Arthritis is extremely common in veterinary medicine, particularly among aging and senior pets. While veterinary professionals (as well as pets and pet parents alike) have modern medicine and pharmaceutical options to help manage arthritis-related pain, there is a large and growing sector of pet parents looking for complementary modalities to utilize for their arthritic pets, as well.
When it comes to complementary approaches for their patients’ arthritis, veterinary medicine has done a tremendous job of meeting the needs and requests of pet parents. State-of-the-art physical therapy centers are popping up all over the country, and many clinics have staff veterinarians who can offer bodywork, such as acupuncture and chiropractic. Still, some beneficial modalities are extremely underutilized, an important one being therapeutic massage.
Massage therapy has long been available as a modality for various human medical conditions. While no formal studies have been done on the effects of massage therapy on people struggling with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, participants in a study specifically geared toward massage therapy’s role in managing osteoarthritis of the knee, found increased relaxation and quality of life when this modality was implemented into their treatment plan.1
Considering this, as well as countless anecdotal experiences, one can theorize similar results would be accomplished in small animal medicine for dogs and cats with similar ailments and diseases.
Introduction to pets
Massage has been used for equine health and well supported by agility dog handlers since the early 1900s.2,3 The delay in utilization of this therapy among companion animals is likely related to a lack of monetary “value” (something often placed on racing horses and working dogs).
As it makes its debut into small animal practice, there are countless ways and justifiable reasons we should offer this type of therapy to arthritic pets.
Believe it or not, massage therapy is an aerobic activity similar to walking, running, or other exercise. It boosts metabolism, promotes lactic acid release, and promotes healthy blood flow and nutrients to muscles throughout the body. This is especially important for arthritic dogs and cats that have likely become more sedentary or have stopped using specific muscle groups altogether.
These qualities of massage keep muscles healthy and reduce atrophy (or wasting) while facilitating healthy use of the body. These actions together can also help to alleviate compensatory changes in an animal’s gait, helping to maintain healthy muscle and joint function for as long as possible. Massage is an excellent therapy to utilize before and after the gentle practice of range of motion and stretching, and is a great tool for identifying and releasing muscle tension.
Massage therapy also promotes lymphatic circulation, a system in the body that does not circulate without movement since it does not have a pump, like blood has the heart. This circulation promotes and improves an animal’s immune system and function. A large part of the arthritic pet category includes senior animals, and boosting immune function is essential for senior and compromised animals.
Chronic physical pain, usually categorized as lasting longer than three to six months, can also have extremely detrimental effects on mental health. For people, chronic pain is often associated with anxiety and depression.4 We can see these natural but unwanted changes among arthritic pets as well, as movement and comfort are often paramount for the happiness and quality of life of dogs and cats.
Massage therapy is an excellent modality when approaching anxiety or depression in animals. Touch, particularly touch with intention, increases connection, promotes healthy bonding, and releases feel good hormones like oxytocin (a hormone released during childbirth and breastfeeding, to show its incredible impact).5
So, how can massage therapy be better implemented into veterinary medicine and general practice? There are so many ways!
One is onboarding a certified animal massage therapist or providing this education to a veterinary nurse on staff. These sessions can be stand-alone appointments or paired before or after other bodywork sessions, such as acupuncture.
The laws surrounding who can practice animal massage vary greatly among states. Some states have little to no laws, or consider this therapy a “gray area,” while others consider practicing this therapy to be illegal unless certified by a credentialed school or under veterinary supervision.6
Another consideration is teaching pet parents very gentle at-home massage techniques for their arthritic pets, between professional services. This “homework” empowers pet parents; promoting bonding and connection, and it allows pet parents to identify other medical concerns, such as new or changed masses, hair loss, or painful areas. This is a particularly excellent service for arthritic cats, many of whom are a bit more limited when it comes to pharmaceutical treatments and management of their pain.
While veterinarians are extremely fortunate to have a wide variety of approaches and treatments for the management of dog and cat arthritis, we should not limit ourselves and remember to explore options such as massage therapy. Therapeutic massage is utilized for human arthritis on a massive scale, and should be greatly considered for pets.
As time continues, we will undoubtedly see more formal studies performed to determine the efficacy of massage therapy and its use for pain management associated with arthritis, both in human and nonhuman medicine. Regardless of the lack of current studies, if we see positive responses to the work, we should not close ourselves off to it in the meantime!
Claire Primo, CVT, CCMT, is a veterinary nurse and certified animal massage therapist residing in Lyons, Colo. She specializes in senior pet care, holistic veterinary nurse care, and empowering guardians with all the appropriate tools and guidance needed for a healthy and nurturing relationship with their pets.
- Ali A, Rosenberger L, Weiss TR, Milak C, Perlman AI. Massage Therapy and Quality of Life in Osteoarthritis of the Knee: A Qualitative Study. Pain Med. 2017;18(6):1168-1175. doi:10.1093/pm/pnw217
- Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, October 13). Equine massage. Wikipedia. Retrieved April 12, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equine_massage
- Introduction to the perspectives and skills of canine massage · petmassage™ Training and Research Institute. PetMassage. (2019, November 4). Retrieved April 12, 2022, from https://petmassage.com/introduction-to-the-perspectives-and-skills-of-canine-massage-3/
- Chronic pain and mental health. Mental Health America. (n.d.). Retrieved April 12, 2022, from https://www.mhanational.org/chronic-pain-and-mental-health
- Uvnäs-Moberg K, Handlin L, Petersson M. Self-soothing behaviors with particular reference to oxytocin release induced by non-noxious sensory stimulation. Front Psychol. 2015;5:1529. Published 2015 Jan 12. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01529
- Laws by State. International Association of Animal Massage & Bodywork / Association of Canine Water Therapy. (2021, January 26). Retrieved April 12, 2022, from https://iaamb.org/resources/laws-by-state/