CatLife:  Massage for Cats!

by Rebecca Sweat


From PetLife, June/July 1998




Get up on the wrong side of the bed this morning?  Rough day at the office?


There's nothing like a good massage to untie your knows, and believe it or not, a dose of the same medicine may work for your cat, too.  True, your feline friend probably isn't stressed out from deadlines, difficult bosses or the rush-hour crunch.  But she has very real worries of her own to contend with, and they can drive her to distraction.


Fact is, your cat may enjoy a rubdown as much as you do.


Okay, okay.  If you have a cat whose idea of getting close to you is batting at your ankles as you stumble to the kitchen for coffee, this method is not for your.  There are some cats, especially ones who were feral as kittens or even later, who never get comfortable with the touch of human hands.  If yours is one of these, you'll probably get the same cordial response offering a massage as you do at, say, bath time.  And chances are, two or three times a year is plenty of that kind of closeness for both of you.  So if you have to dress in protective gear from helmet and facemask to shin-guards to give Fluffy a quick dip in the tub, g ahead and turn the page.


If, however, your cat stops to grace your lab from time to time, you may find he or she quickly learns to appreciate the fine art of massage.  Just like a person does, your cat likes to be cared for and pampered.  Massage is a natural, mutually appealing way to strengthen the bond between the two of you.  "If you massage your cat on a regular basis, it's going to have a better sense of its own well-being -- a better interplay with you, and you will have a better interplay with it, " says Carvel Tiekert, D.V.M., executive director of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association.


From Your Hands To the Vet's Ears


Massage has many benefits (see sidebar, "More Motives to Massage"), not the least of which is improved circulation.  "When you improve circulation, that means tissues are going to function more effectively," Dr. Tiekert says.  "Massage improves oxygenation and the ability of the body to dispose of metabolic garbage, which makes everything work better."


By massaging your cat on a regular basis, you may actually make your veterinarian's job easier because you will be more tuned in to any health problems.  "You will have a sense of what is normal for that cat; if things change, you're going to know and then hopefully do something about it," concludes Dr. Tiekert.  You will know if your cat has any skin problems, cuts, lumps or bumps, and you can detect weight loss in its early stages because you're touching your cat on a daily basis.


Massage can also go a long way in helping solve behavior problems in cats.  Aggression towards people or other cats excessive fear and nervousness territoriality, litterbox problems -- all can be helped through massage.


Realize that massage is a supplement to, not a replacement for, veterinary care.  "When pet owners massage their pets at home, that dramatically complements the use of drug treatments, acupuncture, surgery and other therapies," says Judith Ray Swanson, D.V.M., a holistic veterinarian in the Chicago area.  "When my clients massage their cats between their visits to see me, I can tell the difference.  I can't imagine a situation where massage, done properly, would not be useful."


Getting Started


You should discuss your technique with your veterinarian before you try to massage your cat for the first time -- to make sure you've got your technique down pat and you're not doing anything that might hurt your cat.  You may want to talk to a holistic veterinarian to get help in developing that technique.  Ask for a hands-on demonstration of your cat's anatomy.  Find out if there are certain areas of kitty's body you should avoid or special massage techniques you should use based on your cat's particular health needs.  Don't massage your cat if it has enlarged lymph glands, a fracture or sprain, a cut, ruptured vertebral disk, blood blister, fever, swelling or any abnormal tenderness.  If you discover anything unusual about your cat's health while massaging, refrain from further massage until you've consulted your veterinarian.  Do the massage when your cat is resting or ready to relax, perhaps after your cat has had its meal or following some physical activity.  Some pet owners wait until the cat jumps up on their lab and asks for some attention.  Don't try to massage your cat if it isn't in the mood for it.


"Work around your cat's schedule.  Massage is something that, if the cat's not ready for it and you're trying to push it on them, it's not going to work; it's just going to make both you and your cat more tense," Dr. Swanson says.  Make sure you are in the right frame of mind before you sit down to massage the cat.  If you've had a bad day at work, calm yourself down before you try to give your cat a massage.  "When you're relaxed, it's more likely your cat will also be relaxed," Dr. Swanson says.  "Cats are very sensitive to their owner's emotions.  When I'm stressed out, my cats tense up themselves, or they'll run away and hiss at me."


Tips for a purr-fect massage


The first step to massaging a cat is to spend a couple minutes gently stroking it as you talk to it.  Try to get your cat relaxed and purring.


Let your cat get used to light rubbing for a few days; once it is comfortable with that, you can try a slightly deeper massage.  Begin where your cat likes to be petted, which for most cats is around the neck and ears.  Using a circular motion with the tips of your fingers, start behind kitty's head and massage the neck in a circular motion.  "Put your thumb in one spot and anchor your hand with your thumb, and then move your fingers in a circular motion and pivot on your thumb," Dr. Swanson explains.  "Each time you do it you move your fingers around in a clockwise fashion, about a quarter turn each time, and then you move a few millimeters and then do it again, and then moved and then do it again, and so on."  From your cat's head and neck, you can gradually work your way down the back to the tail and paws.  Along the cat's back are acupressure points which correspond to internal organs; as those internal organs weaken or become ill, the external points become sensitive, Dr. Swanson explains.  "As you go down the cat's back, each time you find a sensitive spot, picture that as a being a beaver's dam," she says.  "You don't want to eliminate the dam, because you don't get results if you visualize something gone.  You should visualize the dam slowly going away, as though a couple of logs are loosening up and water is coming through while you're massaging the cat."  How can you know if you're being too gentle or too rough in a massage?  "You watch the cat's face," Dr. Swanson says.  "If the cat is daydreaming or looking around the room and it's not paying attention to you, then you're doing it too softly -- you don't have enough contract for it to be therapeutic.  If the cat tries to run away or it meows or hisses, then you're doing it too roughly.  What you want is that look of concentration; the cat has that look of 'ahhhhhh' on its face."  If you notice discomfort or your cat daydreaming, change your touch.


It may take some time and practice before your cat fully appreciates massage and you have perfected your technique.  Start out slowly, especially if your cat seems uneasy or if it's a cat that's never been thrilled about being touched.  Don't get frustrated if the first couple of massage sessions don't go smoothly.  Realize that the art of massage, like any skill, takes time and practice to fully develop.  Try to tune in to the types of touch your cat does and doesn't like, and adjust your technique accordingly.  Make the time you spend massaging your cat something you both can look forward to.