Are the Benefits of Massage All In the Head?

By Denise Theobald

I have explained in the past how touch and massage techniques can help a dog’s overall health in various ways – reducing stress and muscle soreness, decreasing tissue swelling, easing pain, and improving healing times.  However, I think it is important to note that many of these benefits actually happen in the dog’s brain.

Touch and massage affect the nervous system directly by stimulating sensory corpuscles and sensory nerves that detect various forms of external pressure. When these corpuscles and nerves are stimulated by compression or vibration techniques, for example, specific hormones are released that provide various mood-altering feelings or states.

Serotonin is one such neurotransmitter.  Secreted in the brain, serotonin regulates mood, hunger, and sleep, and it promotes a sense of well-being and contentment.  This explains the positive effect that many types of massage can have on the body, allowing a dog to fall asleep during a massage session. Serotonin is also an important component in tissue healing and repair.

Dopamine is another neurotransmitter whose concentration is elevated by massage. The neurons that use dopamine as their chemical transmitter make up the reward system in the brain. It provides feelings of pleasure, much like a giant Kong stuffed with cream cheese! Dopamine is the hormone related to addiction. Maybe this is why massage can be addicting, and why we use touch and massage as a reward when working with dogs.

Another hormone released in the brain is Oxytocin, which many describe as the “love hormone.” It is elevated in nursing mothers and in people who fall in love. In general, it promotes that familiar warm, nurturing, fuzzy feeling. This hormone is released with gentle massage and useful when building trust with an animal.

While touch and massage trigger the release of these yummy-feeling hormones, they also play a huge role in decreasing stress hormones such as cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine which can break down the body’s immune system. This is why experts say that stress kills.  Cortisol causes constriction of blood vessels leading to the elevation of blood pressure. It also causes the death of certain cells that are in the first line of defense against viral infection, and it inhibits cells that are involved in wound healing.  Epinephrine and norepinephrine are the stress hormones that facilitate the fight-or-flight reaction to stress. Reduction of their levels results in lower heart rate, lower blood pressure, and elevated glucose metabolism. In short, reducing the level of stress hormones makes way for all the good things that we and our dogs require to experience a sense of relaxation.

So, back to the original question… Are the benefits of massage all in a dog’s head?  Yes!  And, it's a good thing!