit less stressful behaviors such as licking and pacing.
- The animal may become less aggressive. Aggressiveness can be caused by anxiety and fear. Massage can help develop trust through the use of healthy touch.
- The use of regular massage can help to reduce shyness and increase sociability.
- Some animals can be resistant to grooming. Massage offers a gentle introduction to touching, stroking and eventually brushing.
- Massage can reduce excitability and nervousness.
- Animals also suffer with arthritis pain and other aging issues. Massage can help an aging pet regain some agility and reduce associated pain and discomfort.
- Service animals, pets and animals participating in sporting events get injured. Massage therapy can help these animals with a faster and healthier recovery.
- Just as a human athlete benefits from sports massage techniques, so too can an animal. A dog or horse working with the police needs to be kept in excellent health. The handler who knows massage techniques can not only provide health maintenance, but can also form a stronger bond with the animal.
- The use of massage therapy can help to restore the enjoyment of touch to animals that have had a history of neglect or abuse.
- Regular massage therapy can provide early detection of conditions that may require veterinary care.
Whether an animal is in service as a companion or a competitor, regular massage therapy and touch in general acts as a form of interspecies communication and builds up trust between the animal and its owner or handler. Touch brings animals closer to us – and us closer to them.
Without touch, whether it is massage or simply petting and handling, companion animals can suffer from depressed immune systems, smaller stature, self-protective posturing and lack of socialization skills. Those who receive healthy touch from the beginning of life are more at ease around others, more robust and more trusting.
The Differences in Working on Humans and Animals
When humans are given various treatments, there is almost always the chance of a placebo effect. That is, when the treatment is applied or medication given, the person may experience results even if the treatment or medication is fake. The person’s own psychology and physiology reacts as if the real treatment or medication is given. This doesn’t happen with animals, because they are not aware of any expected outcome. Animals don’t have the preconceived prejudices for or against a certain medication or touch therapy. In general, they are open and receptive, especially when it comes to hands-on modalities.
One of the biggest differences between working with animals and adult humans is that animals don’t communicate discomfort and pain in ways we can always understand. Their responses may be similar to an infant, non-verbal and spontaneous. Animals tend to be more sensitive to touch, with each hair or feather providing sensory information about the surrounding environment. Their bodies are so attuned to touch that even the lightest of flies landing on their bodies will provoke a twitch strong enough to flick it away.
Once an animal gets used to your touch, it may use body movements to guide your hands to sore muscles. It may move into your touch, providing clues as to comfort levels regarding pressure and types of strokes.
Respect Your Client
Whether you are providing massage for your own pet or someone else’s, above all, remember that the animal needs to be treated with respect. Never force touch on an unfamiliar animal or one that appears to feel threatened. Greet both the owner and the animal. The animal’s owner will often know where their pet feels comfortable being touched and petted. Ask the owner questions about the pet’s health and demeanor before administering any touch or energy work.
Massage for animals can be rewarding. The effectiveness can be seen in a relaxed body posture, increase range of motion, faster healing from injuries and even positive behavioral changes. It improves socialization skills and strengthens the bond between people and their pets or animal working partners. Broaden your scope of practice today by looking into partnering with a local veterinarian and providing a positive touch experience for animal companions.
Editor’s Note: Many states do not allow licensed massage therapists to work with animals unless they are also doctors of veterinary medicine, a veterinary assistant or meet various additional standards of training. Check with your state’s regulatory board for more information.