Canine Massage FAQ

  1. How does massage work?
  2. Do I need vet approval before massage?
  3. What are the results and when will they show?
  4. What is a typical session and how long will it take?
  5. Do I need to be there?
  6. What if my dog doesn’t like it?
  7. My dog has a sore shoulder, can you work on just that?
  8. How often should my dog be massaged?
  9. When NOT to massage your dog.

1. How does massage work?

A little functional background is required to answer that question fully.
How the muscle works: Movement is the result of a series of muscles contracting and relaxing.
A muscle contraction requires energy (nutrients such as oxygen, proteins, glucose, lipids, etc). If there is insufficient energy available to meet the demand, the muscle will spasm, go on strike, shout “tools down!”. When provided with the correct tools (nutrients) to do the job, the muscles will hungrily use them up, and like all living beings, will create waste. The efficient body takes care of flushing these wastes away. If the muscles are working extra hard, and produce wastes faster than the disposal systems (lymphatic and venous systems) can handle, some waste remains in the muscle cells. This decreases the efficient functioning of the muscle at a cellular level, and is believed to contribute to soreness and stiffness. (Note – it is no longer thought that lactic acid is a waste product, or a cause of soreness.) Soreness and stiffness is generally caused by damage to the muscle fibres – a routine occurrence during training and conditioning. The muscles are repaired stronger and more able to meet their work load. Massage increases circulation, which is the nutrient supply, and waste flushing system. It works out muscle spasms and knots, allowing the cells to function efficiently, and regain their elasticity once again.

Stretching and other bodywork aids the above, and helps strengthen and lengthen the muscle fibres and connective tissue, which helps to prevent injuries from occuring by making them more resiliant.

2. Do I need vet approval before massage?

If your dog is experiencing any pain or discomfort, has an undiagnosed limp or swelling, your vet needs to look at your dog first. He or she can advise when massage will be beneficial to your dog, especially when in rehab for any injuries. (See When Not to Massage Your Dog). Your masseuse/bodyworker is NOT a veterinarian, and cannot diagnose problems. We work with your vet to enhance your dog’s overall care and comfort. Dogs in a rehabilitation program require vet approval and input. If a physiotherapist is involved, Backstretch is willing to accompany you to your appointment to be more able to implement prescribed exercises and stretches, and provide specific feedback. There is no charge for this service at this time.

3. What are the results and when will they show?

Immediately after a massage, the majority of dogs are very relaxed, and are likely to have a nap. Some dogs are immediately energised, and are ready to go for a run! As muscle tension is relieved, the dogs will have a more flowing gait, and improved maneouverablity. Many imbalances in movement will be resolved, though if the cause of the imbalance is not relieved, such as structural, injury, or a habitual way of moving/training, then the muscles will eventually resume their compensation patterns. It may take a series of massage sessions to work out long term imbalances once the cause is dealt with. Other benefits, such as resistance to injury, increased tone and stamina, enhanced immune system, improved range of motion and flexibility, just to name a few, become evident after several regular sessions. Small problems can also be detected and brought to you and your vet’s attention before it grows to become a bigger issue or lameness requiring a lengthy disciplined recovery period. Small spasms, if not released, can grow to become knots – causing other muscles to compensate by overworking, which sets the cycle in motion again until it shows in a lameness or inablity to move or bend in a certain way. Another delightful side benefit to massage is a soft, shiny coat!

4. What is a typical session and how long will it take?

In the initial session, we go through some basic info on the dog’s medical history and current lifestyle; a static assessment is done (basic functional conformation, palpation for muscle and temperature symmetry, tone, and tolerance to touch), followed by a gait assessment to determine how the dog is using his or her body. Following the history and assessments, we proceed with the massage and stretching, which can be from 30 – 75 minutes, depending on the dog’s condition, issues, and tolerance to touch. The average massage on a medium size dog is 45 to 60 minutes.

5. Do I need to be there?

For the initial session, someone who can answer detailed questions about the dog, and who can lead him/her for the assessment is required. For the massage portion, and for subsequent sessions, you are welcome to be in the room, but are not required. Often an owner will attend at the beginning to report any changes or concerns, then will carry on with their day’s activities, checking back in occasionally. After the massage, it is ideal for the dog to have some light exercise.

6. What if my dog doesn’t like it?

Some dogs are very sensitive to touch, or are defensive and lack trust. Touch therapy can be a very effective method to calm a dog, promote a trusting relationship, and encourage a dog to allow and enjoy massage. Sometimes it can take a few sessions for the dog to learn to trust and relax. The massage will be tailored to your dog’s needs. We have to respect what the dog wants and not impose our agenda on them!

7. My dog has a sore shoulder, can you work on just that?

Not unless the vet specifically requests work on a particular region. Perhaps this will explain why: every movement engages two opposing sets of muscles – one contracts while the other one extends to create motion. If any piece of either muscle is not working to its full potential, it inhibits the opposing action, thus restricting movement. In locomotion, if something is restricted, another area must work harder to compensate. This places a stress on the overworking compensatory muscle, which then causes yet another muscle to compensate for that muscle, and so on – you can see where this is going – it’s a domino effect. Because of this cycle, very often a lameness you observe may not be the original cause of the injury, but will be a series of compensating muscles tripping over themselves in an attempt to maintain a functioning balanced system. Massage helps to rebalance the muscles’ workloads by releasing contracted (spasmed or knotted) muscles. Working on just one section may not be helpful at all if the complimentary muscles aren’t doing their equal share of the workload.

8. How often should my dog be massaged?

In all cases, this will depend on the physical demands on the dog, the dog’s condition and conformation, living conditions, and work environment (as applicable). As a very general guideline:

  • High performance (athlete or service dog): every 1-2 weeks for deep massage. An athlete in peak trial season would benefit from a massage several times per week, however deep tissue massage is recommended no closer than three days apart. The owner is encouraged to supplement scheduled massage sessions by applying stretches and light mini-massage in between appointments.
  • Weekend warriors: every 2 – 4 weeks, and the owner is encouraged to supplement by providing stretching and mini-massage more often. It is important that your dog is properly conditioned for the activity you are asking of him/her.
  • General wellness (all dogs): Every 4-6 weeks will go a long way in keeping your dog healthy, happy, and active.
  • Dogs in rehabilitation: this schedule will be determined in conjunction with you, your vet, and/or your canine physiotherapist. Typically, I have been called in to work on a dog three times a week for one to two weeks, then twice a week for a specified period of time, eventually weaning down to a wellness schedule as the dog recovers.

9. When NOT to massage your dog:

You should not engage in activities that promote increased blood circulation, which includes massage, under the following conditions:

  • If your dog has elevated vital signs (temperature, pulse or respiration rate), is off his/her feed or is behaving unusually lethargic, has an undiagnosed lameness, swelling or heat. In these cases, your vet is the first person to call. Generally, massage isn’t recommended for about seven days after an injury, but your vet will know your dog and the specific situation, and can advise when it is safe and beneficial to proceed with massage.
  • If you are entering an athletic trial such as agility, flyball, disc sports, fieldwork, etc., a full deep tissue massage is not recommended within three days before an event. This is for three reasons:
  1. massage can increase your dog’s stride length, and this may cause the dog and handler to be out of synch for a brief period of re-adjustment. ie: number of strides required between jumps may change.
  2. As with humans, a massage may cause some dogs to be more sensitive for a day or so while their bodies get reaccustomed to certain muscles that may have been knotted up for some time, and are now in use again. If your dog is used to regular bodywork, and you and your bodyworker know how your dog reacts to it, a light massage can work to relax and warm up your dog prior to an event.
  3. Another important reason massage is not recommended just before a trial: the last thing we want is for a massage to mask a pain just before competition. A pain is there for a reason, and unheeded, could cause further injury. If you are booking a massage for the first time, allow a week before your next competition to be on the safe side.