The benefits of canine massage therapy

June 30th, 2015
Healing Hands

We all know what relief a good back massage can give us, but did you know that our dogs could experience that same healing power too? Kristie Bradfield takes a look at a form of canine massage therapy that’s working wonders for our furry friends.

Daisy the five-year-old Border Collie loved to run. Whether it was down at the beach chasing seagulls or tearing around her backyard, Daisy lived her life in constant motion. But one winter’s day in 2013, her playtime was cut short. A few laps around the backyard resulted in Daisy injuring herself so badly that she lost all voluntary movement in her hind legs.

An X-ray revealed that Daisy had a suspected compression of the thoracic vertebrae T12-T13. A myelogram was performed and, after that, surgery. It was in post-op that the vet team found that Daisy had no leg or foot sensations and it was at this point that her family was counselled on the likelihood that Daisy might not walk again.

After months of dedicated care and treatment including acupuncture, hydrotherapy, assistance wheels and a life jacket for beach swimming, Daisy found herself in the hands of Griselda Nelson, a canine myofunctional therapist. Could something as simple as massage therapy bring Daisy back to life?

What is canine myofunctional therapy?

Canine myofunctional therapy (CMT) is a form of remedial muscle therapy in which a qualified therapist performs a sequence of massages and stretches on a dog. It is a non-invasive, drug-free therapy that helps to release tight muscles, improve movement quality and reduce compensation patterns by helping the right muscles do the right jobs. The benefits of the therapy are numerous and include slowing down the natural aging process, helping healthy dogs stay healthier for longer and rehabilitating injured dogs by enabling them to move better.

Apart from that, just as humans enjoy a good back massage, our canine friends do too. “The benefits of therapeutic touch on both a physical and psychological level are well documented,” says CMT practitioner Tim Norris. “If we move more and feel better, we are more likely to be happier. It’s the same for our dogs.”

Gathering history

Norris says that while CMT is an enjoyable and effective treatment for most dogs most of the time, it’s important to know when it shouldn’t be used. “There are some conditions when it is not suitable for your dog, such as fractures, acute joint swelling and some behavioural issues where it may not be safe to work on the dog,” he explains. Contraindications also include infectious skin diseases, open wounds, fever, acute trauma and spinal injury, so it’s important to be given the all-clear by a vet first.

Once the green light is given, and before healing hands touch fur, the therapist needs to glean as much medical history as possible. Karen Achurch, a CMT practitioner from Adelaide, says the interview process generally begins during the initial phone call. If the treatment is deemed suitable for the dog’s ailment, Achurch meets with the dog and owner and starts the formal interview process.

“I ask about the medical and surgical history of the dog, general lifestyle, nutrition and toileting to gather background information about the condition and its effects,” she says. “Throughout the session, I am observing the dog’s posture, gait and range of motion.” Observing the nature and behaviour of the dog is also important, as some dogs are not receptive to tactile therapies.

The session will generally consist of the therapist performing a series of linear strokes, circular motions, palpitations and stretching. Each movement is purposeful, with direction and stroke pressure being carefully controlled.

Not only does the massage feel great, it also has a powerful effect on systems within the body, which essentially “wake up” and start the process of healing themselves — and this is surprisingly taxing for the dog. “After massage, the older dogs may be a bit lethargic the following day,” explains Achurch. “The younger dogs may be more excitable, so it’s important to moderate activity so they don’t overdo it.”

A year after beginning CMT treatment, our friend Daisy the Border Collie has beaten the odds — she can walk unassisted and play ball with her family. She even visits the local hospital as a registered volunteer with the Department for Communities and Social Inclusion, where her presence brings joy, hope and inspiration to everyone she meets.

“Daisy may not have the body alignment, range and motion or fluid movement she once had,” says Nelson, “but with continued massage therapy, hydrotherapy, acupuncture, home exercises and the full support of her whole family, we may see Daisy running and doing what she loves doing more than anything — chasing birds at the beach.”

Common ailments and injures treated by CMT

Want to know the common ailments and injuries treated by CMT practitioners? Therapist Karen Achurch shares her patient breakdown.

• One-third middle to older age with arthritis. Mostly large-breed dogs.

• One-third has had surgery or injury to a limb or joint. Many of these dogs are recovering from cranial cruciate ligament (CCR) strain or tear.

• The rest are a mix of dogs following stroke, back or neck injury, palliative care, wellness support, show dogs before or after events and the occasional birthday massage treat.

• About two-thirds of Achurch’s patients are larger breeds.

A Greyhound named Rogan

Rogan the eight-year-old Greyhound was adopted by Katy Osborne from Adelaide. As an ex-racing dog, Rogan was suffering from stiffness and inflammation in the muscles around the centre of his spine. Osborne’s vet attributed Rogan’s discomfort to the long-term effects of past injuries. Rather than prescribing an anti-inflammatory (which isn’t advised for prolonged use), the vet suggested that Osborne look into massage and acupuncture as a method of treatment.

Osborne met with therapist Griselda Nelson and together they worked on a plan to get Rogan back to better health.

“After the first couple of sessions, it was clear Rogan was more mobile and keen to walk,” says Osborne. “I think CMT is beneficial as an ongoing treatment to prevent him from having more stiffness and inflammation and to keep him mobile. It’s also great for him to see Griselda — she loves him and is really passionate about her work.”

Max the special adoptee

Elizabeth Boydell has had Kelpie cross German Shepherd Max for more than 14 years. She adopted him when he was four and discovered that he had been very badly abused. As a result of this abuse, Max suffered from crippling arthritis. “In early 2013, Max contracted fox mite, too, which, over a period of a month, made him very ill indeed,” says Boydell.

After unsuccessful treatment, Boydell was at the point of giving up as Max was very uncomfortable and distressed. It was at this point that she sought CMT to ease his pain. “After the first treatment, Max slept for most of the day afterwards and the following day he was much more energetic — almost sprightly.”

Max is now 18 and he is slowing down, but Boydell credits the ongoing CMT treatments for easing his discomfort and improving his quality of life. “I understand that I may not have Max for much longer but this treatment has allowed me to keep him with me for the last few years, for which I am eternally grateful, as I am sure Max is.”

Time to stretch

Did you know that dogs need to stretch and warm up before exercise too? Canine therapist and practitioner Tim Norris from Both Ends of the Lead has prepared a great wellbeing guide that offers some advice and routines for you to use before you get active with your pooch. You can download it from the website.



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One Response to The benefits of canine massage therapy

  1. Vicki says:

    My previous German Shepherd was going down hill fast at age 11. A specialist said it was unlikely he would be able to walk and said he roughly had 3 months. A second opinion, a myelogram, then surgery for disc compression (laminectomy) was done. He walked for another couple of years. I believe regular swimming (he did laps in a special dog pool at least once a week) and weekly massage by a canine muscle therapist was vital for his recovery and maintained his strength and fitness that couldn’t be matched by walking (weight-bearing exercise).