Medical studies show that massage lowers blood pressure, soothes sore muscles, and boosts circulation. One advocate of pet massage even believes her specialized method opens fresh neural pathways, as well. Massage can relieve aberrant behavior in pets and, some say, certain illnesses. Methods may matter less than the actual application of human touch to the animal.
“The main point,” says Steve Lindsay, owner of Canine Behavioral Services, in Philadelphia, and author of the two-volume Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, “is reduction of stress and induction of relaxation.” A pet’s failure to cope adaptively with stress, Lindsay believes, is the root of many serious behavioral problems. “And stress is measurably reduced by the ‘contact comfort’ produced by touching the animal.” In studies, when a person petted an animal in a mechanical way, stress was minimally reduced, but when the touch turned into firm, long stroking–administered with warm emotion and a soothing voice–the positive effects were dramatic.
Lindsay advocates simple massage that is easily learned and executed by pet owners. The practitioner begins with the least-tense area of the animal, manipulating the surface of the body, with the fingertips moving together in slow, clockwise circles while the heel of the hand rests on the body. Start with a light touch and bear down slightly as relaxation and contentment settle in. Certain areas-around the head, behind the ears, and along the spine–seem to let the pet unwind immediately; you’ve probably already noticed how much your cat, dog, or horse enjoys your handling these areas.
For the full effect, though, the entire body should receive the treatment. There are many books that describe specific movements and techniques. Try a few until you find the one that suits both of you.
In Steve Lindsay’s method, “Posture Facilitated Relaxation Training,” specifically designed for dogs, the session begins with the animal standing. During the massage, the owner shifts the dog to a sitting, then to a lying-down position, and finally eases it onto its side, as the massage deepens and the animal goes into a state of deep relaxation.
“Pay attention to ‘eye,’” advises Lindsay, since you can observe the animal’s state by the expression in the eyes. “The eye becomes softer as the dog relaxes.” By the end, the eyes are completely closed. By presenting a light fragrance during the final stages of the massage, owners can create an association between the scent and relaxation over the course of numerous sessions. Then, in stressful situations later, mild exposure to the scent can calm the animal independently of the massage.
While getting the animal into a relaxed state, the massage need not tax the masseur. Lindsay finds that when owners develop an ease in their skill, the relaxation response occurs in minutes. He usually recommends three to five sessions per week when working on a specific problem.
A few of my pets–a nervous cat, a dog with separation anxiety, and an arthritic, storm-phobic elderly dog (I’m not sure my daughter’s shy hedgehog is a viable candidate)–could benefit from the soothing effects of massage. Yet massage can do more than heal. It can also establish an internal comfort level that prevents problems from occurring. Even puppies and kittens can profit from it: By associating the human touch with pleasure, they learn to trust human interaction earlier–to take medications, endure vet and grooming visits, and enter into cages and crates happily–and be at ease around other animals. And when you spend the time getting in touch physically with your pet, you’ll find other positive results, as well.
I consider myself a rank beginner at massage, but I had a breakthrough the other day, following advice I’d found in several sources about breathing in sync with touching.
“Pace your breathing as you work through the movements,” urges Lindsay. “Notice it. You concentrate and achieve a ‘oneness’ with yourself. This in turn is projected to the animal, and both feel an energy from it.” It rakes some practice, but once I caught on to the idea, something clicked, and I found myself in a deeper communion with my companion animals than I’d ever experienced. And it lasts. I feel more in tune with my pets now, and they seem to listen to me a little better, too, well beyond the actual massage session.
Pets and humans are not going to be speaking the same language anytime soon. But we can communicate, deeply, through touch. It provides the chance to be with our pets and away from the rest of the world. Then words, in whatever language, become irrelevant, as physical mending inspires higher forms of satisfaction.