Alternative Healing Modality: Deep Tissue and Swedish Massage

I think most people know what massage is at this point. Many have experienced it for themselves and know firsthand the wonderful effects it can have on your health and general well-being.

I have often found, however, that there is still a huge misconception about massage for animals. Many think that is is just an unnecessary spa treatment for overly spoiled pets; a waste of money. Nothing could be further from the truth. Animals need massage just as much as we do; their bodies and systems are very much like ours, and they suffer from the same aches and pains.

Ailments such as arthritis, sore muscles, and general stiffness are conditions that come to mind when you think about instances when massage is helpful, but it is also a wonderful tool with psychological issues, such as helping fearful animals who have experienced trauma or abuse build self-confidence and re-gain their trust in people.

What is Massage?

Massage is a manual kneading and stroking technique that works on all the layers of muscle and connective tissue. Various forms of massage have been practiced since ancient times. The well-known quote from Hippocrates “The physician must be experienced in many things, but assuredly in rubbing” is dated 460BC.

When you say massage, you are usually talking about Swedish or deep tissue massage. Swedish massage (called classic massage in Sweden) uses 5 types of strokes to help (among other things) loosen knots, increase flexibility, speed up the removal of toxins, bring more oxygen to the blood, strengthen the immune system, and improve relaxation. Deep tissue massage uses the same strokes, but with a bit more pressure to access the deeper layers of muscle and fascia.

On people, it is usually preformed with the receiver unclothed (covered by a sheet) on a massage table. Massage on animals is done either on a table or on the floor/ground, depending on the type of animal and his/her preference.

Meet Lon Black

Swedish massage: Lon and JakeToday’s massage case study comes from Lon Black, who is a certified Small Animal Massage Therapist working through Hope Veterinary Services in Brooklyn, New York.

Lon was always around animals as a child and and sensed even then that he had healing abilities. As an adult, he studied different alternative healing modalities. He graduated from the Laura Norman Reflexology School in NYC in 1984, and studied Reiki in 1999 – 2000. As he used Reiki on his own pets, he realized how well they responded to it.

A few years later, with a desire to leave a corporate job, Lon stumbled upon some information about the upcoming new animal massage program at Bancroft School of Massage Therapy in Worcester, MA. He applied and was accepted into the school’s first graduating class.

Lon graduated from the Small Animal Massage Certification Program at Bancroft in 2004 and started his animal massage business immediately following graduation.

He is also a Reiki Master and has a Small Animal Acupressure certification from Tallgrass Animal Acupressure Institute. In addition to seeing clients, Lon teaches pet owners how to use massage techniques with a particular mindset intended to benefit the owner as well as the pet.

Gus the Cat
by Lon Black

Gus is a 5 year old domestic shorthair feline. He was rescued as a kitten and cared for at a veterinary clinic following an abusive incident. The story, told to Gus’s owner, Aileen, was that he was thrown against a car. This act shattered the growth plates near his left shoulder joint. As a result, surgery was required to remove a portion of his front left leg, leaving it half the length of his right front.

Imagine what his gait is like. As he uses all four limbs, he has to crouch to the ground to use his shorter leg for support. Subsequently, his left front leg hits the floor with harder impact than normal, and his right front leg circles around as if he’s doing a dog paddle swim stroke. Imagine yourself as a four-legged creature doing this for most of your life – every step you take. How will it affect the rest of your body? Sprinkle in some arthritic pain and how do you feel?

Overall, Gus seemed fine during his first year in Aileen’s care and made the necessary adjustments to the surgery. Then she noticed troubles with his mobility and increasing swelling in all joints. She consulted with a doctor at Hope Veterinary Clinic. DIAGNOSIS: Severe osteoarthritis, naturally occurring arthrodesis, osteophytes, cartilaginous erosion, etc. bilaterally. She was referred to me for massage.

Gus’s first massage was on March 10, 2006. For 2 months, our appointments were weekly. As Gus got back on his paws and showed signs of improved mobility, we met every 2 weeks for a couple months. As he continued to get better, our sessions became monthly. These days we get together approximately every 5 to 6 weeks. In the rare occurrence that he starts to have some difficulty, we increase the frequency of the sessions, but usually for only a couple sessions as he recovers quickly.

What happens at each session? I arrive at the Brownstone dwelling and ring Aileen’s doorbell. 90% of the time, Gus reacts to the doorbell and is hiding under the bed by the time we enter the apartment. I’m getting into massage position while Aileen is cat fishing under the bed.

Sometimes Gus is an easy catch. Sometimes not. Aileen extricates Gus and sets him down in front of me on his bed. He plays games of struggle with Aileen as she does this (claws grasping the sweater is a favorite), but as soon as I place my hands on him, it’s as if a switch goes on in his head, his body goes limp and his eyes seem to say, “Oh, yes. This. I’m ready now.” The kittie masseur begins his work. This scene has been performed for 4 years.

Gus gets a full body massage using Swedish massage techniques that are incorporated into the method taught at Bancroft. I give special consideration to his left front leg and shoulder. To help keep his joints flexible, especially those in his front legs, I will put him through some passive range of motion exercises; passive because I, the helper, am creating the motion while Gus remains passive.

After my graduation from the Tallgrass program, stimulation of appropriate acupressure points was incorporated into the sessions. I used these points to focus primarily on keeping Gus’s arthritis at bay. (FYI, I highly recommend the Bancroft and Tallgrass programs to anyone interested in entering this field.)

I occasionally try new techniques or use standard techniques in new ways, always observing to see if he responds favorably. (I first test these out on my two domestic shorthair brothers and they give me their approval ratings.)

How is Gus now? Gus improved quickly. Positive updates were reported by Aileen regularly, even after our first session. His progress continued and his condition never regressed to the severity of its early days. He quickly gained strength in his right front leg and was able to support himself more easily. There were also behavioral improvements. Gus had been somewhat timid and tense and became more relaxed and sure of himself, especially when jumping to the window to watch his favorite bird.

What contributes to the success of this case is Gus’s cooperation during our sessions. He really grooves on his massages. He’s relaxed. He’s receptive to what I’m doing. From my observations, animals who maintain this non-resistant state during the bodywork have an increased capacity to recover and improve with greater ease and speed. If I’m on the massage table, I will have a much more healing experience if I’m not squirming around and struggling with the massage therapist who is working on my body.

Also, Gus lives in a happy environment with his 2 female and 3 male feline companions. They all come from different backgrounds and they are all best of friends. That alone is going to make for more stress-free, happy, healthy kitties.

I can say with certainty that if we were not having these sessions for the last 4 years, Gus would have a VERY different quality of life today. No, I have not grown the leg back to normal length through my bodywork. (I tried. Growing Limbs wasn’t taught at Bancroft.) He has exhibited the textbook benefits of massage that you can find listed in any training manual or on hundreds of websites: improved circulation, alleviation of pain, reduced stress and decreased anxiety, enhanced immunity, greater joint flexibility, relief of muscle stiffness and tension, reduction of muscle spasms, etc.

My overall intention with this work is to make our animal friends as COMFORTABLE as possible. We may not be able to grow limbs, but we can support their natural capacity to adjust to their circumstances and make the best of them. As Walt Whitman said about animals in Leaves of Grass, 1855, “They do not sweat and whine about their condition.”

I’ll reveal a hidden agenda for choosing a cat for this case study. In the 6 or 7 years that this field has burgeoned, I find a greater interest among massage and related practitioners to work on dogs and horses, and cats are too often considered unappreciators of massage. They are too aloof or too fidgety to work on. My experience indicates the opposite. Cats benefit from massage as much as dogs or horses and can be very accepting of this work. Maybe it helps that I am a cat enthusiast and find it easy to relate to them.

Testimonial from Gus’s owner, Aileen:
“Lon has done amazing work with Gus and has given him a life he would not have otherwise had. The arthritis was making it nearly impossible for Gus to walk or jump and his condition was deteriorating rapidly prior to Lon’s treatment. Gus is now without any signs of illness and a very happy—and determined—cat.”

For more massage case studies, see the “Massage Helps A Samoyed Get Back On His Feet And A PBGV With Epilepsy” post.

Cattie Coyle

Cattie Coyle

Founder and Editor at Animal Wellness Guide
Cattie is the founder and editor of Animal Wellness Guide. She is a freelance photographer, graduate of Bancroft School of Massage Therapy’s small animal program, and has studied Applied Zoopharmacognosy. Learn more about Cattie
Cattie Coyle
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