Giving your pet a massage

Renee Lane’s living room had been transformed into a spa. Candles twinkled on the coffee table; lavender oil scented the air; lilting guitar music played softly on the stereo. Grace, Lane’s 2-year-old caramel-coloured toy poodle, leaped onto the sofa and, in response to Lane’s cooing invitation, got into position for her evening massage.

Lane took a deep breath and began making long stroking motions down the length of Grace’s back with her palms. With her thumbs, she kneaded the tissue around the dog’s delicate shoulders, and then began working her way toward the muscles in the dog’s legs. By the time the 20-minute massage session was done, Grace had entered a state of canine bliss, eyelids drooping, tongue lolling.

“Grace absolutely loves it – she just turns into a puddle,” said Lane, 43, a public relations and business development consultant in Edgewater, New Jersey. “I want to keep her around as long as I can, and I think it’s going to keep her healthy. She helps reduce my stress, so why shouldn’t I reciprocate?”

That is a question that a number of dog owners – and even some cat owners – have been asking themselves, buoyed by a belief that pet massage confers the same benefits as human massage: increased circulation, improved digestion, strengthened immunity, stress relief, comfort at the end of life and muscle relaxation after a hard day (even if it was spent at the dog park).

Some pet owners scoff at this idea. What’s wrong with regular old petting? they ask. And many veterinarians say that evidence of its benefits is flimsy. Nonetheless, pet massage workshops have flourished in recent years at pet stores, dog day-care centres, veterinary clinics, animal hospitals, massage schools and holistic institutes like the New York Open Centre in Manhattan, where Lane and more than 75 other dog owners took a one-day class last summer.

“People realize more and more that what’s good for me, including massage, is probably good for my animal,” said Jean-Pierre Hourdebaigt, an animal massage therapist and teacher in Wellington, Florida, whose book “Canine Massage: A Complete Reference Manual” is considered the standard text.

“Today, you also have the baby boomers whose kids are gone,” Hourdebaigt said. They “have more time and money, and it’s easy for them to spend a couple hundred bucks on a massage seminar for their dog. The animal benefits, the benevolent action makes them feel good. Everybody’s happy.”

Many pet owners interested in massage hire professionals to perform the treatment. But the DIY approach – in which pet owners like Lane learn the techniques themselves – also seems to be gaining in popularity, as Hourdebaigt maintains. At the Northwest School of Animal Massage in Fall City, Washington, 170 people took the basic amateur workshop last year; eight years ago, only 24 people enrolled. At the Boulder College of Massage Therapy in Colorado, enrolment in a similar class has jumped 30 percent in the last two years.

Becky Brandenburg, an animal-massage practitioner and teacher in Martins Ferry, Ohio, said she started offering occasional workshops for pet owners last year, but now plans to offer them monthly.

Sometimes, it is veterinarians who suggest the practice to pet owners. Nanci Sloan Cummings, a mortgage loan officer in Lake Oswego, Oregon, said she was urged by her veterinarian to try massage for her 12-year-old arthritic collie, Baxter. Although in his sprightlier days the dog could trek several kilometres, by last year he was able to walk only a couple of blocks. To see if she could help him become more limber, Cummings took a three-hour massage workshop at a dog day-care centre in January.

Nearly every evening since, she has put down a cushioned mat near the ficus tree and potted fern in the living room of her three-bedroom house and performed the routine she learned: kneading, squeezing, stroking and tapping Baxter.

“At night, when I watch ‘American Idol,’ I’ll sit on the floor and massage him to the music,” Cummings said. “It’s very distressing to see your aging animal suffer and very rewarding to think that maybe you can help him feel better. I think just the attention and affection, if nothing else, is helpful.”

But there are plenty of veterinarians who believe that massage offers little beyond the attention and affection. They note that few clinical studies of pet massage have been conducted, and that claims of its benefits are usually extrapolated from research on humans. At best, they say, pet massage fortifies the bond between human and animal in the same way that a good belly scratch does, and at worst, it may aggravate a serious medical condition or prevent owners from seeking veterinary help.

Narda Robinson, a veterinarian at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, has a more benign view. Robinson, who established a canine medical massage course at the university in 2008, believes that massage, properly administered, can help dogs recover from illness, injuries and stress. And while massage classes for dog owners are largely unregulated and of varying quality, she said, they can be helpful as long as they are “based on actual science, rather than lost in mysterious energies.”

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