What Does Touch Therapy Do?
by Jill Deming, M.A.
The other day I had just completed a horse massage and turned away to massage another horse. While I was working, the first horse kept coming over and poking me in an attempt to interrupt my ministrations - until he had to be restrained. After completing the second massage, both horses began nosing and nuzzling one another and yawning continuously. This went on for a good 60 seconds. Then they settled down for some mutual grooming.
Veterinarian Dr. Michael Fox feels that massage is imperative to the basic care of an animal. When skin receptors are stimulated they transmit messages to the brain. Once the brain receives these messages it initiates the production of chemicals that feed major body systems such as the blood, muscles, nerve cells, tissues, and organs. Massage is a vehicle that stimulates the skin receptors and releases the chemicals necessary for the body's optimum performance.
In the wild, animals provide massage for each other by mutual grooming. One example is young mammals that depend upon the action of their mother's tongue to stimulate digestion. They must rely on the mother to help them until their eyes and ears are open. After nursing, she carefully licks them until peristaltic action (the rhythmic contraction of the intestine as it moves food down it's length) is initiated. If she did not do this, they would be unable to eliminate toxic wastes (defecate) and would die.
As the days pass and growing animals play-fight and tussle with one another, their activity increases the circulation of the blood. This brings nutrients to the bones, building a stronger skeletal system. Physical activity also causes an increase the amount of oxygen reaching the tissues, which results in a healthier animal.
Although a full listing of the benefits of massage extends beyond the scope of this article, some highlights are:
- It dilates blood vessels, allowing the blood to flow more freely, which encourages the removal of waste products such as lymph and lactic acid.
- It is a highly effective diagnostic tool. Areas of muscle tension, swelling and growth can be easily detected.
- If there is an injury, massage helps lessen inflammation, swelling and pain in the joints.
- It stimulates the body to release endorphins—proteins that act as natural pain-killers.
- Regularly used, massage can aid in the prevention of trigger points (a combination of lactic acid build-up and the irritation of motor nerve endings).
- It improves muscle tone.
- It helps lessen inflammation and swelling in joints, therefore alleviating pain.
- Depending upon the type of massage used, it can either have a relaxing or stimulating effect. Therefore, it is effective in reducing stress and tension.
- Because massage increases circulation it can be used to positively affect the health of animals whose activity has been curtailed. Situations include being restricted to a stall or boarding kennel.
- Because it encourages blood circulation, massage increases the amount of oxygen reaching the tissues. This enhances health and results in a shorter recuperation time when there is a physical trauma.
- It is helpful in cooling down horses after a period of intense activity.
In addition to the physical benefits, massage also has social benefits. It is an integral part of a developing animal’s social order. In the wild, growing animals learn to relate to one another and their environment in a way which will serve them as they mature. Studies have shown that animals deprived of touch become social misfits, and are sometimes unable to survive.
Once domestic animals mature and are adopted into separate homes, they are frequently unable to socialize with other animals, thus precluding many opportunities for mutual grooming. To supplement this, we as owners need to step in and fill the void by providing massage for our animals.