Canine Massage–Every Dog ‘Kneads’ It.’ Benefits and Techniques of Dog Massage

Massage has always been a “cornerstone” treatment for physical therapists.

The benefits of massage to human beings having various medical conditions has a proven record. Dogs can now benefit as well.

Canine Massage--Every Dog ‘Kneads’ It'. Benefits and Techniques.

Dog massage physiological benefits

The benefits dogs receive from massage are many of the same benefits that humans do, The benefits include:

  • reduced tension
  • decreased pain
  • reduced inflammation
  • increased blood flow, and healing
  • reduction of swelling
  • reduced fibrous adhesions

Additional benefits

Never underestimate the non-tangible benefits of the healing touch that calm, soothe and allow the body to heal itself.

The technical definition of massage is “soft tissue manipulation or mobilization”. It involves moving the hands along the skin and moving the underlying tissues, directed toward a specific purpose. Massage aims at achieving physiological and psychological change.

Dogs are typically massaged in direction of hair or coat. At the same time, sometimes there is a reason to perform the massage in the direction of the heart.

4 basic types of massage

1. Effleurage or Stroking

Effleurage or stroking utilizes gliding motions using the therapist’s palm and fingers.

This technique is excellent for the removal of swelling and increased lymph drainage.  It improves circulation and produces a “flushing out” effect.  Bear in mind that the weather plays a role in affecting the soft tissues. When the barometric pressure in the atmosphere is low, tissues tend to swell and become more tender.

Arthritic symptoms seem worse on low barometer/humid/damp days and better in dry or high barometric conditions.  Massage can help alleviate the uncontrollable effects that the weather has on your dog. Therapists may be likely to use this type of massage technique for swollen, tender tissues.

2. Petrissage

Petrissage involves kneading, compression, and skin rolling using the thumbs and fingers.

This technique helps soft tissue tension, commonly referred to as “spasm” or “guarding” and nodules, etc.  They form from repeated strain, injury, and microtrauma that cause muscle tightening.

This tightening is the body’s natural reaction to trauma, shifting from a relaxed to a protective mode. If the tissue remains chronically tightened without relief, the muscle becomes overused and fatigued. This leads to changes within the muscle cells.

Within skeletal muscle cells are protein molecules actin and myosin.  These are small filaments organized into units of muscle tissue called sarcomeres. In turn, they are arranged in series, overlapping each other, like a ratchet system.  This is the mechanics behind muscle contraction.

Countering muscle-guarding

Upon injury with muscle guarding and spasm, the cells start to run out of energy. They secrete excess protein and the sarcomeres tighten upon each other. Think of those bright colored little woven Chinese torture tubes. You may have played with that as a kid, where you insert your fingers on each end and as you pull apart the tube gets tighter and tighter.)

“Guarding” is gentle pressure which can help relieve mild to moderate tightening. Harder tightening that tends to feel very hard and worsens with pressure is “spasm”.  Guarding and spasm usually occur in an entire muscle belly and it can’t relax without intervention.

Small concentrated formations of tightness can occur within the muscle called “nodules” or knots–“trigger” or stress points.

So, how to cure this problem?

From a physiological standpoint, you want to flush out the excess protein and elongate the sarcomeres.  Your physical therapist can accomplish that by using:

  • heat or cold
  • ultrasound or laser
  • massage
  • stretching
  • and muscle length rebalancing.

The muscle also needs rest.

This is why it sometimes seems to take longer to heal a muscle injury than a broken bone!

Casts and splints can stabilize and demobilize bones. Muscles, however, can be “flexed” even with restricted movement from a cast or sling, via isometric contractions.  In severe instances, your dog might require medication such as muscle relaxers, injections, or dry needling techniques.

3. Tapotement

Tapotement involves tapping, cupping, vibration and shaking using sides of hands, fist, or heel of the hand.

It can include gentle squeezing and wringing.  These techniques are beneficial for thicker areas of muscle tissue such as the thigh and hip or buttock area.  Tapotement helps to relax very tense areas and sometimes used over the ribcage in respiratory conditions.

4.  Cross Friction or Transverse friction

Cross friction or transverse friction help release adhesions or scarring.

It uses the thumbs and index fingers perpendicularly across the direction of the fibers.  It can be uncomfortable for your dog but usually yields fast results.

Who should perform canine massage?

Veterinarians, Physical therapists, Massage Therapists and other health professionals who have received massage training and instructions.

Giving a proper massage requires the study of animal anatomy, medical background, and where/how to apply the various therapeutic techniques and maneuvers.  It also takes practice. 

Your health care professional /vet can show you some basics for your particular dog’s needs and issues.

Please understand that without prior basic instruction, massaging your dog can do more harm than good.

People often ask me to give mini-lessons to groups on animal massage. But have declined the invitations for this very reason. Besides, dogs can tell the difference between trained or untrained hands.

The dog should be relaxed and trusting for the “healing touch” to have the best effect. They will not fully relax if they sense you are not prepared.

I cannot stress enough that a dog always knows “trained hands’.  A trained practitioner should pay close attention and listen to the feedback dogs give.

When you should avoid massage?

Massage is counter-indicated if your dog is suffering from the following:

  • fever
  • shock
  • active bacterial or viral infections
  • distemper
  • neuralgia
  • fungal skin conditions
  • open wounds
  • conditions where there is acute and severe inflammation

Related articles:
My Favorite Things for Keeping A Dog Fit and Healthy

Further reading:
11 Benefits of Animal Massage

Share your thoughts