Massage for What Ails Your Dog?

More veterinarians are referring patients to canine massage practitioners, both for relief from pain and to restore function and vigor.


Great Dane mix Menace had survived myriad allergies, gastrointestinal problems, mange, bloat, and a blockage in his intestine but kept going. In his later years, says his owner, Cathy Sutton of Franklin, Massachusetts, “his back end was giving out. He started to lose control of his bowel. And his neck always had a huge strain on it and was tight all the time because he was compensating with his front end for his weakened back end. When he was 12 years old everybody told me that was as long as he was going to live.”

But then Ms. Sutton started bringing Menace to a massage practitioner. “He would walk out of there way more comfortable and more himself and would sleep better,” she says. “After the first time, I could see that he was walking better. For a while after each session he would stop having accidents. I am very, very sure that with the deep tissue massage he was receiving, he lasted three years longer than he would have otherwise,” Ms. Sutton relates. (He died two weeks shy of his fifteenth birthday.)

“People think of spa massage, but that’s not what this is,” Ms. Sutton says. “This is therapeutic massage. The practitioner really gets in and under the fascia and works the areas that have a knot or are bulging and releases that tension.”

Menace and his massage practitioner had forged such a deep bond that she was there when the 100-pound dog was finally euthanized last year at a ripe old age, providing massage therapy to make the very end of his life that much more gentle and soothing.

Karen Palmerino of Holland, Massachusetts, tells a similar story of recovery with massage. Her Dachshund, Spumoni, had spent the first six years of her life confined to a crate having puppies at a breeding mill. When she first came to live with Ms. Palmerino, her muscles was so underutilized that she would injure herself very easily. “She would limp or her head would drop — signs that she was uncomfortable,” the dog’s owner says.

Laser therapy didn’t help, but when a massage practitioner came to the house, “we noticed a huge improvement,” Ms. Palmerino comments. “Her recovery times from injury decreased by a third pretty quickly. And her range of motion overall improved quickly, too.”

The practitioner showed Ms. Palmerino some of her massage techniques so she could apply them to her dog on her own and today, 11-year-old Spumoni is “stronger in general” with injuries occurring a lot less often.

The massage practitioner for both of these dogs was Lisa Ruthig, who chairs the National Board of Certification for Animal Acupressure and Massage and also serves as Director of Animal Programs at the Bancroft School of Massage Therapy in Worcester, Massachusetts. For some insight on the benefits of canine massage, what conditions it won’t help, how to find a qualified canine massage practitioner, and whether canine massage is ever covered by heath insurance, we sat down with Ms. Ruthig for an in-depth interview.

Your Dog: What is the mechanism by which massage benefits a dog in pain or who has lost mobility?

Lisa Ruthig: It is believed that massage blocks pain because of all the sensations it causes to travel the central nervous system — pleasure, pressure, movement. That leaves less room for pain signals. It’s called gate theory. People who have had good experience with canine massage also list a bunch of other beneficial biologic processes, but I’m not sure a lot of them are even true. For instance, everybody says, ‘Oh, massage increases circulation,’ but the research on that is iffy. I’m not sure it’s useful to think of it that way, anyway. No one ever comes to a massage practitioner saying ‘I want my dog’s circulation increased.’

Your Dog: What do they say when they come? That is, why do people hire massage practitioners for their dogs?

Ms. Ruthig: A lot of my patients are geriatric. They might have arthritis, or just general discomfort from any number of issues — a lot of hip dysplasia, intervertebral disk disease, cognitive dysfunction.

Your Dog: Cognitive dysfunction?

Ms. Ruthig: I don’t know how it helps — that’s a very good question — but it seems to. I’m having some luck with it. Maybe it helps by facilitating relaxation, thereby making a dog more comfortable generally and letting him settle down better at night, which is when a lot of dogs with cognitive dysfunction [canine Alzheimer’s] do particularly poorly.

For a number of conditions, the benefit isn’t a clear, direct one. For instance, with intervertebral disk disease, I can’t as a massage practitioner help what’s going on inside the bones or disks of the spine. But if a dog with disk disease has pain, he might use his body less in certain spots and overcompensate in others, and I can help loosen things up and get him to redistribute his movement of body muscles in order to relieve discomfort.

I do a lot with passive range of motion in this regard — moving a dog’s joints to help him maintain the range of motion he does have by loosening them — and perhaps even increase range of motion depending on what the issue is. A dog doesn’t have to get stiff and creaky when he’s older. There are things massage can do to keep the muscles limber.

Your Dog: In what other situations might someone consider taking his or her dog to a massage practitioner?

Ms. Ruthig: Just to be clear, depending on a dog’s level of pain or mobility or even fear, a massage practitioner might come to the house. The dog doesn’t always have to go to the office. But there are a number of other circumstances for which massage therapy might be indicated. It’s useful after orthopedic surgery, for instance. In fact, we’re seeing more and more post-op orders from vets to encourage lymph flow and keep joint range going even when the animal is crated and not yet weight-bearing. Even before surgery, I help some dogs get into peak shape so that when they come out of being crate bound afterwards, their recovery will be easier.

Dogs that aren’t candidates for surgery — they’re too ill or their ‘parents’ can’t afford it — also benefit from massage. Perhaps it’s a pet with a tear in the knee ligament or one with hip dysplasia. I’ll massage them and keep their muscles strong and keep the joints moving smoothly through passive range of motion to help keep the condition from advancing as much as possible and sometimes even get some function back and maintain mobility. It always has to be done in conjunction with proper veterinary care. The vet may prescribe meds that will help the dog and also has to monitor the animal’s condition in general. Massage never replaces veterinary treatment.

Your Dog: Any other instances in which massage might help?

Ms. Ruthig: Absolutely. Anything that involves pain from muscle strain — massage can help with that. Massage can also become a nice part of a behavior modification protocol. Because of its relaxation effect, it can make a dog less aggressive, or calm him down if he has anxiety behaviors.

It can also pick up where pain medications leave off, and sometimes even reduce the necessary dosage. In addition, sometimes a dog will wake up from anesthesia thrashing and need to be calmed down.

The kind of simple massage I use can be taught to owners. It can even be used for something like a dog having trouble getting to sleep because of joint pain. If people want, I fold into my massage sessions some teaching of a simple Swedish massage sequence that they can then safely do anywhere on the body that will both relax their dog and relieve pain. The key is to use moderate pressure (too light is stimulating), and also to move extremely slowly.

Your Dog: How do you choose a good massage practitioner for your pet? Are there licensing requirements?

Ms. Ruthig: Washington is the only state that requires licensing for canine massage practitioners. You have to sit for a written test after having at least 200 hours of hands-on training. In some states, an animal massage practitioner can only work as part of a veterinarian’s office. In others, the massage therapist has to be a vet. In still others, like in Massachusetts, where I practice, the law is quite vague.

Your Dog: So how does a person choose if she or he doesn’t live in the state of Washington? Is it best to look for a veterinarian who has had massage training?

Ms. Ruthig: Vets are not necessarily trained in veterinary school to do massage, and it’s often not financially feasible for them to offer it in their practices unless they hire a practitioner. It’s akin to expecting your physician to prescribe physical therapy for you and also to be your physical therapist. It may not even be necessary for a massage practitioner to confer with a veterinarian if the dog in question is simply getting massage for wellness rather than to treat a specific condition.

I would say you want to look for someone who has had at least 200 hours of training. That is the length of the program at the Bancroft School of Massage, where I work, and it is what is required by the National Board of Certification for Animal Acupressure and Massage — the standard for licensure by Washington. All the training should be hands-on; some programs consist of just watching videos of people conducting animal massage. In my opinion, you can’t learn massage by video.

On top of the hands-on training, all massage programs should have classes in anatomy and physiology. I know that if someone were working on my dog, I’d want them to know what structures were under their hands.

It’s also very important that if your dog has a specific medical condition that the massage is meant to treat, the practitioner should be working with a veterinarian. We as massage practitioners are adjunctive to treatment of medical conditions. If the person you’re considering to massage your dog says she or he doesn’t need to consult with the dog’s doctor, that’s a big red flag.

Part and parcel of that is that a massage practitioner should never diagnose a medical condition. She or he may have a suspicion about a medical condition, but it’s up to the vet to rule in or out any medical illnesses.

Your Dog: That’s a lot to consider.

Ms. Ruthig: Yes, which is as it should be. Your dog’s well-being is at stake. On the 200 hours of training, my hope for states where it’s illegal to perform massage unless you’re a vet is that veterinarians would look to the National Board of Certification for Animal Acupressure and Massage for a set of standards in choosing a program.

Your Dog: How much should someone expect to pay for a massage session for their dog?

Ms. Ruthig: The cost varies from region to region, but typically the cost is similar to the cost of massage therapy for people. A ballpark range in New England, where I work, would be anywhere from $65 to $90 for one hour. It could be considerably less in some other regions. A lot of times, because the massage practitioner will come to your home, it cuts down on hassle for you and increases your dog’s emotional comfort.

Your Dog: Is massage therapy covered by pet heath insurance?

Ms. Ruthig: There are some pet health insurers who will cover it. Healthy Pet is one, and Trupanion offers a rider for it. More might come on board. When I started in 2008, people were like, ‘You do what?’ Now they’re familiar with it, and more veterinarians are referring pets out for massage and seeing the benefits to their practices.

Your Dog: What made you decide to work in this field?

Ms. Ruthig: My dog got hit by a car when he was a puppy and broke his femur [thigh bone]. I knew he’d have arthritis issues as he got older, so I learned massage at the Bancroft School to be able to relieve him of pain and soreness later on in life. I was in IT at the time but was so taken by what massage could do for a dog that I quit my job and never looked back.


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