Therapeutic Massage and Your Dog

By Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM

As veterinarians become more conscious of the details and nuances of how dogs experience pain, they searchdog_massage for more methods with which to battle both acute and chronic pain in these patients. It is quite common now to look to human medicine for ideas and techniques that can be applied to dogs who are dealing with pain issues to help them feel better and to help relive their pain and discomfort. Therapeutic massage is one example of a physical medicine technique that has found a place in the canine pain management armamentarium.


What exactly is therapeutic massage?

Therapeutic massage is the manipulation of the soft tissues of the body using specific techniques that include holding, the movement of tissue, and the application of pressure in a variety of ways. The actual techniques of massage are referred to as “strokes,” and each stroke describes a way in which the practitioner’s hands interact with the dog’s tissues. Each stroke has a specific purpose and application.

"Each massage stroke has a specific purpose and application."


What are the various massage strokes, and what do they accomplish?

Simple stroking, such as petting from one end of the dog’s body to the other, is generally used to open and close a massage session. Stroking involves running the hands with light to medium pressure over the dog from the head to the tail and down each of the limbs. By opening the massage with long, light-touch stroking, we can help relax the dog and set the stage for the rest of the massage. It also gives an opportunity to gauge the condition of the tissues, noting areas with increased tension, and to detect any lumps, swelling, or temperature differences from one area to another.

A typical massage session will move next to effleurage. Effleurage involves a gliding stroke using the whole hand and applying medium pressure. This massage stroke is generally oriented along the lines of the muscles and affects the superficial tissues. Effleurage is performed, in general, toward the heart, so from the toes toward the torso, and from the backside toward the head. Effleurage is used to assist with circulation of both blood and lymph and can be quite effective at resolving edema (swelling caused by fluid accumulation in the body).

The next deeper level of pressure in a massage is applied with petrissage. Petrissage involves a kneading compression stroke of the muscles and the skin over them. It is used to relieve muscle tension, knots in the soft tissues, and muscle spasms. The actual muscles may be lifted and rolled.

A variation on petrissage is skin rolling. Skin rolling is just what the name implies, and we work from the ends of the limbs to the torso, and from the tail to the head. Skin rolling can release adherence of the skin to the deeper tissues, and it can increase circulation of both lymph and blood in the skin and subcutaneous tissues. Most dogs really enjoy the sensations associated with skin rolling.

"Most dogs really enjoy the sensations associated with skin rolling."

Finally, the massage may involve a more concussive stroke. Chopping, one type of concussive stroke, involves using the edge of the hand in a rapid chopping fashion using medium pressure. Chopping is usually applied over areas of large muscle mass. Tapping, the second type of concussive stroke, which can be applied over more focused areas than chopping, is performed by holding the fingers together, slightly curved, and tapping the area being worked on. Tapotement, the third concussive stroke, is one in which the hand is cupped and the edge of the hand and the tips of the fingers form a circular surface as the point of contact with the patient’s body. Chopping, tapping and tapotement all energize tissues, causing increased circulation of lymph and blood.


Is there any time that massage should not be performed?

There are several contraindications for massage. Massage should not be performed over open wounds, around unstable fractures, or when a dog is experiencing pain that is not yet appropriately controlled. Massage should be applied with caution in dogs with blood-clotting problems, and we should not massage directly over areas that are infected or over tumors.


Can I perform massage on my dog at home?

Although formal, full-body massage is best performed by a trained individual, elements of dog massage can be easily demonstrated and taught for application at home. In fact, by learning how to perform certain massage techniques and interacting with your dog in this intimate and healing way, you can really expand your relationship with him. The kind of physical contact that is such a critical part of massage can help strengthen the bond with your dog.

"The kind of physical contact that is such a critical part of massage can help strengthen the bond with your dog."

Please talk to one of us on the veterinary healthcare team if you are interested in learning more about massage for your dog. If your dog would benefit from this therapy, we can teach you how to provide some massage techniques at home.

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