Connecting with our pets on a daily basis through massage and stretching has many benefits for both human and animal. For dogs, the physical benefits of massage and stretch include:
- Pain relief
- Improved circulation
- Improved supply of oxygen to muscles and joints
- Removal of waste products of muscle metabolism
- Release of exogenous endorphins (feel-good hormones)
- Improved recovery of muscle from injury
- Improved sensation, eg with spinal injury
Stretching your dog should be as much a part of the day as sunshine, play, training and exercise. Warming up muscles before exercise reduces stiffness and increases blood flow to the muscle. It also directly reduces pain. A gentle heat pack may help older, very stiff dogs before exercise. Use a disposable rubber glove filled with warm water, or gel heat packs, and apply over stiff joints such as hips for five minutes before you leave.
part of your warm-up, always walk to the park. If you must drive, park a small distance away to allow both of you to warm up. The warm-up is followed by five minutes of a range-of-motion stretch. Ideally, a trained animal physical therapist, or your veterinarian, should show you how to do these. Small dogs may need to be up on a bench to allow easier handling.
n with the upper joints such as shoulder or hip, and work towards the lower joints such as the hock or carpus. Gently flex and extend joints in line with the body and hold for 10 seconds. Do not rotate joints. Do not stretch beyond your dog’s comfort zone.
Treats are used to encourage a spinal stretch. Hold a treat and run it from the shoulder down the lateral side of the trunk to the hip. Allow your dog to take small nibbles as you go and try to hold the stretch for five seconds. Repeat on the opposite side. For a straight stretch, run the treat down the front of their chest and between their forelegs until they are in a headstand position. At the end of the exercise period, a slower walk out is done as a “cool down”.
Although generally safe, there are a few precautions with home massage:
- Don’t massage over active skin infections, open wounds or near recent surgery.
- Don’t massage a tumour.
- Don’t massage an animal that has an elevated temperature.
- Take care if your pet has a bleeding or clotting disorder.
- Take care if your pet suffers from heart failure.
- Don’t massage acute musculo-skeletal or spinal injuries.
- As in all animal care: do no harm. If your pet is showing signs of pain or becoming stiff or sore after a session, discontinue.
Centre yourself with a few slow, deep breaths, then, using the ball of your thumb, apply gentle pressure to a point midway between your pet’s ears. Gently rub around the neck and under the ears, then pull each ear in a rhythmic motion away from the head. The base of the ear contains numerous acupuncture points connecting to the rest of the body. This form of massage relieves stress and improves digestion.
Begin massage by stroking your pet with the flat of your hand. Use soft pressure, just enough to stroke the coat, and increase until you feel the skin and coat stretch beneath your fingers. Maintain constant contact by keeping one hand on your pet at all times. Use long strokes down the neck and spine, stopping at the hip. Watch your pet’s reaction and make note of sensitive areas.
In dogs and cats, the direction of the strokes follows the direction of hair growth, with the exception of the inner surface of the limbs, where we work against the direction of hair growth (ie back up the leg) to enhance venous drainage.
Passive touch is used to warm tissues and gain trust, particularly over areas your pet finds sensitive or worrying. You use the flat of your palm, or your fingers or even your fingertips, lightly and gently over the area you want to warm. There is no movement or pressure. Keep your breathing slow and steady and allow yourself to feel the area under your hand become warm.
Carefully grasp a roll of skin and fat and lift away from the underlying tissues, roll gently between your fingers and release. Proceed down the spine, beginning from the neck and moving down to the tail area. The direction of the rolls can be both parallel and perpendicular to the line of the vertebrae.
You can apply this form of massage over hips and outside the shoulders. Another area that is suitable for superficial kneading is around the periphery of a recently healed scar. Go gently and slowly and at all times maintain trust. Your pet will let you know if you are working beyond their comfort zone.
Follow this with butterfly massage. Place your thumbs on either side of the ears, at the base of the skull, and make small circles. Move down the spine, continuing the small circles on each side of the spinal processes as you go. This form of massage is excellent for those pets with a stiff back.
Passive stretching, like those used with the warm-up, can be done once the tissues and joints are relaxed and warm. These exercises help to increase the range of motion of joints affected by arthritis. They can also be used, under guidance, to encourage normal range of motion after surgery. Focus on joints you know are a problem, eg hips on older, big dogs, elbows in cats. Avoid any joint that is swollen or painful.
Most cats routinely enjoy a massage session with their owners. Although many cats may not consent to range-of-motion exercises or stretching, most with allow gentle butterfly massage along the spine. Grooming with a brush is another form of massage. Removing the dead coat helps to prevent ingestion of the hair, which can lead to constipation or a chronic inflammatory bowel disease.
Finally, finish your massage session by gently shaking out each limb and some soft stroking and scratching. Then lie down beside your pet and stretch out your own spine.
Looking to give your pet the best level of care? Visit our Wellbeing Directory
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