Reflexology for pets
Our beloved pets play a greater companionship role in our lives today than they did 40 years ago. Social dynamics have changed as many people lead a more insular existence and, as a result, the pet has become an important member of the modern family unit. According to a survey on a popular pet website, 91 per cent of Australians feel “very close” to their pets.
Many women also choose to have children later in life or perhaps not at all. According to Simon Clea, author of The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection between Women and Cats, women who live only with cats make up one of the fastest-growing groups of pet owners in the United States.
This social trend is confirmed by the amount of money people spend on their companion animals or “fur children”. Globally, pet ownership is a multi-million-dollar industry. Clea states in his book that Americans spend nearly US$750 million each year on food, care and treats. Many financial experts have called the pet industry recession-resistant. Even with current fears about the slowdown in the world economy, the underlying demographic trends for this industry remain very strong.
Natural remedies and therapies once thought to be only for humans are now becoming increasingly popular for our companion animals. Most people who use natural therapies for their own wellbeing wish the same for their pets. Massage, acupuncture and homoeopathy are now being extensively used on our animal friends because they are safe, cost-effective and very beneficial. Numerous animal bodywork associations have been established around the world, including the International Association of Animal Massage and Bodywork and the Holistic Animal Therapy Association of Australia.
Reflexology, a cross between massage and acupressure, is potentially part of this growing trend. Reflexology is the idea that the ears, face and feet of a person or animal represent a perfect microcosm or map of the whole body. By touching just the feet, outer ears and face you can have an effect on the whole body. This is because they connect to energy pathways that travel through the body to particular organs, structures or glands.
Reflexology is a form of therapeutic touch which can create a deep relaxation response and promote healing in the body. When stress is released, the body’s own natural healing intelligence takes over and brings the body back into a normal state of being. The immune, nervous and hormonal systems are able to function more effectively.
During a reflexology session, breathing and heart rates slow down and the nervous system begins to relax. The electrical activity in the brain is lowered so that your companion animal enters a meditative state. Other than sleep, meditation is an optimal time for the cells in the body to regenerate themselves.
Reflexology can improve circulation around specific organs as well as general blood and lymph circulation. Dr Mehmet Oz, in his book Healing from the Heart, mentions an experiment that showed that massaging just the footpads in dogs increased lymphatic drainage in the body. When circulation is improved, blood flows more freely in the body so that nutrients can easily reach cells and waste products can be removed more efficiently.
The seeds of an idea
As a certified reflexologist and animal lover, I became interested in how reflexology could be applied to our companion animals. The idea that reflexology applies to our pets has not been fully explored although the concept has always been acknowledged.
Many holistic animal health experts recommend reflexology. In The Encyclopedia of Natural Pet Care, for example, author C.J. Puotinen notes that hand and foot reflexology, widely used in humans, has application in dogs and cats, too, for there are important energy points on the paws. Paw massage is demonstrated on a cat in Dr Michael Fox’s book The Healing Touch.
In September 2002, I began to experiment on my two Burmese cats, Matisse and Morandi, when they were kittens and discovered that regular reflexology seemed beneficial for their overall health. I also worked on my friends’ cats and had my first dog client, a 17-year-old called Bumble. Bumble had a thyroid imbalance, incontinence and eyesight loss. Considering his age and health issues, he responded very positively to the work.
The Reflexology Chart
The next step was to accurately map out reflex points onto the paw. This involved transposing the shape of the body and anatomical locations almost directly onto the paw. This map is divided into six distinct areas:
- Toes or the Tips of the Paws
- Upper Paw Pad
- 3. Middle Paw Pad
- Mid-Lower Paw Pad
- Tops of the Paw
- Inner Edge of Paw and Lower Leg
This region represents all the points for the head, face and neck: for example, eyes, ears, teeth, sinuses, brain and pituitary gland.
This region represents every organ, structure or gland in the thoracic or chest cavity: for example, lungs, heart and diaphragm.
This region represents all the upper abdominal organs: for example, stomach and pancreas.
This region represents the urinary system (kidneys, ureters and bladder) and lower digestive tract (large intestines and rectum).
This region represents shoulders, the lymphatic system, milk teats and limbs.
This region represents the spine. This includes the spinal cord (and nerves that come off the spine), spinal vertebrae and muscles that attach to the spine. Reproductive points are also found on the lower leg.
Although I had always stroked Matisse and Morandi’s ears because of its soothing affect on them, during the course of my research I came across an ear acupuncture map in Diane Stein’s book The Natural Remedy Book for Dogs and Cats. From this discovery, I concluded that ear reflexology could also be successfully applied to our companion animals.
The ear map I developed is based on an inverted kitten passing out of the birth canal, similar to the human ear, which resembles a foetus in the womb. Therefore, the lower part of the body lies nearer to the tip of the ear and the upper half lies more toward the base of the ear.
The face contains important connections to parts of the body including acupuncture points, meridians (energy channels) and nerve endings. I decided to develop a mini-map, transposing the structure and organs of the body onto the face as well as taking into consideration the meridians that flow through the area.
I knew that, for humans, reflexology research studies have been conducted for numerous conditions. According to a survey of around 300 worldwide research studies available, the conditions most frequently treated with reflexology included stress, back, shoulder and neck tension, sinusitis, asthma, arthritis, digestive problems and reproductive conditions. Many of these research projects had a high success rate. I hypothesised that reflexology can help with the same sorts of conditions for cats and dogs.
Now I’ve heard everything!
Sceptical people have asked me why reflexology should work on pets. My reply to this question is, do we know if reflexology works on people? The answer of course is yes, according to thousands of people who benefit from this modality worldwide. So why wouldn’t it work on animals?
Humans and animals share the same anatomy and physiology (how the body works). We are affected by many of the same health concerns and are treated with many of the same antibiotics and steroids. Animals and humans have identical energy centres and energy pathways (nerve and meridian) throughout the body. We both experience similar emotions and accumulate stress in our daily lives.
The next biggest concern is that the pet won’t tolerate or enjoy reflexology. It’s best that the person doing the work is someone who has an emotional bond with the animal so they can relax. For some cats and dogs, reflexology may take time to get used to. For others, it will be instantly embraced. Some may never accept it. It’s probably best to introduce this type of modality when they are young. It is known that touch from an early age will shape a pet’s personality and they will also accept a wider range of alternative/complimentary therapies.
From observation, many pet “owners” (cats would hate to think of anyone owning them) unconsciously perform ear, face and paw reflexology. They know that it feels nice for their pets. Most people are largely unaware that they are affecting everything in the body through this simple gesture. Stroking the ear may stimulate memories of being licked by their mother. The comfort associated with touching the paws may reconnect them with the sensation of being a kitten, when they would contentedly knead their paws to extract milk when nursing.
The need for animal reflexology
Why do animals need reflexology? Statistically, pets lived longer 40 years ago than they do today. Many of today’s dogs die at age nine or 10 and cats at 10 to 14 years of age. So this means that modern living and the environment can be risky for our companion animals’ health and longevity.
Pets have a low tolerance for chemicals and toxins in their environment yet they inhale, ingest or absorb them on a daily basis. Our feline and canine friends are much smaller than we are and they live closer to the ground so are in more danger. They may be exposed to things we never give a second thought to such as chemicals in carpet cleaners, plastic food bowls or topical flea products.
Toxins can form in the body as a result of a pet’s diet. The majority of commercial pet food contains preservatives, salt, sugar and additives such as colouring. Eating this type of food can lead to chronic health conditions such as diabetes, allergies and kidney failure. Holistic veterinarian Lisa Newman, author of Allergies, estimates that pets eat up to one third of their body weight a year in preservatives and toxins. Therefore, reflexology may provide helpful with cleansing the body of wastes and detoxifying the organs.
Pets also experience stress just like us. Chronic stress is the most common cause of all illness and disease in pets and humans alike. Stress contributes to 85 per cent of all major illnesses and plays a crucial part in nearly every condition a veterinarian treats. Almost all body functions and organs are affected by stress.
Some people may find this a bit hard to believe. How can my hectic life be compared to an animal that just sleeps, eats and plays? But living with humans can be a stressful experience. Companion animals have a lower threshold of stress than humans do. They are surrounded by sensory stimulation that we largely cannot perceive. Cats are especially supersensitive to change and noise. Changes in their household or living environment can be deeply upsetting.
There is always an energetic and emotional interchange that takes place when you live in close contact with someone. Cats and dogs are incredibly sensitive beings that are capable of copying a wide variety of moods and emotions of those people they are especially attached to. This is a phenomenon animal behaviourist Michael Fox calls sympathetic resonance. They are able to observe, decipher and imitate subtle human behaviour because they largely rely on non-verbal communication.
There is convincing evidence that suggests problems such as cystitis, stomach upsets and itchy skin conditions are triggered by emotions. These conditions can be caused by changes in the animal’s relationships with its human companions. The whole question of emotions in animals is contentious. Many scientists would argue no, pet owners and some animal behaviourists would argue yes. Cats in particular have received a bad reputation as being emotionless but the opposite is true. Animal emotions expert Jeffrey Masson, in his book The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats, has identified nine primary emotions: narcissism, love, contentment, attachment, jealousy, fear, anger, curiosity and playfulness.
So just because something is not stressful for us doesn’t mean it’s not stressful for our cat or dog. Stress is always unavoidable, but natural therapies, like reflexology, act as ways to diffuse tension and promote relaxation.
What better way to deepen our connection with our dog or cat than with touch therapies such as reflexology? Nurturing touch communicates desires — such as security, trust, acceptance, comfort, relaxation and unconditional love — at the most basic, non-verbal level. These are all feelings that companion animals and humans want in their lives and in their interaction with each other. For cats, allowing us to perform reflexology on their most sensitive areas like the paws and ears is the supreme demonstration of their trust in us.
Reflexology offers a reciprocal exchange of love that is rewarding for both the giver and the receiver. When we offer something like touch therapies to animals, we help rebalance the human-animal bond.
As Sally Morgan, a craniosacral therapist who works with animals, says, “If people are better able to understand animals they gain a better understanding of themselves. Animals are our connection to nature. Connecting spiritually with animals is one way to help heal the planet as well. Animals teach us self-acceptance and self-love and in that way bring us closer to the divine.”
Assisting our pet’s health and wellbeing is empowering and most people who try natural methods recognise their effectiveness and value. The ability to heal takes place both inside as well as outside a conventional Western medical model. Reflexology and other natural therapies are an exciting way to work side by side with veterinary care so the whole pet is cared for and true healing takes place.
Jackie Segers is a certified reflexologist and Reiki Master who lives in Auckland, New Zealand. Reflexology for Cats is her first book. More information is available through www.revitalizeme.com.
References available on request.