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Massage therapy for pets

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When you mention the concept of massage therapy for pets, some people might question the practice as something they already do – touch and handle and rub their four-legged companion frequently.

That part hasn’t changed, but something else has. The art of healing touch, long considered a standard therapy for humans, is now experiencing significant growth in the pet industry.

“Pet massage has been around since the time of the Greeks, but it’s really gained momentum in the past 10 years,” said Jonathan Rudinger, an author of pet massage therapy books who lives in Toledo, Ohio. He is finishing his fifth book and hopes to write two more before year’s end. Rudinger says that the recent popularity of pet massage therapy is easy to track.

“Owners of racehorses and jumpers have used massage therapy on their horses to increase flexibility, improve muscle tone and deal with injury instead of using drugs,” he said. “In fact, the U.S. Olympic equine team has used massage therapy for at least 40 years. Then the greyhound tracks began to pick it up to enhance the performance of the dogs and then it moved to the performance dogs. Now the public has picked up on it.”

Cats get holistic pet care too, but not in the same numbers as horses and dogs. “They are tougher, because of their independent personalities and the need to establish trust over time,” Rudinger said. “Also, there are not many performance cats that need massages to soothe muscles.”

According to Rudinger, the benefits of a massage for pets include:

  • Increased overall sense of wellness
  • A sense of calming and reduction of stress
  • Increased flexibility and movement
  • Relief from pain
  • Decreased recovery time from surgery or trauma
  • Increased circulation of the blood, lymphatic and nervous systems
  • Removal of toxins from organs

Growing in popularity

Kim Shotola, supervisor of the Houston Zoo’s children’s zoo, not only practices massage therapy on pets but teaches it. She says the growing popularity of pet massage has created a higher demand for pet massage professionals. “Pet massage is now offered in many vet offices, especially those geared more to holistic practice,” she said. “In many other offices, pet massage is performed by a vet tech that has completed training courses.”

A massage therapist, says Shotola, should be trained in anatomy, movement and observation. The therapist first observes the pet's gait and movement, demeanor and body language. The type of massage will be determined based on what the therapist sees. As the session proceeds, the therapist is constantly gauging the reaction of the pet so that he or she can make modifications. A typical session lasts 30 minutes.

Massage is not a substitute for care provided by a veterinarian, said Shotola. “Sometimes a massage therapist can detect problems that might need follow-up treatment by a veterinarian. Ideally, the vet and a trained therapist work together to determine the best needs of the pet.”

Finding a massage therapist for your pet

Shotola said she knows there is confusion for consumers who are trying to determine how to track a massage therapist.

“There is no national credentialing body for pet massage therapists,” she said. “In some states, only veterinarians can make referrals to massage therapists. In other states only licensed human massage therapists can work as pet massage therapists. It’s all over the place, though the whole process is gradually beginning to be sorted out.”

She recommends that people seeking massage therapy for their pets check out their state laws before engaging the services of a massage therapist. “It’s also OK to check out the credentials of the person working on your pet.”

There is no doubt, says Rudinger, that massage therapy for pets is a concept with lasting power. He just finished working with the Girl Scouts of America to create a skills merit badge that teaches respect for animals, and how to use touch to comfort pets.

“In the very near future, massage therapists will be helping dogs in most of the veterinary offices in the country,” Rudinger said. “They will be working in doggie day cares, health spas, and kennels, with veterinarians and animal physical therapists in rehab centers and as private practitioners with their own set of clients.”

Massage therapy, he says, has come a long way since the ancient Greeks practiced it.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas,V.M.D.
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