The Amazing Impact of Massage at Animal Shelters

An estimated six to eight million cats and dogs enter shelters each year, and about half of those find new homes. About 2.7 million cats and dogs are euthanized in shelters each year. Shelters across Dog at animal shelterthe country are implementing enrichment programs to improve the lives of the animals in their care and increase the chances of adoption. Ideal enrichment programs seek to increase the positive emotions of animals typically brought out by their seeking, play, and care behaviors. Programs such as nosework, socialization and grooming fit this bill.

Shelters and rescues often welcome animal massage school interns to bring some comfort to their animals. It helps get the dogs and cats used to human touch, brings them relaxation in a stressful situation, and may even help them be adopted sooner. The interns get to work with many behavioral and physical problems and come away inspired by their ability to affect the lives of animal in need.

An Inspiring Internship at a Shelter

Michele Rappaport, who graduated from our Small Animal Massage Program at Doggone U at Bancroft School of Massage Therapy last year, spent part of her internship at a shelter in New Jersey.

Dog in animal shelterMichele: I had typical ideas that shelters were depressing places, and I didn’t know that I could survive emotionally in a shelter environment. It turned out to be a pivotal event for me, not just for my coursework at Bancroft, but for what I’m doing now at shelters. In the month I was there, I saw the incredible transformation a little bit of massage could do for dogs and cats. It just opened my eyes to how much more comfortable and calmer the animals could be.

Michele saw, as many interns do, that cats who were despondent, huddled at the back of the cage, not eating, not grooming, underwent a transformation after a short massage. When she went back down the line to check on them, “they were all either at the front of their cages, cleaning themselves, eating, looking at me, looking at other people, alert, the kind of animals that are going to catch a potential adopter’s eye.” Adopters want an animal that engages with them. It’s safe to say that massage brings animals to the front of the cage.

Massaging a cat at an animal shelter

The Shelter Volunteer Massage Program is Born

After graduation, Michele went back to her home in Tucson, Arizona, and began volunteering at the Pima County Shelter, an enormous place that houses over 500 animals. She quickly saw the limitations on what one person could do, and conceived of a volunteer massage program that could reach more animals. Both the Pima County Shelter and the Humane Society of Southern Arizona signed onto her program, and in the course of two months, she trained over one hundred volunteers how to give a relaxing massage, and set up procedures to make sure the animals who needed massage got on the massage board, where anyone in the shelter can add the name of a dog that needs a massage.

Eight volunteers at a time took a three-hour workshop on identifying the best candidates for massage, learning the strokes on a demo dog, and working in the kennels with a chosen dog, observed Massage at animal sheltersand guided by Michele. Techniques taught were those most suited for calming and comforting. Even with newly trained volunteers, a very noisy shelter begins to quiet down quickly. “One of the miracles of shelter massage is that calming energy takes place, not just between the animal and the person doing the massage, but it extends to surrounding animals in adjacent cages.” I have heard this time and again from interns that work in shelters and rescues.

In the beginning, Michele invested a lot of time, doing two workshops per week and being present at the shelters to support volunteers. Now she does one workshop per month and a little email support. “I experimented with the model of doing a workshop at a shelter, with email support, but not spending time at the shelter after (it was far from me), and I found it is better to have a small presence at the shelter in the weeks following the workshop.” The biggest challenge for the volunteers is calming down overly excited dogs enough to be massaged. An experienced, patient, massage therapist can do it, and so can a volunteer, but they need a little support to develop that confidence.

Most shelters won’t need the number of workshops that a huge place like Pima County Shelter required. A workshop or two to start, some time at the shelter immediately after to support and inspire volunteers, and a workshop every few months, as needed, to train new volunteers, should suffice.

Implementing Massage at Your Local Shelter

If one workshop is all you can do, it is still worth doing. At Thomas J. O’Connor shelter, where I did one workshop, volunteer Kristine is having great luck relaxing the over-the-top dogs, according to Deb Soricelli, who is in charge of enrichment:Chulita_the_pitbull

The high-energy pitties are sitting quietly with her for her massage. She sits outside with them, and has a blanket outside as well. It has been quite amazing to see them. I know it helps these high-energy dogs especially since they are so hyper while at the shelter – so this gives them at least a few minutes of calm and relaxing time – I am very impressed at how they settle by the end of her sessions. Due to this, I would definitely recommend it to any shelter.

The benefits for the massage therapist setting up a shelter program are real, says Michele: “It’s been one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. All that giving didn’t feel like anything. It was exhilarating – it didn’t feel like a chore. It was the most natural thing in the world to do. It gave me and continues to give me more than I give it. I have gotten business leads for private clients from volunteers. There is no doubt that the kind of exposure that you can get from setting up these programs can be a wonderful way to start your business, or another outlet for picking up leads.”

Physical and Emotional Relief

While most of the massage done in shelters serves the purpose of relaxation and bonding, medical massage has a place. Massage can help relieve pain, ease waking up from surgery, and assist in rehabilitation.

Michele tells the story of a four-month-old border collie named Wishbone who entered the shelter dragging her back legs:

She couldn’t support herself on all fours for more than a second. I did some warm-up: effleurage, some petrissage, some vibration, because I understood from Lisa, in our instruction, that vibration might build muscle cells. I just did some basic, basic things. I asked our shelter vet, Dr. Wilcox, to have anyone massage her that could, and I sent out an email to our group asking them to work with her. The next week I did massage in her kennel, and I think someone had been working with her, because I was massaging her with all those techniques plus a few other things, and doing some passive range of motion exercises, and after about 10 minutes, I stood her on her feet. And she didn’t just stand, she walked over to her water bowl and had a drink and ate some food. Then she was wobbly and came back and we did a little bit more. After that session I said, I think we need to do a full-court press, because Wishbone is walking a little, she is supporting herself, whatever is being done is helping her. I think this animal is going to be able to walk. So after that, I was getting email updates from volunteers, and after two weeks Wishbone was walking, and shortly after that, she was adopted. And that’s about the best outcome you could expect. Because she would be languishing in the kennel, or worse, in the old days, being put down right away. We got a chance to work with her, with massage, with passive range of motion. I have to say in that case, there was a direct connection between Wishbone getting massage and getting adopted.


Everybody Wins

While the animals reap huge benefits, the shelters themselves also come out ahead. The environment is more peaceful, animals are more trusting and easier to handle, and volunteers are gratified to have another tool in their kit for helping animals. Anecdotal evidence suggests that animals are made more adoptable through massage.

Michele: Once they got the program set up, I started getting emails from volunteers that animals they had massaged, just massaged an hour before, were getting adopted. I’m thinking, there are a lot of things going on in a shelter, many benefits and opportunities that might lead to them getting adopted. They are getting walked, there is Reiki, there is music, they are getting treats, there is a lot of social interaction, how do you say it’s massage? I took two weeks and paid really close attention and talked to my volunteers and within that period there were at least 5 dogs that were adopted shortly after being massaged and I do mean shortly. Even I experienced it – an animal that I had just left was adopted. I started to think it was more than coincidence.

As we wait for firm data on the effect of massage on adoption rates, it’s safe to say that starting a shelter massage program will have a positive effect on the environment, the animals, the staff, and the volunteers.

If anyone would like to contribute data from their own shelter massage program, please contact us.

Michele gave a workshop this year at Bancroft on how to set up programs, geared toward massage therapists and shelter staff. If you’d like to arrange for her to speak at your location, please contact her. If you’d like to be notified when our web video version of the workshop is ready, or when other talks are scheduled, please add your name to our shelter massage mailing list.

Lisa Ruthig
Lisa is a Small Animal and Equine Massage practitioner, Reiki practitioner, instructor and director of Animal Programs at Bancroft School of Massage Therapy in Worcester, MA. Learn more about Lisa
Lisa Ruthig


Small Animal and Equine Massage, Reiki, Dog Training
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