Canine Massage- Speaking with Caragh Reilly, founder of Wellness & Wags
Q & A with Wellness & Wags
in-home canine massage boost flex heal soothe
What exactly is a NCCMT Canine Massage Therapist?
A NCCMT is a nationally certified canine massage therapist. Canine massage is a therapeutic modality that is still gaining traction, and unfortunately there is currently no standardized licensing or certification process. You can become a CCMT, or certified canine massage therapist, by completing various training programs throughout the country or online.
The National Board of Certification for Animal Acupressure and Massage Therapy (NBCAAM) was founded in 2008 with the purpose of establishing professional standards in the fields of animal acupressure and massage. National certification is achieved by passing their exam. To be eligible to sit for the national exam, you must demonstrate that you have completed a rigorous amount of coursework, have received supervised hands-on training, and have a deep understanding of anatomy & physiology, kinesiology, canine behavior and appropriate handling techniques.
If you are seeking a reputable massage therapist for your pet, asking if the therapist is nationally certified or in the process of seeking national certification is a great way to ensure they have had rigorous training and are equipped to provide the best level care.
Jade from Alive Rescue
Canine massage is a therapeutic modality that involves the manipulation of all forms of soft tissue in the dog’s body to promote physical and emotional healing. Massage can impact every system of the body, so the benefits are extensive. Physically, massage reduces tension in muscles and connective tissues, helping to improve flexibility and range of motion. It increases circulation and helps flush toxins to aid in boosting immune function. Massage can also reduce pain and swelling, and speed recovery from injury or surgery. Emotionally, massage is very effective in reducing stress and anxiety and helps put the body into a state of relaxation.
How much do you have to educate your clients that you are not providing spa treatments for pampered pets?
It’s a common perception that massage is more about pampering than about healing. And it’s understandable! As humans, we typically associate massage with a spa day versus something we seek out to help with a physical or emotional issue. Education on this point is definitely an important part of my job.
Our dogs naturally develop tensions, imbalances, and inflammation on a daily basis. It can be caused by simply their build – think, for example, about the tension that builds up on the spine of a long-backed dog like a dachshund or basset hound that only has short little legs to support it! Imbalances and tension can also be brought about by chronic illness or allergies, daily pressure from collars, leashes, and harnesses, an especially active day without much recovery time, obesity, and even anxiety and fear.
Over time, your dog will adapt to these tensions and imbalances, but that is not the same as healing. And that is where massage can play a key role. By helping to alleviate some of those minor pressures and tensions early on, massage can help restore balance, put the body into a state of healing, and help prevent further injury down the road. That is so much more than simply pampering!
What kinds of problems do you address?
Massage can be beneficial to dogs of all ages and sizes, regardless of health status. Mobility issues brought on by degenerative diseases like arthritis, congenital disorders like hip dysplasia, or injuries like CCL tears, are some of the most common problems I see.
But massage can also relieve growing pains in puppies, aid with physical recovery in active and working dogs, and provide comfort for anxious and fearful dogs. Certain techniques can reduce swelling and speed healing following injury and surgery.
A personal passion of mine is working with dogs with cancer. It is important that caution be taken when working with these dogs, but massage can provide comfort and relief from the effects of cancer and its associated treatments. Just be sure you are working with a therapist with an understanding of the type of cancer your dog has and appropriate techniques to apply based on that diagnosis.
While it’s common for a pet parent to add massage to a wellness regimen after a health or mobility issue has emerged, don’t forget to consider how massage can play an important role in preventative wellness as well.
What are some of the approaches you use?
I’ve been trained in a wide variety of massage techniques and tailor each session to the needs of the individual dog. Some of the techniques I utilize are sports massage, trigger point therapy, myofascial work, lymphatic techniques, and palliative and hospice care.
You describe yourself as qualified Fear Free. What does that mean?
FearFreeSM is a training program for veterinary and pet professionals with the mission of preventing and alleviating fear, anxiety and stress in pets. I believe that all interactions with your dog should be low stress and a positive experience, and I will never use forceful restraint or techniques during a session.
You talk about Touch with Intent – what is that?
Massage is touch with intent; it can be as simple as just laying of hands, or the application of touch with various movement and pressure to warm, move, and stretch soft tissue.
Define touch experiences. What’s the difference between touch experiences and massage?
As a massage therapist I always aim for touch interactions to be positive. That means listening to the dog, and responding to their body language cues. It’s not uncommon for dogs to get up and take a break during sessions. Some may take a few sessions to get fully comfortable.
I understand it may be frustrating for a pet parent, who wants their dog to get a full body massage on the first session, to see their dog want to grab a toy, take a break, or be a little wary about the whole massage thing. But remember that this is new! Even dogs very receptive to petting and touch might need time to acclimate. The therapist is a new person they are getting to know, and their touch may feel a little different than the typical ear scratch or belly rub.
Even if the therapist can only massage your dog for a few minutes at a time in the beginning, your dog is still receiving benefits. And they are learning that touch from other people is a positive experience, which in itself is invaluable.
What is cancer massage? How can you measure improvement?
Oncology massage is a specialized therapeutic modality focused on working with pets with cancer. It’s a misconception that massage spreads cancer; there is no evidence that massage spreads cancer cells or causes metastasis. However, it is key that caution be taken and that you work with a therapist with an understanding of oncology massage.
Massage can benefit pets with cancer by minimizing the effects of both the cancer and its associated treatment. It can reduce pain, alleviate nausea and fatigue, and reduce depression and anxiety.
Measuring improvement is typically anecdotal. During an oncology massage, I look to provide a level of relief from symptoms and encourage a state of rest and healing. A session can provide welcome enrichment for the dog, and many pet parents take comfort in seeing their dog positively respond both physically and emotionally.
What does the evaluation process look like?
During an introductory session, I gather a full medical and behavioral history of your dog. I will also perform a gait analysis which is essentially an observation of how your dog moves; I’ll look for range of motion in the joints, how your dog carries their head, spine, and tail, and how they place their paws.
For some dogs, trust building will be an important part of the first session. I want the dog to be comfortable entering my personal space and with my touch. I will likely ask the pet parent to join us on the floor, and may utilize treats or toys to make getting to know me a fun and positive experience.
Once I initiate massage work, palpation is the first step. Palpation is the use of touch to assess the condition of the dog’s body, and it ultimately guides how I proceed with the massage session.
What’s the average number of sessions for treatment?
Every dog is an individual, and the number of massage sessions I recommend for your dog depends on a lot of factors, including the pet parent’s schedule, budget, and goals for incorporating massage into their dog’s wellness routine.
While regular sessions can optimize results, don’t shy away from integrating massage just because you can’t schedule it frequently. A lot of benefit can come from a single session and a good massage therapist will show you techniques you can do yourself between sessions.
What’s the cost and does pet insurance cover it?
The cost of a canine massage session varies based on length of session, where you live, and whether the therapist comes to your home or if you visit them at a facility. Sessions typically range 30-60 min in length and average $40-80.
Some pet insurance providers do cover massage therapy, so be sure to check with your provider.
Can pet parents do some of the massage techniques themselves?
Absolutely! I strongly encourage pet parents to do massage work on their pets between sessions, and I always set aside time at the end of sessions to teach and review techniques. I truly believe we are a team in your pet’s wellness and I want your pet to thrive, regardless of how many sessions we have together.
How do I find a reputable canine massage therapist? What qualifications do I look for?
As I mentioned earlier, canine massage unfortunately does not have a standardized licensure or certification process. Don’t be shy in asking about the level of training a canine massage therapist has received. How many hours of training did they undergo? Did it include supervised hands-on training? Are they nationally certified, or pursing national certification? Did they have any training in canine behavior, including stress signals and low-stress handling techniques?
I always recommend seeking out a therapist that has had training that included supervised hands-on work, a significant review of canine anatomy, physiology and kinesiology, and training in canine behavior and handling.
How do you differentiate yourself from other canine massage therapists?
I’m proud to call many fellow canine massage therapists my friends and colleagues. It is a growing field and I hope together we can continue to grow awareness of the benefits of massage and make it more commonplace in the care of our pets.
Personally, I feel it’s important to provide at-home services. Bringing a dog to a facility can be stressful and may minimize the effectiveness of session. I’m happy to bring my massage services to your home, where I feel your dog will be most relaxed and comfortable.
I also feel my passion for working with dogs with cancer is unique. Cancer diagnoses have become far too common in dogs, and I think massage can play an important role in providing comfort and relief, not only from the cancer itself, but also its treatments. Because it’s important to proceed with caution when working with dogs with cancer, I’ve undergone additional training to appropriately care for these dogs.
You have a lot of credentials. How long have you been doing this?
I decided to leave the corporate world in 2016 and follow my passion for dogs and pet wellness. I’m so grateful for the mentorship of the instructors of Canis Bodyworks (formerly Chicago School of Canine Massage), inspiring me to start my own business. I started wellness & wags in early 2018, and have big goals for this year!
Can you give me some examples of success stories?
Mia…one of my favorite cases! I started working with her when I was still a student, and at that time, she was antsy and unsure about the whole massage thing. During our sessions she would often get up and walk around. Still, even with short bursts of massage, her pet parents saw effects and an improvement in her mobility.
I’m so grateful that her mom & dad trusted the process and continued to have me back after I finished my training and started my business. Around session 7, Mia had a breakthrough. She fully relaxed, let me do my work, and may have let out a snore or two. It could not have been more fulfilling; some dogs just need a little extra time to understand what massage sessions are all about. I continue to work with Mia today and love how she goes and plops down on her bed, ready to get started, when I arrive.
This is a relatively new field. How do veterinarians feel about it?
I’m grateful to live in Chicago, a city where massage is being accepted by more and more veterinarians as a valuable component of a total wellness approach. Unfortunately, that’s not universal and the acceptance of massage therapy for pets by veterinarians is mixed. It’s important to know that in some states, only veterinary professionals are allowed to practice massage.
My colleagues and I continue to work with the veterinarians of our clients to promote the value of canine massage.
Alternative medicine is gaining popularity. What do you think about CBD oil for pets?
Due to IL veterinary practice laws, I am unfortunately unable to discuss CBD and its benefits. But I heartily encourage pet parents to explore all options for bettering your pet’s health and wellness.
Your job is intense, what do you do to relieve your stress at the end of the day?
People often feel that working with dogs is a relaxing profession. Sometimes it is, but sometimes, it’s challenging. We care deeply about our clients and deal with loss often.
In my free time, I love to volunteer at a local animal shelter. Giving back to animals in need is special. And I always carve out time for long walks with my own dog; after all, he’s the guy that inspired me to pursue a dog-focused career.