How to Massage a Dog: A Way to Help Both You and Your Pup Relax

Lisa Ruthig, chair of the National Board of Certification For Animal Acupressure and Massage, walks us through the basics.

woman giving body massage to a dog
Photo: Rasulovs / Getty

We all want ways to make our pups feel more calm and pain free, so it's about time we learn how to massage a dog—in some cases an at-home massage that can also help us humans relax.

Now, you should consult with your veterinarian before you dive in, but Lisa Ruthig, the chair of the National Board of Certification For Animal Acupressure and Massage and owner of Lively Animal Massage, tells Daily Paws that most people can offer basic dog massages at home.

If you're doing it right, your dog's heart rate and blood pressure will decrease and the stress will seep from the "feedback loop" you share with your pup.

"You can be calm and help them be calm," Ruthig says.

Do Dogs Like Massages?

This is a case where the dog version of something is actually pretty similar to the human version. Us people get massages for relaxation, pain relief, and rehabilitation. So do dogs.

"Dogs typically like it, especially the relaxation massages," Ruthig says.

So yes, if you have your heart set on giving your dog regular massages at home, your dog will likely be open to it, especially because it can help you both relax. Though every individual dog is different, so see how your dog feels and if they're showing signs of stress, massage just might not be something they enjoy. (And that's perfectly fine!)

Before you start, you need to determine why you're doing it and how to massage your dog safely.

Types of Dog Massages

So why are you wanting to massage your dog? Here are the most common reasons pet parents choose to do so, according to Ruthig:

Now before you jump in, you should consult with your veterinarian, Ruthig says. This is especially true if your dog is suffering from pain or soreness in a specific part of her body. Your vet might have another treatment in mind or even be able to teach you the best way to massage your pup.

"We're not a substitute for veterinary care, and I won't even touch an animal if they have a medical condition and haven't been to see a vet yet because I don't want to delay necessary care," Ruthig says.

Professional pet massage isn't legal everywhere, she adds, but feel free to enlist a massage professional if you can. Then you won't have to worry about doing something incorrectly that could potentially hurt your pup.

But once you have the OK from your vet to get started with a basic relaxation massage—which can also relieve pain!—here's what you can do.

How to Massage Your Dog Safely

Let's first indoctrinate you to Ruthig's motto: "Don't press on anything weird." That's true for a mass, bones, or anything that's a surprise when you run your hand over it. No prodding, poking, or pressing!

Also: Keep a close eye on your dog while you're working on her, seeing if she's showing any signs of pain or stress. A dog licking her lips or yawning is a low-level sign of stress, Ruthig says. The sign to stop whatever you are doing immediately is your dog whipping her head around to look right at you. If you see any of those signs, go back to doing what your dog enjoys.

OK, with those disclaimers out of the way, here are Ruthig's most basic tips for an at-home relation massage:

  • Have treats on hand in case you need to bribe your dog to stay still. Also have your favorite snacks nearby because you deserve some treats, too. (That's just an everyday tip from yours truly.)
  • Put moderate pressure—not a hard press, not a superficial touch—on your dog with your hand.
  • Then slide your hand along your dog's body, head, or ears. Do it slowly—"so slow that it feels a little bit silly that you're going this slow," Ruthig says.
  • If your dog is experiencing pain in a specific area, avoid it. Massaging around it will still make her feel better.
  • Do that for about 15 minutes.
  • There are specific movements and pressures for your dog's ears, head, and legs, but you should do your research and consult your vet before trying those.

"If your dog's in pain, they're going to be in less pain. If your dog's nervous, they're going to be less nervous," Ruthig says.

Plus, during the massage you and your dog will both release oxytocin, "the love hormone," which will put both of you in a better, relaxed mood, Ruthig says. It's why giving your dog a relaxation massage might be a good idea for us humans whenever we're in a stressed or anxious mood.

If you're wanting to help your dog with anxiety, it's good to practice the massage a few times before your dog is in an anxious situation so she gets used to what's happening. And if your pup doesn't appear to be enjoying the massage, it's best to stop right away and find another activity that you both enjoy together instead.

For a more in-depth explanation of a relaxation massage, watch Ruthig's tutorial here. Then consult with your veterinarian.

Does Massaging Your Dog Help With Certain Health Conditions?

Most commonly, the dogs under Ruthig's care ares seeking treatment for hip dysplasia; elbow dysplasia; arthritis; neurological conditions like intervertebral disc disease; constipation; and rehabilitation from injuries like a torn cranial cruciate ligament.

Of those, Ruthig is mainly tasked with dogs who have chronic conditions, like the many older dogs who suffer from arthritis. However, she reminds us that a dog's older years don't have to be mired in painful movement. That's where massage can help.

"Using simple things like massage, you can help them age gracefully," she says.

What Does a Dog Massage Cost?

That can vary wildly, but Ruthig says it usually falls somewhere between $40 and $100 per hour. The price might also depend on how long it takes for your dog to get settled down into a massageable position and mood.

But again, you'll want to make sure pet massage is legal in your state, so you should begin by consulting with your vet, who might be able to refer you to a professional or offer some massage tips themselves.

But remember: Go slow, and make sure your pup is enjoying the experience.

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