Frequently Asked Questions About Pet Massage

The benefits of animal massage might make you think about working it into your rabbit, ferret, guinea pig, hamster or other small animal pet’s routine.

rabbit getting neck massage
Courtesy of Dr. Jan Steele/Claws And Paws Animal Rehab 
Neck massage on a rabbit involves a very small area from the back of the neck to the shoulders.

What might small animal pets think about massage? The following is an excerpt from Angus the rabbit’s diary.

“June 3: It happened again today. It’s just not fair. I know I’m the baby of the house, and my big brother the dog does all kinds of sports and wins these weird-colored paperlike things. For some reason, Mom and Dad get all happy about the blue ones, but I like the red ones better. I bet I could win a pretty red one and probably an ugly blue one, too, if they’d just tell me how to do it. I can jump much higher than Max can, and I can dodge obstacles better too — he is always tripping over something. Then he complains and whines, and what do Mom and Dad do? They rub his neck and back and his arm and leg muscles, too. It looks like it feels so good — it’s just not fair. I want them to give me rubs, too.”

I would imagine that Angus feels very much like a lot of rabbits who have canine brothers or sisters who participate in dog agility competitions. It is becoming more accepted that dogs and cats benefit from massage, but what about rabbits? And what about ferrets, chinchillas, rats, guinea pigs and other small animal pets

Fortunately for Angus, his mom and dad read an article about animal massage and decided to try it on him, too, even though he’s not an athlete — and he loved it! 

Small Animal Massage Question 1: 
How do you know if your pet enjoys massage? Each species is a little bit different. Actually, each individual pet (within the same species) is a little different. Paying attention to your pet’s body language is important. Many different species “bump” you when they want you to do something. Also many will try to nuzzle or perhaps nudge your hand if you stop something they like, and they want you to keep going. This is especially true with ferrets, rats and chinchillas. I have seen rabbits do it as well, but not as often. Rabbits tend to grind their teeth as their version of “purring.” Some animals will just keep pushing closer to you — almost as if they are burrowing against you. 

Pet massage should always be a pleasant experience for your pet. If your pet tries to get away or shows any obvious signs of distress or pain, stop! Something is wrong. If it’s not just your technique being too rough, it may be an actual injury that needs to be evaluated by a medical professional.

Small Animal Massage Question 2: 
I get deep tissue massages. I thought massage was supposed to hurt or it’s not helping. Why is it different for my pet? There are many, many different types of massage. The different types and different techniques are designed for different purposes. For example, a deep tissue massage is very different from a Swedish massage. Often medical treatments do create pain or discomfort. However, only a trained medical professional can differentiate a “necessary for healing pain” from a “creating an injury pain.” 

Our pets cannot communicate to us as precisely as humans can; therefore, I believe it is very important that any massage performed by a pet owner be a positive, relaxing, “feel good” experience. Often it is also an excellent way to develop an even closer bond with your pet. 

Small Animal Massage Question 3:
Is massage ever bad for my pet? First and foremost, massage is not recommended if you notice a pain reaction from your pet. That means something is wrong. It may be your technique is too rough, or your pet may have an injury that needs to be assessed. Either way, it would be prudent to have your pet evaluated by a medical professional who is qualified to help you determine the cause of the pain. Then, if massage is warranted, that professional can teach you an appropriate technique. 

Small Animal Massage Question 4: 
How much pressure should I use? Not much at all — and then even less. It’s important to keep in mind the relative size of your pet to the size of you and your hands. What feels like very light pressure on your back, would likely feel like a lot more pressure on a mouse’s back. 

The trick is to think of the size and depth of the muscle you are trying to massage. The back muscles of a mouse will likely be only a few millimeters in thickness, whereas the back muscles of a full-grown ferret would be larger. 

I recommend that pet owners perform massage on their pet’s muscles only. So, muscles should feel a bit squishy and definitely not hard like bone. Only use enough pressure to massage the muscles, and focus on the neck behind the skull, and the back. Those areas (like on humans) tend to hold the most stress and are constantly used to maintain posture, which can leave them vulnerable to strains. 

Small Animal Massage Question 5: 
If I don’t use much pressure, how do I know I’m “massaging” and not just “petting?” The key to differentiating petting from massaging is the tissue that is being touched and the technique that is being used.

Petting is hand contact on your pet’s fur and skin only and is often done in long strokes. Petting is very superficial and does not penetrate to the muscles. Massage is meant to target the muscles that are under the skin and on top of the bones. So, you want to go a little deeper than just fur and skin, but not so deep that you feel something hard like bone. 

The take home message is to only massage “squishy stuff,” and avoid attempting to massage any abdominal muscles because the internal organs are too close to the surface. Only a trained medical professional should instruct you on how to safely massage the abdominal region — if it is even warranted (which is rare). 

Even if your pet doesn’t keep a diary like Angus, it’s likely he or she would enjoy a massage. It can be a wonderful experience for both you and your pet. Bonding often occurs, your pet becomes more accustomed to being touched and held which promotes socialization, you learn to read your pet’s body language better, and you may even catch a new injury much sooner than you would have otherwise, which will help your pet live a happier, healthier, more active life.
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