Animal Massage

Touching All Creatures, Great and Small

By Shirley Vanderbilt

How do you give an elephant a massage? No, it’s not a riddle. It’s what’s new in the zoo. When I asked that question of certified massage therapist Jill Deming, she replied matter-of-fact, “It’s very similar to massaging a horse. You use your knowledge of biomechanics so you don’t injure your body.” Deming, also a biologist, has massaged all types of exotic zoo animals as well as cats, dogs and horses. But an elephant? Maybe you don’t own a pachyderm, but there’s a good chance that a pet of yours, perhaps a lizard or llama, could benefit from a little human touch.

As with many alternative treatments, animal massage has its roots in ancient practice. Early Egyptian hieroglyphics depict animal healers using massage for treatment. A full-body massage was recommended for dogs and horses by Flavius Arrianus, a philosopher and administrator under the reign of Roman Emperor Hadrian. He stated it would “knit and strengthen the limbs ... make the hair soft and its hue glossy, and ...cleanse the impurities of the skin.”1 Jean-Pierre Hourdebaigt, author of Equine Massage: A Practical Guide, notes that horse massage was practiced in ancient China and Rome and more recently by the Hopi Indians of the American Southwest. And for centuries, horses owned by gentry have been curried, brushed and rubbed down as part of routine care.2

Why Massage an Elephant — or Dog or Cat?

Dr. Michael Fox, author of Healing Touch and numerous other books on animal care, points out the price of domesticating animals. In the wild, social grooming (by licking) provides the touch stimulation needed to thrive, and hunting and free-play keeps the animal’s body toned and fit. Many of our domesticated friends, confined to the home or small yard, miss out on these activities. Fox also notes that domesticated dogs and cats tend to be more infantile and dependent in their behavior than their feral counterparts.3 While petting does provide loving attention and touch, massage goes a step further.

The benefits of massage for animals parallels those for humans. When you think about it, many findings in massage and touch research were initially proven with lab animals. Animal experiments evaluating the physiological effects of massage began as early as the 1800s.4 In the 1980s, Touch Research Institute began their investigation of the importance of tactile stimulation using rat pups as their subjects. And at present, studies are being conducted with animal models to track ions involved in the biological process of touch. In addition, Chinese studies have documented the effects of Eastern modalities on animals. By extrapolating to humans and continuing with studies on bipeds, researchers have provided evidence of the many benefits of touch and massage.

One of the most valuable assets of animal massage is health maintenance. Regular massage aids in early detection of abnormalities, such as swelling, injury or painful areas, and facilitates early medical diagnosis of problems. In some cases the time element can be life-saving. The animal’s general overall health is boosted by an increase in blood and lymph circulation and enhancement of muscle tone and flexibility. Fox describes touch as “a potent bridge for love,” thus regular massage develops or can further seal the bond between pet and guardian. Many animals with emotional issues (depression, grief, shyness or distrust) respond well to the relaxation and positive touch of massage. Young animals can be acclimated to touch with massage, making them easier to handle for grooming and medical care.

Massage has become very popular for equine athletes. According to Patricia Whalen-Shaw, massage allows horses to perform longer at a higher level of activity. “Psychologically it’s amazing,” said Whalen-Shaw, LMT, and owner of Integrated Touch Therapy, Inc. “If they’re focused and relaxed, they do their best. It’s a part of the whole package of training.” A few days before competition, massage is used for loosening musculature while post-event work eases soreness. The animal can return to competition sooner. “But it’s not the same application as with human athletes,” she said. “A horse lives in the present and doesn’t understand ‘it may hurt now but you’ll feel better later.”

And, of course, there’s that elephant. But pachyderms are not what interests Jonathan Rudinger, founder of The PetMassage™ Training & Research Center in Toledo, Ohio. Rudinger offers intensive workshops and a home-study course in pet massage. As a nonprofit organization, the center began research a year ago and will continue until there is enough data for evaluation. Subjects are divided into three groups of 20 dogs each, receiving massage, touch or massage in water. The animals include older dogs with hip dysplasia, those with back issues and dogs with emotional problems of grief, abandonment and abuse. “I met a 3-year-old dog with bad separation anxiety,” said Rudinger. “He was tearing up everything in the house, eating out of the garbage, like a feral.” Although the dog was fearful, Rudinger managed a 12-minute massage, with the dog accepting his touch.

A second study project is focused on young pups with growing pains, especially large breed dogs. Rudinger notes these dogs experience significant pain when the bones grow faster than muscle. He’s had excellent results with massage in these cases and is documenting his work.

Animal massage is not a medical diagnostic tool, nor is it a substitute for veterinary medical care. This point cannot be over-emphasized. But as an adjunct for healing, massage is an excellent treatment for enhancing recovery in medical cases: pre- and post-operative, chronic disease, and injury or transitory illness. In all medical cases, veterinary treatment comes first. Massage follows, but only with the approval of the animal’s practitioner.

The New Movement

“Build it and they shall come,” said Michelle Rivera, CMT, of The Healing Oasis Veterinary Hospital in Sturtevant, Wisconsin. Rivera and her veterinarian husband, Dr. Pedro Rivera, established their holistic animal center in 1993, offering chiropractic, massage, herbs, homeopathy and acupuncture. “The public demand is there,” said Rivera. “People are becoming more aware of their own treatment options and asking, ‘why can’t we get it for animals?’”

The growth of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association is but one sign of increasing acceptance of alternative treatments for animals. Membership has jumped from slightly more than 100 in 1998 to 900 members in 2002, with 100 of those outside the United States. Veterinarian schools are beginning to open Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) departments and CAM clubs. Although holistic animal care is not yet mainstream, we are beginning to see its influence, not only in private practice, but also zoos, preserves and wildlife rehabilitation. The whole field of alternatives seems to be up for grabs with therapists using a variety of modalities — massage, reiki, acupressure, Tellington Touch (TTouch) and even the more unconventional shamanic healing and soul retrieval, animal communication and music therapy.

As the movement grows, animal therapy associations are also popping up in an attempt to bring solidarity among therapists and create recognition not only nationally, but internationally. The International Alliance of Animal Therapists and Healers (IAATH) was founded three years ago for just this purpose. Among the goals of IAATH are: promotion of pubic awareness; education and development of professional standards for practitioners; opening options in animal health; and creating a common ground for sharing information and research.5 Another group, AMTIL (Animal Massage & Therapies), founded in 1998, provides listings and links on their website for practitioners, consultants, schools, organizations and products related to holistic animal care.6

The Vet’s Perspective

Are some veterinarians resisting the massage movement because they fear infringement on their turf, or is it just a lack of awareness? For the most part, the holistic veterinary movement has emphasized acupuncture and chiropractic medicine, leaving massage out in the cold. Dr. Susan Wynn of Marietta, Georgia, specializing in animal acupuncture and herbs, suggests several reasons for this. “Acupuncture and chiropractic were introduced in schools earlier and are more familiar to doctors,” she said. “They’re more dramatic. I can get an (acupuncture) effect in 10 minutes. Veterinarians are used to people demanding results quickly. Massage takes time, money and effort.”

Holistic veterinarian Dr. Robert Silver, of Boulder, Colorado, concurs with the time factor. “There’s a lot of overhead in vet practice and it’s hard to get it served even by acupuncture or chiropractic.” But Silver does refer out for massage, saying his clinic space is too small to accommodate an in-house therapist. He recommends massage as an integral part of animal care for treating problems, rehabilitation and recovery, and maintaining wellness. Pointing out a recent veterinary article on cancer care in which massage is listed as an appropriate modality, he said in terminal cases, massage can be very beneficial for diminishing aches and pains. “It’s a very bonding experience for the owner,” he adds. “I give out handbooks on massage and encourage owners to do it themselves.” Silver suggests the current growth in holistic animal care is in part due to the veterinarians. “Vets themselves are humans who work too much and develop ailments better served through complementary procedures. Many have sought out alternative therapy for their own health and in the process gained a new perspective.”

According to Dr. Jan Facinelli, another factor of influence is research. Facinelli is an avid supporter of massage, chiropractic and acupuncture, and includes them in her Denver practice. She noted that veterinarians want scientific proof documented by their associates rather than laymen. “If it’s not standard, scientific proof, they’re not going to give it credence. When benefits are documented, then truth will speak for itself,” she said. “We want to make sure it does no harm.”

Oregon energy practitioner Dr. Donna Starita is chairperson of IAATH. “What we’re seeing over and over is lack of awareness and education,” she said. “I try to help vets understand what I’m doing.” She encourages a relationship of mutual respect between vet and therapist. If your are taking your pet to a veterinarian and a massage therapist, it’s important to keep both informed of the treatment protocols of each practitioner.

Decisions, Decisions

In the high-profile horse country of Wellington, Fla., massage therapist Jean-Pierre Hourdebaigt established Massage Awareness, Inc., offering massage services and training. He explained, “You do it because of your love for animals, not because of prestige or potential financial earnings. Equine massage is very demanding on the therapist. Massage is not a mechanical work, it takes a lot of feeling and energy. Some sessions might go very smoothly, some others might be very tiring,” he said.

Rivera agreed that intention is everything in animal massage and that the massage practitioner must be an animal lover gifted in working with them. “It can’t be on a whim,” he said. “It should be something that you love.”

Who's Qualified

The 2001 guidelines on complementary and alternative therapies established by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) do not specifically address the use of massage by a non-veterinarian therapist, as did the 1996 version that required supervision and referral from the treating practitioner. Rather, there is a broad encompassing of CAM modalities to be used at the discretion of the individual veterinarian. Within that directive comes caution that the safety and effectiveness of the treatment “should be proven by scientific method.” Dr. Craig Smith of AVMA headquarters explained the basic premise of the new policy: “Medicine is medicine and regardless of what treatment is being used, the same basic principles should apply.” The veterinarian conducts an exam, establishes a diagnosis and consults with the owner to decide on a course of action. “If that animal can benefit from those modalities, the vet has the right to seek it out. They also have the responsibility to follow up and monitor the animal’s progress, in that they are not providing the treatment.” They are also responsible for abiding by the state regulations, all of which are accommodated by the flexibility of the guidelines. The individual is encouraged to use a combination of their knowledge and experience to make a decision. However, Smith stated, “We still think that animals receive the best care when a veterinarian is involved in that care.”

Animal massage is on the cusp of becoming mainstream. The success of each case brings visibility and validation to the practice, and with each new well-trained, dedicated and passionate massage therapist entering the field, there is movement forward.

Click here to find a qualified animal massage therapist in your area.