by Karen Roy

Who doesn't love to stroke the back, scratch the ears or rub the belly of an affectionate dog? Petting an animal can lower a person's blood pressure, and most dogs revel in their owners' touch. But do we give our dogs more than just pleasure when we touch them? Many veterinarians and their clients say yes: Massage can improve our dog's health, behavior and quality of life.

Dog massage involves most of the same techniques as human massage. Any form of massage that is good for people is likely to benefit our best friends. All you need to do is adapt for anatomical differences.

Massage therapy makes for physically
and mentally healthier pets

If you have never studied massage, don't worry. It does not take long to learn some basic techniques, and most owners discover that bodywork on their pets is so pleasurable and beneficial that they become eager to learn more. This article will help to get you started by introducing some basic massage therapy techniques.


Many of the practitioners who advocate bodywork for dogs incorporate the theories of Chinese medicine, which has a long tradition of exploring the healing power of touch.

"Chinese medicine teaches that energy and blood have to flow through the body for good health," says Cheryl Schwartz, D. V. M. "When energy and circulation are blocked, there is pain." Touch can strengthen the circulation and flow of energy, either with needles, as in acupuncture, or with fingertips, as in acupressure. Dr. Schwartz, a certified member of the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, uses acupuncture needles during office visits, and teaches clients acupressure techniques to do at home. Even a slight knowledge of acupressure can greatly enhance the therapeutic value of a massage.



To get your dog used to being massaged, approach it gently, when it is in a relaxed mood. Never use force. Go slowly, and talk to the dog soothingly. You will find that the dog becomes more accepting over time; all you need is patience. Until you know how much pressure your dog can tolerate in different areas of its body, use a light touch.

Dogs' ears and feet are important massage
spots, as they contain all the energy paths
and acupuncture points for the body.

Your own mood is important, too. Pick a time when you are relaxed and focused, and keep your breathing natural and steady. "It's important to remember that a massage is not just another petting session," says Dr. Schwartz. If you are distracted or upset, don't try to massage your dog. Lastly, Dr. Schwartz says: "Keep at it. Since you are working on energy and circulation, change may be slow." Some dog owners claim sudden, dramatic results from bodywork; others report gradual, subtle results.

Even a healthy dog will benefit from preventive bodywork, and you will accustom the dog to being handled all over. This will make your dog easier to handle at the veterinarian's office or the grooming shop, and it will be easier for you to massage your dog when necessary.




It's a long reach ...
Hold one hand over 
the dog's heart and rub all the way
down the back. If possible, rub down
the backs of the back legs too.

To begin a general well-care massage, place one hand over the dog's heart and stroke down the dog's back. Placing your hand on the dog's heart will calm it, as will the long, familiar strokes.


Rubbing the dog's back is also therapeutic. The body's energy runs down the back from the head to tail, and stroking in the correct direction strengthens the energy flow. For the same reason, rub down the legs, all the way to the feet. After just a few moments of these long gentle strokes, many dogs will relax.


Next, use both hands and gently rub the muscles on either side of the spine. Starting at the shoulder blades, move your fingertips in light circles until you have traveled down to the base of the tail. Leaving the spine, go over the whole dog, feeling for any muscles that feel more stiff than others. Pay extra attention to hard muscle masses; harder muscles require a lighter touch.

MASSAGE THERAPY HINT: Help accustom your dog to massage by approaching it when it is already relaxed and happy. Talk to the dog soothingly while stroking and petting it.

Moving fingertips in light
circles, rub the shoulders
and shoulder blades, traveling
down to the base of the tail.

Fingertip circles on certain parts of the dog's body may be too intense, or they may tickle the dog. Make the circles with the flat of your hand. If that is still too much, go back to stroking along the muscles. See if the dog will tolerate any kneading of the back and hind leg muscles. If the dog permits it, work a little on the stomach below the ribcage. Flatten your hand so you will not poke, scratch or tickle the dog, and move downward in gentle circles, following the midline.

By now you will probably notice that your dog has a drowsy, contented look on its face, which makes this a good time to move to the feet. Rub the pads and the webbing between the toes. If your dog is shy about having its feet touched, try folding the front leg against the dog's chest as you work on it. For some reason, this position makes it easier for many dogs to allow their paws to be touched.

Rub all four feet,
especially between toes.

Finish by rubbing the ears at the base where they connect to the head, and inside and outside the ear flap. Both ears and feet are potent massage areas, as they contain all the meridian (energy paths) and acupuncture points for the entire body.

Your dog's response to all this can tell you a lot about its health. If the dog flinches or its skin ripples, you have found a sensitive spot, If the dog paws, mouths you or walks away, you have found a very sensitive spot. Weak spots for many dogs are the hips, so pay extra attention if your dog sits down or walks away when you stroke below the ribcage. Alert your veterinarian to anything unusual you notice, especially tenderness, lumps or changes in the skin and coat.

Your dog will give you positive feedback, too. Most dogs tend to move into your hands when they are enjoying your touch. After a few sessions, you will find that the dog becomes more and more relaxed, allowing you to touch more of its body. Many dogs will roll over and splay their legs - not out of fear, but out of trust.


Geriatric dogs, even those that have nothing wrong with them other than old age, can benefit greatly from a massage. Susan Isaacson, a Berkeley-based masseuse and acupressurist who works on both people and pets, says the bulk of her animal patients are beloved elderly dogs. She has developed a special sequence for them that focuses on the common problems of weakening kidneys and hips.

All dogs love a good ear massage.

Instead of manipulating arthritic or dysplastic hips directly, Isaacson recommends working the dog's tail. Start at the base of the tail and tug gently while rotating the tail in small circles. "Gently" means hardly pulling at all; It is better to err on the side of too little force or pressure than to use too much pressure accidentally and hurt your dog. Repeat the circles several times as you move your hand toward the tip of the tail. "It's just like cranking up a model T, but instead, you are cranking up your old dog," says Isaacson. This "cranking" relieves spinal compression and - since an animal's tail has a tremendous blood supply - assists in circulation.

Next, massage the shoulders, especially where the shoulder blades connect. As a dog's hips weaken, its shoulders assume more and more of the burden. An old dog's shoulders can get as knotted as those of a human who worries over a computer all day.

To support aging kidneys, try the simple technique of rubbing your palms together swiftly until you feel them start to warm up. Place your palms on the dog's kidneys, which are on its back just below the ribcage. You can repeat this two or three times, a few times a day.

If the dog is still fairly spry, Isaacson finishes by tapping or kneading on the point, an action known in Chinese medicine as "stomach 36". Massaging this point provides a general energy boost. Stomach 36 is also called the "three-mile point" because Chinese messengers traditionally rubbed it to get them to the next village, or the next three miles. In dogs, stomach 36 is located on the hind legs, just below the kneecap. Simply holding this point gently will pep up your older dog.

"Giving the owner something to do helps both the owner and the dog emotionally," Isaacson says. "Instead of sitting by helplessly as the dog gets older and weaker, the owner can do something positive to help."

Massage ~ Good for you; Good for your dog!

Gently hold tail and move in circles.


In addition to giving your senior citizen or prime-of-life dog a tuneup, bodywork is useful for specific ailments. Dr. Schwartz says digestive disorders, immune problems and arthritis pain are the three conditions that respond best to bodywork. The following are some simple treatments for these common ailments.

** For nausea and vomiting, rub gently along the stomach midline from the bottom of the ribcage to the navel. Nausea indicates that the energy is moving up, and you can reverse the flow by rubbing toward the tail. Holding stomach 36 will also offer some relief.

Hold the "hoku" point for immune boosting.

** For canine cough, bolster the immune system by rubbing the point called the "hoku", which is below the dewclaw. A second immune point is near the inside of the elbow. Work that point by pulling out from the elbow, inside to out. Lastly, loosening the muscles between the shoulder blades helps the lungs.

** For more general immune problems, including skin disorders, rub the hoku and the elbow from inside to outside. Give some attention to the back legs, working up and down in the groove between the ankle and the Achilles tendon.


For arthritis pain, the first rule is not to hurt the dog accidentally. Using light pressure, give the dog plenty of gentle stroking and kneading. This releases endorphins, the body's natural pain killers. If the arthritis is in the hips, remember to rub the overworked shoulders. You can work the sore joints directly, but be extra careful.

If you are confident in your understanding of canine anatomy, go ahead and bend the joints slightly, following their natural path. Don't bend as far as the joint will go, however. The point is to exercise the joint gently, which will help keep it from stiffening. There are times, however, when it is best NOT to massage your dog.

To assist with general immune problems, including skin
disorders, rub the "hoku" & the elbow from inside to out.

If you know there is a disc problem, leave it alone. After surgery, people are tempted to offer the comfort of bodywork, but be extra cautious. Never handle an injured limb, and never touch an incision. Wait until the dog has started to heal, and ask your vet when you can begin. Bodywork can be a useful addition to veterinary care, but remember it is only an addition, not a substitution.


Bodywork can also affect your dog's behavior, especially by calming the overactive or fearful dog. The general well-care massage already described will help your dog relax. A routine of weekly massage will also help build your dog's trust in you, and that trust will translate into a calmer dog. Since Chinese medicine ties emotional disturbances to physical imbalances, you can increase the therapeutic value of your massage work by adding the following acupressure points.

For back legs, massage the groove
between the ankle and the Achilles tendon.

A fearful dog can be calmed by rubbing a point between the ears. To find the point, first find the bump on the midline between the ears. In front of that bump is a slight indentation, and the point is in that indentation.

The other useful point for fear is on the back leg. Rub down the groove on the inside of the ankle. When your fingers stop at the bottom of the groove, you have found the point. For the overactive dog, use the above points, and add a good rub at the nape of the neck, where the head attaches.

Just as there are times not to massage a dog with medical problems, there are times not to massage a dog with behavioral problems. Extremely aggressive or fearful dogs should be left alone.

If your trainer recommends not petting your dog for a while, comply. Creating a situation in which the dog will bite is not good for you or the dog. Some excitable and fearful dogs need hands-off work because even a gentle touch is too stimulating or threatening. Remember, just as massage is not a substitute for medical care, neither is it a substitute for training. You may have to train the dog at least to sit and stay before you can massage it.

Bodywork is a gift to our dog companions. Imagine being able to ease the arthritis pain of your old dog so it can sleep, or to soothe your pacing, nervous young dog. Best of all, it is a gift that repays itself many times. Since giving a massage soothes the giver as well as the receiver, you will share in your dog's calmness. You will also learn about your dog's body so that you will be better able to take care of it. And because animals understand touch and intention better than they understand words, massage will deepen the trust and understanding between you and your dog.


1.  A veterinarian who practices acupuncture can teach you acupressure. To find a licensed veterinarian in your area who is also certified in acupuncture, send a SASE to International Veterinary Acupuncture Society, 2140 Conestoga Road, Chester Springs, PA 19425. If you add a note asking for more information, they will send a brochure about veterinary acupuncture.

2.  Michael W. Fox, D. V. M., has written a concise book titled The Healing Touch, which was formerly titled Dr. Michael Fox's Massage Program for Cats and Dogs, published by Newmarket Press, New York. This book provides an excellent foundation. Order this book from your local bookstore.

3.  Consider taking a massage class for humans or finding a massage therapist who also works on animals and is willing to give you a lesson. While they may not advertise it, many massage therapists have at least worked on their own or a friend's dog a time or two.

Karen Roy is a San Francisco, California-based freelance writer who owns dogs that line up regularly for their massages.

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September 2009 ~ Dane World Online
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