Appreciating the Art, along with the Science, of Canine Massage

Recently, I have been stewing over some information that has come out in the veterinary community regarding integrative therapies and canine rehabilitation therapy. First, let me explain what integrative therapies are and exactly what rehabilitation means.

Integrative therapies are health care treatments proven safe and effective through clinical and scientific evidence. They are most often used together with conventional medicine to treat the whole body. Integrative therapies include practices such as acupuncture, nutrition, herbology, massage therapy and various forms of bodywork, meditation, biofeedback, chiropractic or spinal manipulation, homeopathy, aromatherapy, energy modalities, vibrational therapy, and all modalities used in rehabilitation. The list constantly changes as new and proven therapies become accepted as mainstream treatment options.

Veterinary rehabilitation therapy adapts human physical therapy techniques to increase the function and mobility of joints and muscles in animals as well as the body as a whole. Veterinary rehabilitation can improve quality of life by reducing pain and enhancing recovery from injury, surgery, degenerative diseases, age-related diseases, and obesity.  The goal of veterinary rehab is to restore a body’s function to its previous state or to maintain the best function possible for the individual. Veterinary rehab practitioners use treatments such as aqua-therapy, cold laser therapy, acupuncture, cryotherapy, thermotherapy, shockwave therapy, massage therapy, and physical therapy exercises when working with their canine clients.

I am excited that all the treatments above are now being recognized and proven as viable forms of therapy in both the human and animal worlds. Do note, though, that our culture has taken a very long time to accept many of these modalities and treatments.

Massage therapy is one of the modalities that has struggled the most to become accepted because the results of this work are hard to measure in a controlled environment – it is very difficult to analyze and quantify what happens to a body as a whole when it receives massage, or to measure hormonal release and neurological processes that occur as a result of touch or tactile sensory input. Current research studies are attempting to examine some of these physiological effects; however, it is impossible to measure the subjective human/animal element of this work. The information that can be measured is now being acknowledged in the animal world by veterinary professionals, and canine massage is slowly becoming accepted in the veterinary community at large and particularly in the veterinary rehabilitation community.  

When I started my human massage career 27 years ago, massage therapy was the last modality to gain respect in the physical therapy field. Today, if a physical therapist or rehabilitation center does not offer various forms of human massage, they are considered incomplete. The medical, physical therapy, pain management, and rehab communities in the human health care world recognize the value of massage.  Unfortunately, the veterinary community still has long strides to make when it comes to appreciating the value of massage and touch therapies, however, the veterinary rehabilitation world is really starting to come around. This is good news, but in some ways, it’s deflating because even as articles are being written of the importance of canine massage, their focus is on a strictly science-based perspective of massage’s many benefits. The research does not yet give credit to the art inherent in our work. 

Another concerning situation is the way canine massage therapy is being promoted to the medical, rehabilitation and general communities at large. Many believe that being able to provide canine massage therapy requires that one merely learn a few massage techniques, some basic anatomy, and a few pre-designed protocols for applying the techniques. The message is that massage is easy to learn and can be done by anyone who takes an online course or reads a book on canine massage. This is absolute hogwash. This approach to massage therapy would be unheard of in the human medical community where there are strict education, national certification, and licensure requirements.

We are not quite there yet with all of these requirements in the canine/veterinary community. What I do know, however, is this: unless they have had extensive training and experience that says otherwise, veterinarians, vet technicians, animal rehabilitation technicians, groomers, trainers, or any other canine professionals are not automatically qualified to be professional animal massage therapists or body workers. Taking a 6 hour online class or reading a book about canine massage is not even a fraction of what is needed to do this work safely and effectively.

Any person who interacts with and touches animals in the way a massage therapist does needs to learn the art of this work and its application. Reading how to do something is not the same as doing it. Taking a test on which techniques are best in various contexts is not the same as knowing how to apply this knowledge in a real-world situation. The most important aspect of canine massage is being able to understand animal behavior and learning how to gain permission and trust from the animal. A large part of what we do as canine massage therapists is intuitive and takes time and experience to cultivate. None of this can be learned from a book. 

We know that the work of canine massage therapy is becoming increasingly accepted and appreciated as an important component of companion animal care. What must be understood, though, is that this work offers many more benefits to dogs than what has been scientifically proven, and that it encompasses a great deal more than a few techniques and protocols. Those of us who provide this type of specialized care continue to work toward helping the veterinary community understand and respect that what we do requires knowledge, time, intuitive cultivation and experience, and that it is just as much an art form as it is a scientifically-proven modality. Instead of working from our heads, we work from our hearts, then our hands and finally from all of the knowledge learned through the years.