I’m going to let you in on a little secret about animal massage. Upon first glance, it appears that the animal receiving the massage treatment is the sole beneficiary of this work. He is relaxed, lays with eyes partly or fully closed, releases a deep sigh of content. But, look deeper. Watch the therapist. If she is focused on the body before her, working gently with an open heart, you will see the calm in her face, the peace surrounding her and her client. Look still deeper. Be mindful of the pet parent. While her beloved companion is cared for by a person whose only goal is to provide relief and comfort, she realizes that she is also treated to feelings of relief and comfort. The secret of animal massage is that it’s not just for the animal. Everyone involved, if they allow themselves to trust in the process, gains something significant from the massage experience.
Nowhere, in my experience, does the power of massage and touch radiate more than during hospice care. It’s especially potent when pet parents use massage to take an active role in the comfort care of their dying dog. A number of pet parents over several years have asked me to teach them some gentle massage and touch techniques so they can help their dogs feel as good as possible in the dogs’ final weeks or days.
I recently met a lovely woman, Jackie, who wanted to treat her sweet 16 year old Australian Shepherd, Molly, to some gentle massage. Molly had slowed down significantly in recent months, and Jackie felt that regular massage could be beneficial in helping Molly feel good now that her only activity was walking outside to nap in the shade under a small tree. When I met Molly for the first time, I noted how much muscle atrophy she had throughout her body. Atrophy is the decrease in muscle mass as a result of restricted or reduced movement. Atrophy leads to skeletal muscle weakness, and as atrophy advances, muscle mass as well as function become difficult to maintain. So, it was not a surprise that walking was a wobbly experience for Molly.
Deep and specific massage work would not be suitable for Molly’s frail body, so our session consisted of long, flowing effleurage strokes, gentle compression, gentle plucking, and passive touch. During this time, Jackie expressed to me her wish for Molly to have massage every day – she knew that Molly’s time with her family was short, and she wanted Molly to feel special and comforted as much as possible. So, we agreed that our next session together would be a pet parent massage class.
Jackie was an attentive student with a natural talent for the techniques she learned, and she had a mother’s instinct when it came to knowing how much (or how little) pressure and speed to apply on Molly’s body. I could already see the special connection between Jackie and Molly strengthening as Jackie practiced her strokes. Jackie quickly grew comfortable with the techniques, which gave her the confidence to focus on Molly rather than on whether or not she was positioning her hands correctly or using the right amount of pressure. Already, they made a good team.
Only a week after our class together, I received a message from Jackie that Molly had taken a turn for the worse and that she had passed peacefully at home with the help of their hospice veterinarian. Jackie wrote, “I was so thrilled that you had shown me how to massage Molly. I spent Monday morning very gently massaging her for the last time. I felt it gave us both some comfort.”
The intent, when pet parents want to be active participants in their dogs’ hospice care, is to help their animals feel loved and unafraid as they move closer to their transition from this life. But, what really happens is much more beautiful. The existing connection between human and animal during this fragile time becomes much stronger, much more intense and honest. The love and trust that radiates from the massage experience affects pet parent and canine companion equally and in profound ways. Final days, final moments, become treasured instead of being remembered with regret. Instead of wishing they could have done more, pet parents know that, through their love and touch, they were able to share something precious and comforting with their beloved friends at the end and beyond.