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TOP #41: Benefits of Dog Massage and How to Treat Your Pets at Home

One pet health treatment option that's accessible to all dog owners but not many take advantage of it is pet massage. Did you know that giving your dog a massage can provide many physical and mental health benefits? If not, this podcast episode is for you as we'll discuss the subject in more depth.

Today I'm interviewing Jacqueline Newholm, a professional canine massage therapist from Big Brown Dog Therapy. We talk about the many different techniques and methods of pet massage, how to properly and safely massage your dog and how can it benefit your Fido. Jacqueline touches on the science of it, and provides us with some great tips on how pet owners can take advantage of this simple and yet effective at-home treatment.

Listen to the episode in the video above and find the full podcast transcript below. For more, visit this episode’s post on the official Theory of Pets website.

The Benefits of Dog Massage and How to Treat Your Fido
(podcast transcript)

Benefits of Dog Massage and How to Treat Your Dogs at Home

INTRO: Have you ever thought about giving your pet a massage? There are actually some amazing benefits to pet message and there are professional pet massage therapists popping up a lot more frequently in areas all around the world.

Today I was able to speak with Jacqueline Newholm and she actually is a pet massage therapist located in the UK. Her company is Big Brown Dog Therapy. It recently celebrated its first birthday, but Jackie has been involved in pet massage for much longer than that. I was able to speak with her today about the benefits and she gave us some great tips for anybody who's interested in massaging their pet at home. So let's check out what she had to say.

Interview with Jacqueline Newholm

Jacqueline: I actually hadn't owned a dog before, until about 9 years ago when I got my first dog. Unfortunately, my dad was quite allergic to dogs and cats growing up. So, we only had budgerigars and rabbits as pets.

I got my first dog. His name was Tabasco and he was a big brown curly coated retriever. He was fantastic. Unfortunately he died in March this year. Because of him really I became more — really attached to dogs and realized how fantastic they are and what great companions they are.

I really wanted to do something with animals, because I've spent all of my working career either working for Japanese companies or in the IT industry. So, really it was down to Tabasco and his stupid loveableness that got me interested and wanting to change career.

So I did a bit of research and found out that dog massage was something that you could do. I didn't think it would be too difficult to study again. So I went on a 2 year course to study and opened my business three years ago and I've been trading as Big Brown Dog Canine Massage Therapy for the last year.

Samantha: Wow. Good for you. It's just kind of becoming popular over here as well. I think a lot of pet parents are looking more for the natural treatments — acupuncture, massage, working with essential oils. Things like that is becoming more popular in the United States now as well. So when I received the email and saw that you do canine massage, I was excited to have you on the show because I think it's something that is extremely beneficial, but it's also something that a lot of pet parents aren't aware of or at least aware of the benefits of it right now.

Jacqueline: Yes. Yes.

There are literally dozens and dozens of qualified canine massage therapists in the UK, but every second dog owner that I come across has never heard of dog massage before. And I think that's possibly down to, I don't know, I think as people, unless we're used to having massages ourselves, it's kind of a bit, I don't know… You see it as a bit of a luxury I think. And you have a massage to take some time out for yourself. Really, the treatment that you get is more of a timeout, no hassles, no mobile phone — it's just a relaxing environment. I don't think people realize the physical and mental benefits that go hand in hand with it. And because they don't know about that, they don't realize that it's something that they can do for their dogs, as well I think.

Possibly if people aren't asking their vets about it, then the vets might not be so aware of it. I guess it's becoming a little bit more known now, but it's definitely not one of the therapies that vets would necessarily refer to straight away. You tend to go to physiotherapists or hydro-therapists more often.

And then once again those therapies are used mostly for remedial purposes or if dogs are suffering from arthritis or elbow dysplasia or something like that, that's the sort of the go-to therapy. Where unfortunately, message is a bit left behind the scenes.

So hopefully we'll start to make it a bit more well known and people will realize that actually there are quite a few trained good therapists out there that can help their dogs.

Samantha: Absolutely. We actually had a personal experience with it. We work with a holistic veterinarian with our dogs, me and my husband, our dogs. And my mother has a Labrador retriever who has suffered with, it was a breeding issue for him. He's had hip and knee problems since he was very young, two and three years old. And they saw, were seeing at the time a traditional general veterinarian and they were doing supplements, pain medications, they had different exercises to do with him at home. He was on a limited exercise basis I guess, even as a young dog at two and three.

So he wanted to run. He wanted to play, but they limited it. And my mother and her husband, they weren't happy with that. They wanted to try something else. So I actually asked our holistic vet about it and what they thought and they recommended massage and they started that.

I think the dog is 10 or 11 this year. It's been many years that they've been doing massage with him and it's been working so well. Even now as he is older and obviously arthritis is a progressive disease, it's gotten a lot worse. But it's still helping him even in his senior years.

So, that's how I first learned about it. And like I said I see it growing over here, but I think it's still definitely something that hasn't really been brought to light all the benefits.

Could you explain some of those benefits for the dogs that get massages?

Jacqueline: Yes sure. So you mentioned that your Labrador retriever had hip and knee problems. So what happens with dogs that have rear end — rear end [laughs] — back leg problems is that obviously they don't want to use those legs, those limbs, because they hurt, because the arthritis and whatever joint problems they have are causing pain.

So what the dogs will do is they will tend to use their front legs more instead. So dogs will naturally hold… Most dogs naturally have 60% to 65% of their body weight is in the front. Because they have a huge muscular sling that holds their front legs onto their body, which encompasses the neck as well.

And so if you have back leg problems, the back legs are used for providing the powerful locomotion. So if you're not using those legs so much, then the front legs take over and do that work instead. Then what happens is you kind of get an overload of use on the front and the neck. So you kind of get a secondary pain that starts, and this could develop as a chronic issue.

So not only do you have the back end problems as well, then you also have the front end problems, because the muscles are being overworked, and they're tired, and they are contracted all the time. That means that they can't relax, and a muscle that is continually contracted — so held really tightly — it can't heal itself very well. Because when a muscle relaxes, that's when all of the fresh oxygenated blood rushes through the muscle and goes into the muscle fibers. So by holding it in a permanent contraction, you're not able to release any of the really good stuff into the muscles. And conversely, you also can't remove toxins from the muscles either, because the muscles aren't moving as they should be moving.

So massage — to take that as an example — will help to relieve muscular tension by inducing a relaxation to the muscle. It will help to push fresh blood into the muscle, thus the muscles will naturally heal themselves. And it also helps to push all the toxins out of the muscles and the surrounding tissue, and all of that as well.

Massage can also release the body's natural endorphins, so the body's natural pain killers. So they will be released into the bloodstream and then pushed around the body through the bloodstream during the massage movement.

We talked about the removal of toxins. So for older dogs, for example, and I treat quite a few older dogs, these are dogs that aren't moving around so much and have limited exercise. So, when we actually move our body, the movement of the muscle helps to push all of the toxins through the lymphatic system and the venous circulation, which is where all the dirty blood sits and where all the — we call it — cellular debris sits in the body.

I don't know if you've heard of edema before?

Samantha: Yes.

Jacqueline: So an edema is a swelling of the cells — the body's cells. Because they get filled with lymph fluid. And so massage helps to drain all of that out of the system, as well.

So your whole body is sort of refreshed and replenished through the new blood and the toxins that are being removed. It's fantastic for the older dogs that aren't very mobile. If you go for a run, or do some exercise, or have a dance, or something like that, you feel so much more energized. And that's because the body's cleaning itself, because the toxins are all being removed and you're releasing really good stuff in there that makes you feel good.

I guess those would be the three main things, really. So release of natural pain killers, helping to increase the circulation which helps to push the good blood through the body, and the removal of toxins, as well. And obviously then the release of muscle tension which helps to improve mobility.

I had a knee operation a couple of years ago and because I wasn't using that leg so much, it would hurt when I would use it because I wasn't getting the range of motion with that.

So along with some massage techniques where I was taught we also do some range of motion movement exercises as well. Which basically you're just moving the dog's leg backwards and forwards just to help lubricate the joint and to keep everything moving. Because without movement you won't get the natural healing happening.

Samantha: And you touched on arthritis that it can be very beneficial for arthritis. Are there other specific health conditions that massage can benefit?

Jacqueline: So, we're looking really at issues whereby the muscles are contracting to try and stop a joint from moving. So hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia — it's very helpful for that. Not only for the primary cause of the problem. So, as I was saying before that if you have sore hips and you don't want to move them because they're dysplastic, then your muscles will tighten all the way around that area and tight muscles mean a build up of toxins, mean pain in that area. You're not using that area, therefore you don't get that natural healing and then you're overloading somewhere else.

So we tend to try and target the compensatory issues as well as the initial problem. I mean if you're looking at an older dog who's just been diagnosed with hip dysplasia, they may be 10 years old. The likelihood of you putting that dog through an operation to deal with that issue is going to be quite low. It's different if they're a two year old dog. So the choices that you have are to manage it rather than deal with that problem so to speak.

So management consists of making sure the environment is suitable for the dogs. We tend to.. When I say we approach things from a holistic point of view, it's not just the hands on message we're using as well. We are trained to look at the dog's home environment, talk to the owners about the exercises that they do with the dogs as well. In the UK, it's becoming really popular to have really nice wooden flooring in our homes, and nice tiles in the kitchen. For dogs that have arthritis or joint problems, it can be really painful for them to walk on those areas, because they're trying to… It's like they're skating on ice, they can't get a purchase, so it puts a strain on their muscles. So we recommend as much as possible to put rugs down and that sort of thing.

I suppose if you had a dog that had elbow dysplasia problems, you might want to lift their food or their drinking bowl up-slightly, so they don't need to bend down so much and those sorts of things really. So we try and sort of help completely, if you see what I mean?

Samantha: Yes, I mean that's a lot for a pet owner. I think a lot of times when you go to the vet, you get the medical information that you need, but you don't get the all encompassing things that you need to do. A lot of things like hip dysplasia, elbow dysplasia, severe arthritis, it's a lifestyle change that's needed, and not just to know about the medical side of it. So that's a wonderful benefit for pet owners for sure.

Jacqueline: I guess as well, I actually work with a group of K9 behaviorists, and they will bring cases to me of aggressive dogs, or depressed dogs that for no reason at all, have started to become more and more intolerant of people or other dogs approaching them or are doing strange things like rolling on their toys, or chasing their tail a lot, or licking their paws a lot. And sometimes the underlying cause of this can be muscular pain. If you have a sore neck for example, and so your husband comes up to you, and surprises you, and jumps you from behind. You might not be too happy about it if it hurts a lot.

Samantha: Right.

Jacqueline: And if you translate that into dog language that could be, a similar sort of reason why a dog might be suddenly aggressive. I've worked with a couple of dogs that have had aggression issues which really are down to defense mechanisms because they're in pain. They may not have done something to themselves which is obvious, like been involved in an automotive accident or had a diagnosis of hip dysplasia or whatever.

But they may have been playing with their pals, they may have fallen down somewhere and knocked themselves. Or there may be an issue there that's underlying which hasn't been diagnosed yet, which is then being covered up by the muscles trying to help the body. And then slowly if that issue isn't treated, then it just gets worse and worse. It's sort of, well, the pain compounds on itself. Then it can take quite a while to unpeel the layers of discomfort.

One dog that I've been treating — it's taken her a little while to get to like me — [laughter] — because when owners bring their dogs to me, sometimes I can really only spend five or ten minutes actually treating the dogs if they are anxious or nervous. And it takes a little while, it takes a couple of treatments at least for the dogs to become used to what happens. They get to realize that they're not going to the vets.

I do all my treatments on the floor so that the dogs aren't up on the table, which sometimes resembles the vet's, for example. I treated this dog and now she just lays down for me straight away when I go and see her, so it's brilliant.

So there's another thing as well that I just thought of while we were chatting.

With behavior issues you may find that your dog may not like going to the groomer's for example. That can sometimes be down to simple tension underneath the skin where they don't actually like being brushed.

So there are massage techniques you can use to help keep the skin supple. Thus removing pain from those areas. That's another way that it can be helpful. It's amazing the number of applications it can have. All from what might be very difficult to diagnose issue can sometimes be helped by simple massage.

I'll give you another example. A massage colleague of mine — a dog came to her who was having intermittent lameness on the front. It was becoming so difficult to diagnose, that potentially the dog might have to undergo surgery to have some part of their bone removed or something like that. My friend decided to target her treatment on the dog's neck. The lameness stopped. The dog didn't need to go and have any surgery.

Samantha: Wow.

Jacqueline: Kind of goes back to what I was saying about the way the dog is put together. They have all these muscles that are all the way along here that are holding the front legs on. If you have potentially a problem with a sore neck, it might mean that that is displayed in lameness for example.

Samantha: That's very interesting and certainly something that hopefully anybody listening to this podcast or doing research on canine massage would think twice before maybe you decide to a surgery or something major.

Jacqueline: It's worth having a go, really, it is.

Samantha: It absolutely is.

Jacqueline: Nothing to lose because at all. We're all about sort of helping the dogs, not wanting to not causing the anymore pain. Want to make sure that they live their lives to the fullest because they are only with us for a little while.

Samantha: Exactly. Are there any conditions…

Jacqueline: Sorry. Sorry. If you hear scrambling around I've got a little puppy that six months old that's trying to chew my feet and my chair at the moment.

Samantha: [laughs] Are there any dogs or any different conditions that you wouldn't recommend; where massage may be detrimental to certain conditions?

Jacqueline: Well, there are times where you wouldn't massage specifically because of the possible damage you could cause. By that I mean, you wouldn't massage over open wounds or over a bad swelling or if an area was — if a dog was in pain in a particular area.

There are some cases of, there are some heart conditions or some cancer conditions that are recommended against massaging. If you thought about it, you're actually, increasing the circulation and you don't want to increase pushing bad cancerous cells around, for example.

So, therefore, we need — in the UK — we need to have consent from our vets before we do any massage on any dogs. I can massage my own dog, that's not a problem. If I wanted to massage someone else's dog, I would need consent from their vets.

Samantha: That's interesting. I will have to check and see if that's the way it is here in the United States. I'm not sure about that but it certainly makes since. Absolutely.

Jacqueline: We also use as well to help sporting dogs, so, dumb dogs, dogs that are in obedience competitions, showing or agility on fly ball, that sort of thing.

We're coming to the end of our agility season in the UK at the moment, so we like to recommend that dogs are given a bit of a check-over muscularly, because all of these different dog sports have their own set of compensatory issues that dogs will get.

It means that we give the dogs a bit of a chance to have a rest during their off-season, and that we can try and help to treat any muscular issues that may have arisen during the competitive season.

What I also do as well is I like to try and teach people to warm up and cool down their dogs before they take part in any activity. We wouldn't run a marathon without warming ourselves up first.

Samantha: Of course, right.

Jacqueline: We wouldn't perform a gymnastics competition without warming our muscles up. And it's exactly the same for the dogs. Doing any activity with cold muscles and cold tendons and ligaments can only potentially lead to injuries.

Not only that, we find that if you are warming your dog up via a massage, you tend to increase the bond between the owner and the dog as well. So that's sort of another plus point that massage can give you. You are sort of really releasing all of the bonding chemicals as well when you massage.

That's what I like to try and instill in people if I can, and if I know that they are competing with their dogs as well.

Samantha: Yes, that's a great bit of advice. I know a lot of people, even if they don't compete professionally, they do maybe some agility or obedience things in their own yard just to burn some energy with their dogs. So that's a great point.

Jacqueline: I've been along to a couple of search and rescue clubs, showing them the same sort of thing.

Samantha: Oh, yes.

Jacqueline: — because these guys are left in the cars or left in the trucks waiting to get to the place where they need to find the missing person. And then the dogs could be actually working for a couple of hours while they're on a job. And it's usually kind of at night when people sometimes could go missing. So, it's cold and all of that.

Because our dogs want to do anything they can for us, because they love us unconditionally, they will do anything. And they don't realize what they're putting their bodies through because they just want to help us and all of that.

So it's sort of up to us really to take responsibility as owners to help them. Not to go crazy or to help them to regulate themselves a bit. And you can do that through these therapies.

Samantha: Yes. Absolutely. Like I said, I think it's great advice for every pet owner, because you never know. It's not just something… I think a lot of people think of massage like you said — it's either a luxury or it's something for older, arthritic dogs. They don't really think of it as a lifelong preventative kind of treatment.

Jacqueline: Yes. That's right. That's right.

And even if you aren't a trained massage therapist, there are plenty of books that you can buy. There are lots of YouTube videos that you can find out about all of these things as well. You could even ask your own human massage therapists how they do things and then that could be transferred over to dogs as well.

I run — in fact I'm running one this weekend — I'm running a class to show owners how to massage their own dogs. So that they can at least help their dogs at home and do something really nice for them.

Samantha: Yes. Absolutely. I'm sure you must just give a basic overall general massage kind of a class. Yes.

Jacqueline: That's right. and I also go through just to tell the owners a little bit about what lies under the dog's skin. So where all the main bones are and where the main muscle groups are and how certain body systems work as well. Because we don't realize it but massage has an influence over nearly all of the systems of the systems of the body.

So there's a bit of theory and a bit of practical, so I think people go home armed with more information and hopefully with calm and stressless pooches as well.

Samantha: Yes. Yes. Absolutely.

Jacqueline: The other thing as well is, just to say that, with the dogs that I've treated — I've been treating a 16 year old Jack Russell, and he's just amazing. He has sort of turned into a bit of a puppy again really.

My massage treatments are the only treatments, hands-on therapy that the dog's owner gives to the dog. She does do exercises with him and they have got really great nutrition and all of that. But she has really seen a change in his mentality as well as his physical craziness.

It's quite a lot of the owners — what I ask the owners to do is, have and look and see if your dog has changed some of their behaviors after a massage. And it's quite interesting how they start to become naughty again, so they will try to grab food from the counter tops in the kitchen, or they'll be jumping into the cars and things like that and actually wanting to get more involved in playing with other dogs and that sort of thing.

So it's really joyous to see that. So I encourage everyone to try and find a good local massage therapist and see how you get on.

Samantha: Yes. Absolutely. I mean like we talked about earlier — really it's not specifically for any type of dogs. I know you mentioned that there are a few conditions where you shouldn't massage, but for the most part virtually every dog could benefit from it. Young, old, doesn't matter the breed, the size, so yes, absolutely I would encourage everybody to try it as well. Like I said, we've learned from first hand experience the benefits that it can have especially over long term.

If you have a dog that doesn't have a specific health concern, like arthritis, or they're recovering from an injury — how frequently do you recommend regular massages for just a typical, average dog?

Jacqueline: You would probably only really need to have a look at the dog maybe 4 or 5 times a year, probably, just to see if anything shows up.

Ask the owner if they've noticed that the dog's doing anything differently. If there have been any behavior changes, and that sort of thing.

Samantha: Every couple of months or so, yeah.

Jacqueline: Probably, yeah.

When we're massaging the dogs, we would feel for areas of heat or cold or we would have a look to see how supple the skin is, for example.

So when you can highlight those sort of areas — what I was saying before about although a dog may not have had a serious injury or accident, they might have fallen over or walked into a table or something. What that will do is you will get some bleeding underneath the skin which then may form into scar tissue which then might have an effect on the muscle working. And then, over the course of time, the older the scar tissue gets, the harder it is to break it down or make it more supple. Therefore, it's useful to have some sort of maintenance four or five times a year, to just attend to these things.

I guess it's a bit like having a pedicure or something [laughter] every so often. Or go along when you a massage yourself. As I say, even once a week would be fantastic. I wish I had a massage once a week myself.

Samantha: [laughs] Absolutely.

WRAP UP: So I just have to say another big thank you to Jacqueline for being on the podcast. Pet massage is something that really is undervalued in the pet industry. It's something that pet parents aren't really educated about. We don't know a lot about. But it's something that's so beneficial and can be great for dogs of all ages, shapes, sizes, activity levels.

And it's natural, it's holistic. You're not giving any kind of medications, chemicals, anything like that into your dog's system and you're really getting down to the root of the issue: the soreness –if your dog has sore muscles or is recovering from an injury — you're getting down to the muscles to warm them up if you're using it for an active dog, something like that. So you're actually getting down to the root of the problem and not just trying to fix an issue after it happens. So that's really my biggest positive thing that I love about massage for our pets.

If you guys have any questions about pet massage, or anything that I can answer, anything that you'd like me to pass along to Jacqueline, please feel free to email me. You can get on our website, which is theoryofpets.com, and leave any comments, questions, concerns, anything like that.

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Samantha’s biggest passion in life is spending time with her Boxer dogs. After she rescued her first Boxer in 2004, Samantha fell in love with the breed and has continued to rescue three other Boxers since then. She enjoys hiking and swimming with her Boxers, Maddie and Chloe.