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Canine Massage - how can it help my dog?

The canine body is complex; it is comprised of around 319 bones, a multitude of tendons, ligaments and nerves, fascia (a strong fibrous connective tissue that envelops and supports the entire body) and over 700 muscles. Any injury sustained through work or play may introduce a detrimental effect on the muscles (individually and globally), leading to pain and probable dysfunctional compensations in gait and posture. It is essential that all components of the musculoskeletal system are able to work in harmony, in order to maintain optimal performance and health. A healthy musculoskeletal system will also serve well in maintaining the efficiency of other working systems e.g. cardiovascular, digestive, nervous, lymphatic, respiratory and reproductive thus, having a positive effect on the dog’s whole physical and psychological well-being.

Now what is your first thought when someone says ‘massage’? Is it stress reduction, relaxation, injury prevention or even rehabilitation? We seek treatment for ourselves for a variety of physical and emotional benefits so why not seek the same for our dogs and make a positive impact on their quality of life?

Massage has been recognised for a number of years as a powerful therapy for both human and animal, with its practice dating as far back as 2700 BC. Today the advantages of equine massage are more widely acknowledged, and popularity in canine massage continues to escalate. It should be recognised that canine massage is much more than petting or stroking. It relies on specialist training of certain modalities such as effleurage, petrissage (compression, kneading, wringing, picking up), tapotement (percussion, clapping, cupping, hacking) and deep fibre friction, as well as extensive knowledge of anatomy, physiology, biomechanics and behaviour. It is especially important for therapists to know ‘what lies beneath’ the dog’s skin, to allow for treatments and techniques to be applied in the right way for intended benefits and protect from harm.


What do we see when we look at a dog? Conformation refers to a dog’s overall structure and appearance. All breeds have desirable conformation traits either for aesthetic or working discipline requirements. Exaggerated conformation can be detrimental to a dog’s health and may increase the risk of skin infections, visual impairment, physical disability and even breathing difficulties. With further consideration, a dog may be asked to engage in a particular activity that is not best suited to its build and as a result, their muscles and soft tissues could be subjected to excessive stress, concussion and microtrauma on a regular basis. Joints are more likely to be put under severe strain through the action of simple movements. As a consequence, this repetitive stress is likely to cause a negative chain of events involving radiation of pain, tension and compensation throughout the body. Massage can not only help to target the primary source of referred pain; it can also help to alleviate the secondary effects of stresses endured and promote the dog’s overall comfort and welfare.


Massage may be more commonly associated with activity and exercise but if a dog is on cage rest or needs to have their activity restricted, then massage can be highly beneficial during the recovery phase. Some effects include increased circulation of blood and lymph to dormant muscles, removal of toxins and reduced swelling and stiffness. Physiological effects on the cardiovascular system include an increase in coronary artery blood flow, similar to that which is achieved during exercise. If recovering from injury, an operation or indeed receiving palliative care then the sensory aspect of massage can be highly therapeutic. Endorphins can be released to assist with pain-relief and relaxation, similar to the effects reported through human massage. Furthermore, massage can continue to offer benefits in the rehabilitation phase; assisting in the breakdown of restrictive scar tissue and adhesions and encouraging the dog to return to optimal mobility and function. Dogs with orthopaedic conditions such as hip dysplasia, spondylosis and arthritis can reap the same rewards from massage with a tailored approach.

In the older dog, it may be more noticeable he is not as agile and takes longer to move from one position to another. He may even display behavioural changes such as withdrawal, to communicate he is in pain. Some muscles will more likely weaken and atrophy as a result of inactivity or disuse, whilst others will compensate to work harder to maintain adequate mobility. Chances of developing degenerative conditions such as arthritis increase as the dog ages and it is estimated that 65% of dogs aged between 7 and 11 are affected. Let us not forget that poor nutrition or previous injury may increase this risk further. In conjunction with appropriate exercise and weight management, massage can enhance quality of life and help a dog continue to lead a full and active life without the need for complex surgery. Miscellaneous benefits include increasing suppleness, maintaining joint mobility, maximising fitness of muscles that support the joints and alleviating pain associated with debilitating trigger points (knots in the muscle belly), inflammation and stiffness.

Equally, puppies can benefit significantly from massage to facilitate their early stages of neuro-musculoskeletal and emotional development. Studies have shown that puppies who have regular human contact demonstrate less signs of stress with a consistent reduction in cortisol levels post massage. They are also portrayed as easier to examine; perhaps this could be because such contact allows the opportunity for greater bonding and trust between puppy and handler. Respective of this, it is helpful to be able to continually assess what is normal for an individual dog; early detection of problematic areas can potentially influence diagnoses/prognoses.


From a psychological point of view, massage can have a significant effect on dogs that are anxious, nervous or suffer with destructive behavioural traits such as hyperactivity. Rescue dogs that have come from abusive homes are highly likely to uphold some degree of emotional anxiety. Just like us, dogs will try to adopt coping mechanisms for stress. If allowed to continue this could manifest physically through muscular tension, postural contortion and even susceptibility to illness and/or infection; this is why reductions in adverse emotional states are crucial to a dog’s health. In addition to relieving tension and correcting muscular imbalances, massage can be applied to induce relaxation via the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin. The power of touch (applied with the correct pressure and rhythm) can also stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system to initiate a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure, decrease noradrenaline levels and modulate the immune system.

In addition to relaxation, rehabilitation and maintenance purposes, massage also has its place in competition, agility, working and show dogs. Due to the nature of their demanding work, you could consider them as canine athletes. As 45% of the dog’s bodyweight is made up of muscle, it is no wonder that muscular complaints can have a substantial impact on training and function. Any irregularity in movement could be a direct result of strain, spasm, trigger points, hypertonicity, contracture and/or myofascial pain. Regular massage can help to improve a dog’s agility and body awareness, consequently boosting performance and recovery from exercise-induced fatigue. Specific warm up and cool down routines are regarded as particularly important, just like the practice accustomed to human and indeed equine athletes too. If applied at the appropriate pressure and rhythm, pre-exercise massage can physically and mentally prepare the dog for action, effectively boost circulation and oxygenation to the muscles and assist in the prevention of injury by enhancing the elasticity of muscles, tendons and ligaments. On the other hand, post-exercise massage aims to remove lactic acid from the muscles, reduce the risk of soreness, maintain muscle length and relieve tension in the soft tissues. In combination with an appropriate training schedule, all components can contribute effectively to the fittening and repair process of muscles and lead to pleasing gains in fitness.

Stretching exercises should be used as an adjunct to massage therapy to further enhance flexibility, joint range of movement, stride length, proprioception and muscle tone. Tight muscles are more susceptible to injury; quite simply because they lack the flexibility in movement and often get pushed beyond their range. A simple twist or slip, jumping on/off furniture or even pulling on the lead could explain the mechanism of an injury, so it is important to try and minimise such risks where possible. It is worthwhile to note that stretching has also been proven to aid blood flow to the muscle, thereby increasing oxygenation and the delivery of nutrients. If recovering from injury, this can have a supportive and substantial role in healing time.


In conclusion, the therapeutic effects of human massage have been well documented and reported for many years. With ongoing evidence emerging from respectable scientific research that supports the benefits of canine massage, we should appreciate its use in its entirety and not perceive it just to be a luxury for the modern-day ‘pampered pet.’ Instead there should be no prejudice. Dogs of all ages; from puppy to veteran and working ability; from pet to athlete should be able to live as happy, healthy and stress-free as possible. Having massage therapy is one way to protect and rehabilitate from everyday stresses, enhance quality of life and optimise physical and emotional wellbeing.


You can contact Helen on 07494 835979 or email helen@hac-therapies.co.uk

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07494 835979

helen@hac-therapies.co.uk

Covering Greater & Central London, Norfolk, Herts, Bucks, Beds & surrounding Home Counties