Massage offers pets a touch of healing

Posted: Sunday, January 02, 2005

So you know Rover Dog and Friskie Kitty enjoy a good rubdown.

Rover tips his nose in the air and wags his tail wildly as your hands make their way up and down his furry back. And Friskie offers other signals of unabashed enjoyment — if the tip-toed stretching of her hindquarters in the air isn't evidence enough, her gurgling purr provides unspoken assurance your scratching is her delight.

So maybe it's not so surprising pet massage is on the rise in the ever-expanding world of pet care.

While some might dismiss it as unnecessary pampering, professionals say massage offers a number of health benefits.

"It's only been in the last 8 or 10 years that human massage therapy has become more mainstream and accepted as a viable therapy by the medical profession,'' noted Jonathan Rudinger, founder of PetMassage Training and Research Institute in Toledo, Ohio. "And as that's gotten more attention, people are realizing the benefits for animals, too."

Those benefits include, say professionals, providing animals relief from painful conditions such as osteoarthritis and other diseases, and can help with rehabilitation from surgery and injuries, among a number of other things.

"It's a great stress reliever, reduces muscle tension and increases flexibility and range of motion," said Elizabeth Barrett, a certified canine massage therapist in Marietta.

Dogs suffering from stress?

Barrett said it's true.

"Dogs that are recovering from surgery or injury are under stress, and performance dogs that have to travel a great deal and are expected to perform suffer from stress as well," she said. "Any time your dog exhibits odd behavior, there's a chance it's stress-related."

At her practice, K 9 Body Works in the Greater Atlanta Veterinarian Medical Group, Barrett sees dogs with all kinds of conditions. Barrett breeds and shows dogs professionally and has seen firsthand with her own animals — along with her clients' — the benefits of massage.

Dogs given massage therapy simply perform better, she said, noting one client brought his dogs to her as they'd had trouble placing in the finals of an agility competition. After receiving massage work, the dogs placed.

And then there are the sad cases.

"I had a dog that was a terminal cancer patient and was in a lot of pain, and the owners told me the only time the dog was able to relax and sleep was after they'd taken him to me — the rest of the time he was up and pacing or restless," she said.

Barrett only works on dogs; she said she "knows" dogs better and doesn't feel working on other species would be fair to the individual animal.

Rudinger, who also is a certified massage therapist for humans and worked as an equine massage therapist for 18 years, has worked on a number of species, from mammals to reptiles, including cats, birds, iguanas and snakes.

He said every living thing responds to touch; it's knowing how to read the body language of the animal he's working on that's the challenge. For that reason, he, too, prefers to work on dogs. Cats, he said, respond differently than dogs do, and while they can benefit from massage, cats don't always like to be touched.

And knowing this is fundamental to pet massage.

''You have to be able to read an animal's body language,'' said Barrett. With dogs, she said she watches breathing patterns. ''And a dog may press the body part (I'm working on) into my hand, telling me, 'Yes, that's a good spot, continue working there,' or he may roll away, saying 'Stop working there.'''

Echoing Barrett's words, Rudinger said he doesn't work on every dog brought into his office.

''Dogs are just like people in that they have good days and bad days, sometimes they want to be touched, sometimes they don't,'' he said. ''If he doesn't, then I'm not going to force him.''

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