You scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours.
Well, one out of two.
On the face of it, pet massage doesn't seem like a very reciprocal arrangement. After all, you the human are doing all the work, in return for a lazily arched back or a harrumphy grunt.
But what you're really getting is a special bond that grows stronger with every stroke.
Massages, as all of us who don't get enough of them know, have wonderful therapeutic value. No matter what your species, stretching ligaments and kneading muscles dissipates tension, invigorates circulation and flushes toxins. In our pets, massages improve sociability, as animals associate being handled with positive feelings and learn to trust that vulnerability can bring pleasure.
Learning the basics
Christine Zink, a Maryland-based veterinarian who specializes in sports and performance injuries in dogs, advises pet owners to dedicate a special blanket or mat especially for massage time. "Pretty soon," she says, "your dog will go to that blanket and ask you for a massage."
What's the difference between a prolonged scrunch behind the ears and an actual massage? Plenty, says Maryjean Ballner, author of "Cat Massage" and "Dog Massage" (St. Martin's Griffin, $11.95 each) and producer of the video "Your Cat Wants a Massage!" (All three are available from www.catanddogmassage.com.)
If you get beyond the occasional groaner of a pun and the stilted video delivery, Ballner a New York state-licensed massage therapist who has adapted Swedish massage techniques for pets has a lot of detailed information to impart. She identifies a dozen human hand parts, from the thenar eminence (the fleshy pad below your thumb) to "knuckle nooks," that can be used in specific massage techniques, from shoulder thumbing to two-finger spine slides.
In addition, there are six hand positions and motions, as well as four pressures and speeds to take into consideration.
While a little hokey, Ballner's books and video do a good job of explaining the basics of canine and feline anatomy without plunging readers too deeply into the technicalities. They certainly engaged me longer than other pet-massage books, which were so loaded with dissertations on Latissimus dorsi and caudal vertebrae that they're still lying, unread, on my bedstand.
It's almost enough to make up for occasional silliness, such as Ballner's sample "doggie dialogue": "You're my Rex, you're the best, In the north, south, east or west ..." If Rex doesn't head for the hills at that one, he needs more than a massage.
Looking for approval
What that well-intentioned ditty does illustrate is that there can be no massage indeed, no really meaningful interaction between us and our pets without a pre-existing relationship. How well you massage your pet, and how readily he accepts it, relates directly to how in tune you are to your pet's body language and preferences.
Start out slow and soft, and look for unspoken signs of approval or disapproval. If your pet is purring, yawning, blinking, drooling, licking or snoring, she's telling you she's relaxed, and you're doing something right.
But moving away, hissing, scratching or biting are all signals that the "Hand Over Hand and Down We Go: A Two-Handed Double Delight" move from Page 76 is not going over as well as planned.
And those bumps in the road are a natural part of this whole massage business. Some pets are suspicious or confused about the process, and need time to understand you're not trying to kill them. Others have sensitive spots and preferences: My dogs happily accept massages on the couch, but the floor is just, well, beneath them.
And once you've mastered massage, maybe it's time for chiropractic. With that in mind, the newest occupant on my already overburdened bedstand is "The Well Adjusted Dog" by Dr. Daniel Kamen (Brookline Books, $16.95). Hey, everybody says having a pet requires an adjustment.