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Canine Massage: More Than Just Belly Rubs

Among the benefits of canine massage are stress relief for people and dogs, and strengthening the bond between humans and animals.

 |  Aug 22nd 2014  |   2 Contributions


Your dog may not appreciate burning incense or aromatherapy candles, but she would probably love and benefit from canine massage. I know my dogs Jake and Max love it when I plunk down on the floor and spend an hour just rubbing their backs and necks at the end of the day.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a certified canine massage therapist. I don't even play one on TV. My editor and her boss (and their lawyers) would like me to remind you to always check with your own personal veterinarian first before starting any new treatment for your dog, be it traditional medicine or alternative, especially if your dog has a pre-existing medical issue.

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My daughters Lexi and Sydney make sure Jake gets lots of attention. (Photo by Jennifer Cohen)

Whether you hire a certified professional canine massage therapist or you are more of a do-it-yourselfer, there are great benefits to spending time petting, rubbing, and massaging your dog. And what dog would not enjoy having your full attention? Massage is a great time for bonding and de-stressing, for both humans and canines. And unless your dog has a joint problem or other medical issue that requires a proper massage by a trained expert, I don't think dogs can discern a good massage from a bad massage.

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So massage. Woman and Shiba Inu by Shutterstock

Veterinarian and animal psychologist Dr. Michael W. Fox is the author of Healing Touch. In his book, he points out that in the wild, social grooming (by licking) provides the touch stimulation dogs need to thrive. Domesticated dogs may find massage to be an acceptable substitute.

Some of the benefits of canine massage

  • It decreases pain, soreness and stiffness for older dogs with arthritis, hip dysplasia, joint discomfort, and other ailments.
  • It loosens tight muscles and increases flexibility, circulation, and range of motion.
  • It prepares the body for surgery and reduces recovery time after surgery or injury.
  • It can lower blood pressure and increase oxygenation to the cells of the body, which reduces swelling.
  • It develops and maintains muscles tone, increases bone density and builds muscle mass.
  • It benefits young dogs as they learn to feel comfortable with people touching their paws, which makes for easy nail cutting and grooming.
  • It can alleviate stress caused by separation anxiety, vet and groomer visits, prior abuse, and loss of another pet.

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Dog on massage table by Shutterstock

Shari Sprague is a certified canine rehabilitation therapist in Lauderhill, Florida. After a career as a physical therapist for humans, she decided to focus her career on canines. Her rehabilitation center, Pawsitively Unleashed Performance, offers manual therapy techniques including joint mobilizations, range of motion, and massage. Laser therapy, electric stimulation, and heat and cold therapy treatments are also offered.

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Shari Sprague demonstrates how to use stretching to help dogs' muscles remain flexible. (Photo courtesy Shari Sprague)

She says dog massages are beneficial for dogs who are suffering from a variety of medical problems. “I treat many dogs with arthritis,” Shari says. “I also treat dogs who are suffering from neck pain, back pain, and slipped discs, along with geriatric dogs who have difficulty getting up due to joint stiffness. Some of my patients suffer from cruciate ligament tears in the knee. I rehab dogs the same way I would rehab a person with a tear. Every patient is different. This is very individual therapy.”

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Peanut Thompson gets a massage from Shari Sprague, a canine rehabilitation therapist. (Photo courtesy Shari Sprague)

Dogs need not have existing medical problems to benefit from massage. In fact, canine massage is a great method of preventative care and health maintenance. Like in people, massage releases endorphins that provide a feeling of relaxation, well-being, and stress reduction. Regular massage may also provide early detection of abnormalities, such as swelling, tumors, or injury, leading pet parents to seek medical treatment much earlier. 

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"Grace is an agility dog and I'm working her shoulder," Hope Garcia says. "She gets very tight in her shoulder muscles." (Photo courtesy Hope Garcia)

“I look at physical therapy the same for dogs or people,” Shari says. She inspects a dog to see how he is moving and whether he finds it hard to stand up or lie down. “I do a nose to tail assessment. I address anything and everything that may be going on with the dog and then I create a treatment plan.” Prices for treatments vary by geographic area but plan to spend between $100 to $200 per hour.

Hope Garcia also started out as a massage therapist for humans. After working in Florida for eight years, she recently moved to New York and now sees patients in Orange County. 

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Hope Garcia works with dogs with many ailments. (Photo courtesy Hope Garcia)

“After taking my first dog massage class in June of 2006 I left the people spa and never looked back,” Hope says. “Dog massage is beneficial because it helps to loosen sore muscles, helps recovery post-surgery, and relieves pain from many different ailments including older dogs and arthritis.” 

Massage also helps dogs who do agility or other physical activity to perform better. “Canine massage is beneficial for the same reasons a person would get a massage,” she says. “Most dogs really love it and it is a great way for people to bond with their dog.”

How do I massage my dog at home?  

For pet parents who want their dogs to benefit from massage but can’t afford to treat their dogs to weekly spa days, Hope offers a few tips: 

  • Techniques used to massage dogs are similar to those used on people, including gliding and kneading.
  • Always work lightly. The lighter the better because you do not want to put too much pressure on the wrong area and risk hurting your best friend.
  • Don't forget the paws, the tail, and the face.
  • Use an open palm and pay close attention to the large muscle groups around the shoulders and hips.

As with any new medical treatment, it is always best to consult your veterinarian first.

Do you massage your dog? What is your technique? Let us know in the comments. 

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About the author: Jennifer Cohen is a long-time animal advocate. She lives in South Florida with her husband Brian, their human twin daughters Sydney and Alexandria, their dogs Jake and Max, their parrot Sam, and their hamster Elliot, all rescues. Follow her on Twitter

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