Renee Lane's living room had been transformed into a spa. Candles twinkled on the coffee table; lavender oil scented the air; lilting guitar music played softly on the stereo. Grace, Ms. Lane’s 2-year-old caramel-colored toy poodle, leaped onto the sofa and, in response to Ms. Lane’s cooing invitation (“Want to lay down for Mama?”), got into position for her evening massage.
Ms. Lane took a deep breath and began making long stroking motions down the length of Grace’s back with her palms. With her thumbs, she kneaded the tissue around the dog’s delicate shoulders, and then began working her way toward the muscles in the dog’s legs. By the time the 20-minute massage session was done, Grace had entered a state of canine bliss, eyelids drooping, tongue lolling.
“Grace absolutely loves it — she just turns into a puddle,” said Ms. Lane, 43, a public relations and business development consultant in Edgewater, N.J. “I want to keep her around as long as I can, and I think it’s going to keep her healthy. She helps reduce my stress, so why shouldn’t I reciprocate?”
That is a question that a number of dog owners — and even some cat owners — have been asking themselves, buoyed by a belief that pet massage confers the same benefits as human massage: increased circulation, improved digestion, strengthened immunity, stress relief, comfort at the end of life and muscle relaxation after a hard day (even if it was spent at the dog park).
Some pet owners scoff at this idea. What’s wrong with regular old petting? they ask. And many veterinarians say that evidence of its benefits is flimsy. Nonetheless, pet massage workshops have flourished in recent years at pet stores, dog day-care centers, veterinary clinics, animal hospitals, massage schools and holistic institutes like the New York Open Center in Manhattan, where Ms. Lane and more than 75 other dog owners took a one-day class last summer.
“People realize more and more that what’s good for me, including massage, is probably good for my animal,” said Jean-Pierre Hourdebaigt, an animal massage therapist and teacher in Wellington, Fla., whose book “Canine Massage: A Complete Reference Manual” is considered the standard text.
“Today, you also have the baby boomers whose kids are gone,” Mr. Hourdebaigt said. They “have more time and money, and it’s easy for them to spend a couple hundred bucks on a massage seminar for their dog. The animal benefits, the benevolent action makes them feel good. Everybody’s happy.”
By most estimates, only a few of the nation’s pet dogs and cats — which the American Pet Products Association estimates at 78.2 million and 86.4 million, respectively — are fortunate enough to receive massages. But the numbers may be growing. The International Association of Animal Massage and Bodywork, a professional group in Toledo, Ohio, now has more than 500 members, up from just 200 in 2007. And a survey of more than 1,200 pet owners across the United States and Canada by the American Animal Hospital Association in Lakewood, Colo., found that the number who were pursuing alternative therapies for their animals — including acupuncture, massage, chiropractic and herbal medicine — rose to 21 percent from 6 percent between 1996 and 2003. (It may still be rising; the survey was discontinued after 2004.)
Many pet owners interested in massage hire professionals to perform the treatment. But the D.I.Y. approach — in which pet owners like Ms. Lane learn the techniques themselves — also seems to be gaining in popularity, as Mr. Hourdebaigt maintains. At the Northwest School of Animal Massage in Fall City, Wash., 170 people took the basic amateur workshop last year; eight years ago, only 24 people enrolled. At the Boulder College of Massage Therapy in Colorado, enrollment in a similar class has jumped 30 percent in the last two years.
Becky Brandenburg, an animal-massage practitioner and teacher in Martins Ferry, Ohio, said she started offering occasional workshops for pet owners last year, but now plans to offer them monthly. “Every time I announce a class, it’s filled within a day or two,” Ms. Brandenburg said. “It’s really taken off.”
The origins of pet massage can be traced to equine massage, a treatment popularized in the 1970s and ’80s by Jack Meagher, a massage therapist who worked with the United States equestrian team. By the early 1990s, a handful of people experienced in human or equine massage, or both, had begun adapting Mr. Meagher’s technique for use on dogs and cats.
Sometimes, it is veterinarians who suggest the practice to pet owners. Nanci Sloan Cummings, a mortgage loan officer in Lake Oswego, Ore., said she was urged by her veterinarian to try massage for her 12-year-old arthritic collie, Baxter. Although in his sprightlier days the dog could trek several miles, by last year he was able to walk only a couple of blocks. To see if she could help him become more limber, Ms. Cummings took a three-hour massage workshop at a dog day-care center in January.
Nearly every evening since then, she has put down a cushioned mat near the ficus tree and potted fern in the living room of her three-bedroom house, and performed the routine she learned: kneading, squeezing, stroking and tapping Baxter.
“At night, when I watch ‘American Idol,’ I’ll sit on the floor and massage him to the music,” Ms. Cummings said. “It’s very distressing to see your aging animal suffer, and very rewarding to think that maybe you can help him feel better. I think just the attention and affection, if nothing else, is helpful.”
But there are plenty of veterinarians who believe that massage offers little beyond the attention and affection. They note that few clinical studies of pet massage have been conducted, and that claims of its benefits are usually extrapolated from research on humans. At best, they say, pet massage fortifies the bond between human and animal in the same way that a good belly scratch does, and at worst, it may aggravate a serious medical condition or prevent owners from seeking veterinary help.
“I have two dogs, and I pet them all the time,” said David W. Ramey, a veterinarian in the Chatsworth area of Los Angeles, and a co-author of “Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine Considered,” a book that looks at the science behind various alternative therapies for pets. “I think everybody should pet their dogs. But I don’t refer to that as ‘massage,’ and I certainly wouldn’t send anyone to a glorified school of dog petting.”
Narda Robinson, a veterinarian at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, has a more benign view. Dr. Robinson, who established a canine medical massage course at the university in 2008, believes that massage, properly administered, can help dogs recover from illness, injuries and stress. And while massage classes for dog owners are largely unregulated and of varying quality, she said, they can be helpful as long as they are “based on actual science, rather than lost in mysterious energies.”
For many pet owners, though, the goal is not therapeutic — it’s just to make their dogs feel good.
One recent Sunday afternoon, several people showed up for an advanced canine massage class at My Dog’s Place, a training school in Mystic, Conn., along with their charges: a miniature dachshund, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, a cocker spaniel and a few others. The dogs sniffed their hellos, then settled on blankets on the floor, and Suzin Webb, who teaches about 15 such courses a year, began her instruction.
For two hours, the students worked the muscles along their dogs’ spines, stretched their limbs, rolled the dogs’ skin between their fingers and gently tugged their tails. By the end of the class, none of the dogs seemed particularly eager to move.
The miniature dachshund, 13-year-old Wylie Angelo, lay on his back, tongue out, limbs splayed. His owner, Cricket Murphy, a 67-year-old aesthetician, had taken Ms. Webb’s beginners’ class three years earlier to help Wylie Angelo heal from disk surgery. Since then, she has been massaging him every morning.
Their ritual takes place in the bedroom of her house overlooking Long Island Sound in Niantic, Conn. Ms. Murphy fetches a dish of water and a homemade cranberry biscuit for the dog, and then the two sit on Ms. Murphy’s king-size bed, she with her back against the headboard and Wylie Angelo in front of her on a down pillow. She begins the massage by rubbing his belly with rose ointment.
Ms. Murphy said she believes that this daily routine has improved Wylie Angelo’s mobility and bolstered his circulation. But she is more certain about other benefits.
“He goes straight to la-la land,” Ms. Murphy said. “It’s a very quieting time for us. We’re in bed together, he’s propped up on a pillow, and pretty soon, he’s just in the zone.”
Sit, Stay, Relax
Jean-Pierre Hourdebaigt, a teacher and practitioner of canine massage, recommends that pet owners interested in learning the technique enroll in a class, study a textbook like his “Canine Massage: A Practical Guide” or watch one of the many instructional DVDs on the topic. He also offered a few pointers.
• Start with light pressure. “Most people have so much power in their hands, they don’t realize that it can be too much for some animals,” Mr. Hourdebaigt said. Only if the dog seems comfortable should the pressure be increased.
• Maintain an even speed. “If you’re erratic — starting fast, slowing down, getting fast again — the animal worries too much,” he said. “If you maintain one stroke per second, whether you’re doing gentle kneading or friction, the animal can relax in the flow of the rhythm.”
• Place the pet on a table to keep your own posture comfortable. “If you massage on the floor on your knees, you will get sore knees and a sore back, which makes you tense up and makes the whole experience more negative,” he said.
• Avoid massaging the animal with other animals nearby. “If you have several dogs in your house, and take one particular dog aside and isolate him on the table while the others are having fun, he’ll feel like he’s missing out on something and won’t relax.”
• Learn palpation, a technique of touching aimed at discovering abnormalities. “Any time you feel unusual heat, puffiness or swelling on the animal, back off,” Mr. Hourdebaigt said. And before doing any massage on the suspect spot, ask a veterinarian.