Part of Horse Previews Magazine website. Posted on 7/1/95; 10:00:00 AM.

Animal Massage - What, When, Why?

by Patricia Whalen-Shaw, M.A., L.M.T. and Len Montavon, M.A., L.M.T.

Massage therapy is not something new. In fact, massage is one of the most ancient and venerable of healing arts. Massage therapy is not a cure-all for illness or injury; however, there are many documented benefits that can be derived through massage.

In this article, the authors will be discussing massage with regard to the massage of animals. What, when, and why massage are three good areas to begin with when considering massage for your animal.

What is Massage?

Massage is touch: the hand or part of the hand placed onto the skin (coat) of another live being. There are many forms of massage. In this writing, massage or massage therapy is defined as the hands-on manipulation of muscles and other soft tissues of the animal's body.

Even within this definition of massage, there are over 100 different styles or types of massage from around the world. The therapeutic methods used today come from one of two main traditions, Eastern and Western. Western traditions are most frequently used in this country in the form of hands-on active movements known commonly as Swedish Massage. Eastern traditions, stem from the folk medicines of India, Japan and China, known to us as Shiatsu, acupressure or reflexology. Today, massage can look to the observer like anything from a good rub down to movement above or around the body without actually touching the body. Is there any wonder as to why there is so much confusion about what massage is?

When to Massage?

When referring to massage for animals, there are many who are advertising sports massage for the animal athlete. Sports massage is an adaptation of the Western techniques of hands-on massage. Sports massage focuses on the muscle groups used in the particular activity. This type of a massage is usually short in duration. There are specific benefits to be derived from sports massage techniques and some of these techniques are variations or adaptations of other forms of hands-on massage. Generally, sports massage techniques work to spread the muscle fibers to increase nutrient rich blood supply to the muscle, readying it for intensive use. It helps breaks down adhesions, which can restrict muscle efficiency, and help with the flushing of metabolic toxins from the muscles. If a muscle has better nutrition, it stands to reason that it should have enhanced performance capability. If all the muscle fibers can work as a unit, the performance output should be greater. If the waste products of metabolism are removed from the nerve endings and muscle fibers, the performance should also be enhanced because there is a fresh nutrient rich blood supply now available for use in muscle metabolism.

A massage therapist performing a pre-event massage should be working to increase the blood supply to the working (skeletal) muscles in a nonspecific manner. This massage will be quick, no one area will be worked for an extended time period, and all muscle groups should be addressed. It is like warming up a muscle group, without the wear and tear to the surrounding bony structures and attachments.

When performing a post-event massage, the therapist will be performing many of the same techniques; however, they will most likely be slower in pace, once again non specific and this time the emphasis will be on returning the blood back towards the heart to be redistributed for detoxification and reoxygenation. This type of massage can greatly reduce the recovery time after an exertion, by helping the body rid itself of the metabolic waste products naturally produced during exertion.

In addition, there are many other types of hands-on massage that can be performed such as a maintenance massage which is used primarily to reduce stress and promote relaxation. Massage can also provide important information about the muscle condition, the predisposition towards a possible injury, as well as, information about the healing process after a soft tissue injury. A well trained massage therapist can feel very small changes in the muscles of an animal with respect to stressed areas, old injury sites, scar tissue, and muscle conditioning. Any or all of these factors may be important to your animal with respect to its daily work and play activities.

Why Massage?

Pre and post event massage are never to take the place of a warm up and warm down. They can enhance these procedures by shortening the time it takes to get to the target heart rate or respiration rate, and they are done without the animal having to bare additional weight such as in the case of horses, which may be an added plus.

There are many other types of massage as mentioned above which can help to reduce the stress of the animal and help lengthen the muscle groups, so that more flexibility is enhanced and therefore, a longer stride can be achieved.

Massage will not change the basic conformational structure of the animal, however it can help the animal use what structure it has to its fullest potential. An example would be, if an animal could not track straight making it appear that one side was not covering as much ground as the other, it is just possible that a muscle or group of muscles are preventing the animal from reaching forward with one of its legs. Depending on where the restriction appears, the muscles groups responsible for the movement and placement of that foot would be massaged looking to remove any muscle spasms or trigger points within the muscle belly or along its attachments.

Massage does not take the place of Veterinary care and all injury and illness should be evaluated by the Vet first. However, there are many cases where there is no clear medical reason for a shortening of stride and this is where massage can be so valuable. Besides, massage, if recommended by the Veterinarian is something that the handler can learn to perform for the animal.

On a physical level, massage has been documented to enhance relaxation and reduce stress. Relief of muscle tension and stiffness are positive side effects of massage as well. It can also reduce muscle spasms. Greater joint flexibility and range of movement can be achieved through massage and stretching. All this adds up to an increased ease and efficiency of movement. Better circulation of both blood and the lymph system have been documented as well. Deeper and easier breathing can also be enhanced. All these benefits lead to healthier, better nourished skin (coat), faster healing time from injury or surgery, reduced pain, spasm and swelling, reduced formation of scar tissue, and a strengthened immune system.

We know that massage therapy works. You will be the ultimate judge about whether or not to use a massage therapist, but the use of a non-invasive, non-chemical approach in getting the best performance from your animal patient makes a lot of sense.

The authors have written several articles on animal massage. For more information about this topic, contact them through Optissage, Inc., 7041 Zane Trail Road, Circleville, OH 43113. Telephone 614/474-6436.

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