The New Partner in Healthcare: Massage Therapy in the Veterinary Setting

Now more than ever, the wide range of integrative modalities is beginning to make significant contributions to veterinary healthcare. These techniques can be combined with conventional approaches to offer noninvasive strategies, such as massage therapy, to facilitate the return of function and mobility, and to aid in the process of healing.

The integration of complementary modalities into a practice is limited only by your imagination and your resources.

by Shelley Sheets, CAMT

The acceptance and use of complementary and integrative therapies have been expanding in veterinary medicine over the past decade. The impetus for this comes partly from consumer demands and partly from the veterinarians who recognize and understand the value of offering these services to their clients.

Now more than ever, the wide range of integrative modalities is beginning to make significant contributions to veterinary healthcare. These techniques can be combined with conventional approaches to offer noninvasive strategies, such as massage therapy, to facilitate the return of function and mobility and to aid in the process of healing.

Continued use of massage therapy in veterinary practices and rehabilitation facilities has created evidence-based proof of its advantages. Additionally, massage is beneficial for relaxation, increased oxygenation of the blood, improved flexibility, spasm relief, and decreased muscle tension, soreness, and weakness.

Paradigm Shift

Dennis Thomas, DVM, in his book Whole-Pet Healing (2015, 4), says, “By opening our minds and expanding our approach we can shift our beliefs to encompass the possibilities other modalities of healing offer. This doesn’t mean we ‘throw out the baby with the bathwater’ and forsake our traditional medical system. Instead, we gratefully accept the methodologies we were raised with, acknowledging the many benefits they have brought us. Yet we also become aware of the limitations of this system and open ourselves up to alternative or complementary healing methods. Then, as these new methods prove effective, our beliefs become knowledge, and we share our experiences with others and create new opportunities for them as well.”

The medical paradigm has shifted. Just as the general public is looking to complementary healing modalities in human medical healthcare, , so too has this happened in the veterinary world. It is no longer uncommon for arthritic patients to be undergoing a rich stew of treatments, including acupuncture, laser, and underwater treadmill therapy along with therapeutic massage to bring them relief from painful symptoms.

As reported in the AAHA Press book Canine Medical Massage (Robinson and Sheets 2015, ix), “According to a survey conducted by the Veterinary Information Network and Pet Care Forum, more than 40% of pet owners—or caregivers—surveyed said they would use CAM [complementary and alternative medicine] therapies for their pets. Another survey, conducted in 1999 by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), showed that 31% of pet owners already used some form of complementary medicine for their pets, compared with only 6% in 1996. More recently, a 2004–2005 survey of caregivers whose dog or cat had cancer showed that up to 76% questioned indicated that they used some form of CAVM [complementary and alternative veterinary medicine].”

Mounting scientific evidence suggests that massage therapy is beneficial for the health and mobility of the animal, but it’s also worth considering what else massage can offer in terms of support for the client. It’s comforting for the human—who cannot be present for more invasive treatments—to be with their pet during a massage. As the animal is being comforted by the skilled hands of a professionally trained massage therapist, they melt into the soothing touch and relax with the skilled strokes and calm voice of the therapist.

In 2017, a longtime client of mine received the devastating news that her precious canine companion had cancer. The lump on his leg was an osteosarcoma, and further lab tests showed that it had most likely metastasized.

At that moment and going forward, life changed dramatically for this client. The thought of losing her precious companion was unbearable. Ordinary things did not look the same now as they had just a few short days ago. With the rest of us complaining about cold weather or the cost of gas, my client was being called on to make difficult, expensive choices for her most beloved friend. This was a woman who had lived alone with her dog as her sole companion for more than 12 years. She was retired and living on a fixed income with no other means of support. She couldn’t afford the expense of chemotherapy and was considering euthanasia.

Mounting scientific evidence suggests that massage therapy is beneficial for the health and mobility of the animal, but it’s also worth considering what else massage can offer in terms of support for the client.

However, she wanted to postpone this procedure as long as possible with pain management and other palliative care. Her veterinarian recommended massage therapy in partnership with the dog’s other treatments. Since I had previously worked with the dog for osteoarthritis in her hips, my client called on me to do massage. I came to the house for 30 minutes, working on compensatory muscles and doing specific soothing and relaxing techniques. I typically work silently so I can stay connected with the dog, but in this case, my client and I would sometimes chat. She told me wonderful stories about first adopting her dog and some of the adventures they had shared. Sometimes she would cry and sometimes we would both laugh at the antics of this lovely companion. When the time came, I was able to support the client further by providing her with a list of options for services like in-home euthanasia, pet cemeteries, and ways to help with grief, as well as by dispersing several of the helpful pamphlets produced by AAHA about euthanasia and aftercare. We discussed things like spending quality time with her dog now, and what she wanted to do with her dog’s remains after euthanasia. I called to check up on my client two weeks after her loss and we went for coffee. All things considered, she was doing pretty well and was permitting herself to process her sadness healthily.

Understandably, most veterinarians cannot spend this kind of time with their clients. This isn’t because they don’t care. On the contrary, I believe it’s very difficult for veterinarians to see their clients suffering, but their workloads and expertise lie in other areas. I had a conversation with a local veterinarian who said that after being trained in massage therapy she was convinced of its value and importance, but it didn’t make sense, both financially and because of her workload, to do massage herself. Because she understood the benefits of complementary therapies, she felt comfortable referring clients to professionally trained animal massage therapists.

Additional Benefits

There are a variety of reasons that a veterinarian or pet owner might seek massage therapy besides musculoskeletal issues. One of the proven benefits of massage work is its effect on the parasympathetic nervous system. Thus, its benefits can be seen in working on patients postsurgically, those experiencing trauma or any kind of related stress. According to Canine Medical Massage (Robinson and Sheets 2015, 41), “Sympathetic overdrive predisposes the organism to a system-wide state of inflammation. A sustained state of arousal coaxes cardiovascular, digestive, urinary, immunologic, and musculoskeletal systems into decline, disrepair, or impaired host defense against infection and cancer.” Thus, measures that influence autonomic tone through neuromodulation can support restorative processes, potentially forestalling chronic decline.

Putting It into Practice

So how does one go about merging massage therapy or other complementary and alternative medicine modalities with a veterinary practice? Many veterinary hospitals don’t have a space that lends itself to complementary practices. It may prove preferable to delegate care to a therapist who maintains a separate treatment space off-premises. In Denver and other big cities, there are a variety of rehabilitation facilities with collaborative care teams.

Opening oneself to the good that holistic medicine offers is the first step toward a whole new, more inclusive way of caring for our animal companions.

Such teams offer everything from underwater treadmill to cold-laser, electro-stimulation, massage, acupuncture, chiropractic, and many other complementary services. There is an advantage to this model for both the client and the business. An animal can have a full evaluation with a comprehensive treatment plan that includes any or all of these services under one roof. The therapists and veterinarians can work as a true team, referring services back and forth as the patient progresses and different services are needed. There is easy access to patient notes and treatment plans, making it easy for new team members to come on board with knowledge of the client’s history and treatment plan.

Another choice, and the most convenient of all, is to secure the services of a variety of practitioners who have been screened and interviewed and who perform services at their own locations. This model can be as simple as providing cards and brochures in the office and referring clients as needed. This symbiotic approach has a benefit for the veterinary practice because it provides desired services to clients without needing additional office space. Therapists are considered private contractors, as they provide their own insurance, equipment, and workspace. They benefit from referrals, while the veterinary practice benefits from their services. Patient notes and other relevant information can be shared back and forth via email or regularly scheduled meetings, allowing the overseeing veterinarian to continue managing patient care and documentation.

The integration of complementary modalities into a practice is limited only by your imagination and your resources.

Opening oneself to the good that holistic medicine offers is the first step toward a whole new, more inclusive way of caring for our animal companions. This year is a great time to consider new goals for growing your practice in a positive direction by embracing the addition of massage therapy and other complementary modalities.

References

Robinson, Narda G., and Shelley Sheets. 2015. Canine Medical Massage: Techniques and Clinical Applications. Lakewood, CO: AAHA Press.

Thomas, Dennis W. 2015. Whole-Pet Healing: A Heart-to-Heart Guide to Connecting with and Caring for Your Animal Companion. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House.

Shelley Sheets, CAMT, lives in Golden, Colorado, where she has practiced massage therapy for more than 30 years. She took her first canine massage class with Narda Robinson, DO, DVM, MS, FAAMA, in 2009 and became certified in both equine and canine massage that same year. She has been teaching and writing teaching materials since that time. She currently has a mobile massage business called Canine Massage Denver. Sheets coauthored the book Canine Medical Massage: Techniques and Clinical Applications  (AAHA Press, 2015) with Robinson.

Photo credits: ©AAHA/Robin Taylor

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