When Cindy Boucher tells her dog that it’s time for her massage, Maggie’s ears perk up. And when they get to her therapist’s house, Maggie feigns an extreme limp as if to justify the treatment, which her owner says leaves her "in a super-good mood."
Every two weeks, Maggie visits Daynna Major, an animal massage practitioner, for a 45-minute session that costs $45. Ms. Boucher says regular massage helps keep Maggie, a Samoyed who turns 10 next month, limber and better able to help with her dog-walking business.
"It’s money well spent," said Ms. Boucher, who lives in Port Moody, B.C.
"Maggie’s such a valued member of the family . . . I want her as comfortable and healthy as possible."
Animal massage is on the rise as pet owners provide the best of everything for their furry friends — services that can range from raw-food diets and aerobics classes to chiropractors and aromatherapy. As baby boomers look to fill their empty nests, pets are the focus of big spending.
"We like to feel as though we’re taking care of things that we care about and if we can do it by spending a little bit of money, it makes us feel as though we’re expressing our love and it makes us feel good," said Stanley Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and the author of several books on dog behaviour.
While there are no data on the growth in animal massage, practitioners report longer client lists because of higher pet ownership, an increase in animal competitions and longer life spans due to advances in veterinary medicine. While most people seek massage for their pets’ health problems and to stall the effects of aging, some also treat the family dog or cat to a birthday massage.
"There’s been a tremendous amount of growth and I think it’s because people are more educated about the benefits of massage. People are using massage more themselves, so then it’s a natural fit for their animals," said Lola Michelin, founder and director of the Northwest School of Animal Massage, which is based in Fall City, Wash., and offers courses in Vancouver.
Those who teach animal massage — which first became popular in the horse industry — also note growing enrolment in their classes. Sigle Skeries, who teaches canine and equine massage in St. Norbert, N.B., has a one-year waiting list for Treetops, her school, which she says is the only Canadian facility that teaches people to massage dogs and one of four that skills students in the art of horse massage.
Most of the 250 people who have taken Ms. Skeries’s $1,200 course since 2000 are veterinary technicians, horse trainers and dog breeders. After studying anatomy and physiology — either in class or through distance-learning — students must do four massages on 10 different animals, for which they usually volunteer their services. They finish the course with a written exam and a hands-on massage in front of Ms. Skeries.
"The feedback from the veterinarians or from the staff at the humane societies where people are volunteering is this is great because they now realize that this isn’t hocus-pocus, that these students are having to know a considerable amount of knowledge," she said.
Massage increases circulation, flexibility, range of motion, digestion and, for injured animals, helps the healing process, said Jonathan Rudinger, president of the International Association of Animal Massage & Bodywork, which says it has 400 members. For pets that do not get out enough because of cold weather or poor health, massage can be "a partial substitute for exercise," he said.
"The value of massage for animals is becoming more and more understood," said Mr. Rudinger, who teaches canine massage in Toledo, Ohio, and also runs a doggie health club, complete with an indoor swimming pool, treadmills and trampolines.
But some experts are unconvinced that animals benefit from massage, which, for four-legged creatures, is unregulated in Canada. Roberto Poma, a veterinary neurologist and professor at the University of Guelph, said dogs do not suffer the same types of muscle injuries as humans.
"Until there will be a clinical trial and scientific proved studies, I’m a little bit skeptical about it," he said.
Dr. Coren also noted the need for data. While he said stroking a pet can increase the bond between animal and human, pet owners benefit more by doing it themselves and can use techniques such as those developed by Linda Tellington-Jones, who has written several books.
Animal massage practitioners occasionally encounter strange looks and comments such as: "Well, I don’t get a massage myself, why would I massage my dog?" said Ms. Major, who opened her business almost two years ago after a "midlife crisis."
Many in the field also provide other treatments with a distinct New Age feel. Ms. Skeries offers a one-day workshop on herbal and aromatherapy remedies for dogs and horses. (To reduce canine flatulence, she recommends mixing caraway seeds into dog food.) Ms. Major does "energy work," including therapeutic touch and energized cotton, which involves infusing "energy into material" to aid with self-healing.
They argue that massage, as well as other treatments, can work wonders on animals. Ms. Major, who has also massaged rabbits and even a guinea pig, cites the example of a Bernese Mountain dog whose owners described it as a "genetic disaster." She had arthritis, hip dysplasia, ligament problems and trouble with stairs. But after her second massage, Ms. Major said she bounded up a few stairs.
"Her guardian’s eyes just about popped out of her head. She said, ‘Oh my gosh. Did you see what my dog just did?’ " said Ms. Major, who plays relaxing music while massaging animals in her home studio and has never been bitten.
And before Ms. Boucher started taking her dog for massages in June, Maggie’s legs got stiff and she needed a day to recover after helping her master walk her canine charges. Now, however, Maggie, who also takes glucosamine supplements and eats a raw-food diet, comes with Ms. Boucher five days a week to calm the other dogs and avert confrontations with strays. Of the 20 or so dogs Ms. Boucher walks, three get massages and one sees a chiropractor.
"You have to decide if this is what you want for your pet, if you want a really good life and for them to be as comfortable as possible."