Canine massage

A regular rubdown can do your dog a world of good, and you can even learn to do it yourself.

Massage gets blood circulating through muscles, which keeps them soft, supple and free of knots. All dogs can reap the health benefits of massage, which will be reflected in the performance of show and working dogs that rely on their muscles being in top condition. “Massage is especially effective when combined with conventional Western medicine,” Dr Higgins explains. “It’s both therapeutic and preventative, and there’s a psychological benefit as well.”

Is it for my dog?

According to Dr Higgins, massage is useful for dogs in a variety of situations. When used for prevention of strains and knots, the aim is to keep muscles flexible and supple. “Working dogs, agility dogs and show dogs in general need regular massages to keep them performing at their peak. If dogs don’t recover from exercise properly, they can actually damage their muscles when they’re next used.”

The benefits of massage to these ‘performance dogs’ is similar to that experienced by elite athletes: “professional sports players use massage therapy to prevent injury, trying to keep the muscles flexible and supple with a deep massage,” Dr Higgins says. “For recovery, massage will keep the muscles fibres’ integrity, so they won’t knot or seize up in the future. There is even some documented evidence to show that the build up of lactic acid can be alleviated by the use of massage after an event.”

Older dogs with joint and muscle conditions can also reap the rewards of massage. Dogs are more fragile in their senior years, so can use a little extra care from their owner, and Dr Higgins has found that massage is an ideal way to relieve their pain. “Anyone who owns an older dog knows the risk of joint and muscle problems, but it’s quite easy to provide a little extra pain relief.”

Balancing body and mind

Beyond the physical aspects, there are soothing benefits of a massage that put the mind at rest; once a dog has become used to getting a massage, owners will see that their dog enjoys it.

“Generally speaking, we shouldn’t compare dog emotions to human emotions, but both experience psychological benefits from regular massage,” Dr Higgins believes. “Dogs seem to relax and calm down when they are getting massaged and, like humans, are in a better frame of mind afterwards.”

The psychological aspect also benefits puppies, adopted dogs and pets that are new to the household. A dog in a new environment often has trouble adjusting to new surroundings and unfamiliar people, but a massage from a new owner can alleviate anxiety.

“It would make the dog feel more bonded to the person giving it the massage, so it’s a good idea for owners to do this themselves,” says Dr Higgins. “As well as that, the newcomer would generally be more relaxed around the new and unfamiliar environment.”

Learn to massage

Dr Higgins believes that whether to ‘do-it-yourself’ or call in the professionals depends largely on the purpose of the massage. “Most of the time, I encourage people to do it themselves because it creates a stronger bond between them and their dog. But if a dog has done some obvious damage, don’t attempt massage yourself.

If you do decide to massage your start by assessing the size of your dog. Depending on the size, you can use your middle three fingers, your index finger, or your whole hand. Massage in a gentle, circular motion, at short intervals. It usually takes a few sessions for dogs to get used to the new sensation, but they will love you for it.

When your dog is lying down, gently start massaging its neck, then move down either side of the spine, massaging the long back muscles. Move down to its hind legs, moving the big quadriceps femoris muscles in the thigh and the biceps femoris, or hamstring. Finish by massaging the forequarters.

Dr Peter Higgins is a Veterinary Adviser.