Natural Healing-Touch Therapies for Animals

In addition to traditional veterinary treatments, modern pet owners are now offered a wide range of alternative treatments for their animals.

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A variety of natural therapies like acupuncture, reflexology and massage are now available for pets.
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This authoritative guide, illuminated by case histories, will help pet owners and caregivers understand and select from a wealth of treatment options.

Choosing between old and new veterinary approaches—as diverse as acupuncture, homeopathy, feng shui, chiropractic, hyperbaric oxygen, nutraceuticals, reiki, and hair mineral analysis—challenges concerned pet owners who seek to provide the best care for their beloved animals. Discussing the scope of illnesses and conditions that different approaches are intended to aid, Natural Healing for Cats, Dogs, Horses, and Other Animals by Lisa Preston (Skyhorse Publishing, 2011), covers the strengths and limitations of each alternative therapy. We all want what is best for our pets. In that spirit, here is a book that allows us to make sure they get just that.

Touch Therapies:

The power of touch, the kindness of a caress have an undeniable positive effect. While the benefits are difficult to measure, on a subjective level, there is no doubt that pleasant massage feels . . . pleasant. Some forms of manual physical therapy can be decidedly uncomfortable, and some have mystical components that may or may not conflict with a client’s belief system. Many, although classified as a touch therapy, also could be classified as energy treatments, such as the Bowen technique and kinesiology, or could be classified as a whole medicine system, such as chiropractic or TCVM. Both auriculotherapy and reflexology are touch treatments that are first theoretically diagnostic in nature, thus not wholly a touch therapy.

Ancient and new touch treatments overlap each other at times, leaving a lot of options. While evidence-based medicine is unable to report hard definitions of improvement in animals who receive touch therapies, scientists would not generally refute the simple line of reasoning that an animal who is cared for and appreciates attention is likely to be less stressed and therefore have a healthy edge on an animal who does not receive any form of massage or physical therapy. For animals who do seem to enjoy the handling and clients who have the funds to experiment, there is little reason not to try a treatment that doesn’t conflict with their beliefs. Side effects are uncommon in most manual physical therapies, although injuries have been reported in geriatric patients, especially those with degenerative disorders.


See the above special report on acupuncture. Various practitioners report acupressure points may be stimulated manually, with pressure device or via lasers, lights, or tuning forks. 


Also transliterated hyphenated (an-ma) or as two words (an ma), anma is the Japanese word for “press and rub.” Anma massage is characterized by a kneading manipulation attempting to restore chi. The treatment may be performed on acupressure points and is done dry, without oil or other lubrication.

Bowen Technique

Australian Tom Bowen developed the Bowen technique: intervals of gentle massage by finger and thumb pressure followed by specific rest intervals, usually two minutes in length. Practitioners believe that the rest period allows energy released to travel throughout the body and that the technique benefits numerous physical and mental problems. After the first body area is worked and rested, the practitioner moves to a new area. Before he died in 1982, Tom Bowen adapted his method to animal treatment and trained other practitioners in the technique.


Literally meaning “done by hand,” classical chiropractic is the manual manipulation of the spinal joints through short, rapid thrusts in an effort to adjust usually very minor subluxations that are believed by the practitioner to cause disease and all manner of ailments. It is often used for animals who have suffered a fall or other trauma, for example from a traffic accident. Instruments and devices are used by some chiropractors.

Cranio-sacral Therapy

Based on a belief that the fused skull bones are actually movable and the cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the brain and spine are actively pumped and receptive to very light manual pressure by the practitioner, cranio-sacral therapy is a touch therapy, although it could be classified as other due to the conflict between its fundamental hypothesis and modern physiological understanding. Practitioners report animals seem to relax and enjoy the treatment.

Integrative Manual Therapy

Integrative manual therapy (IMT) is a form of physical assessment and massage developed and trademarked by Sharon Weiselfish Giammatteo, PhD for human patients. IMT has spread to animal practitioners and is often compared to myofascial release and rolfing.

Doctors usually use the acronym IMT when referring to a condition called immune-mediated thrombocytopenia, a specific form of thrombocytopenia (low platelets), so it is important to be clear when using the acronym.

Some practitioners refer to their work as integrative manual therapies when they offer numerous, overlapping services, such as chiropractic, ultrasound, massage, herbs, homeopathy, et cetera.


A Hawaiian massage technique, lomilomi has also been adapted to animal treatment although there are relatively few practitioners available. Some therapists invoke a mystical component into the treatment while other lomilomi practitioners do not. While early lomilomi givers may well have prayed while massaging, it was common in the old culture to combine praying with most activities, thus modern lomilomi can simply be a deep massage, sometimes performed by more than one practitioner at a time on the same patient.

Manual Lymph Drain

Manual lymph draining (MLD) is intended to assist the body’s lymphatic system in draining. Proponents suggest that physical stimulation of massage increases lymph flow, thus aiding the body in self-cleansing. While there is no doubt that the massage can be enjoyable and relaxing, it cannot be demonstrated to detoxify the patient. MLD may be beneficial, but maybe not for the reasons believed by its adherents.


The mainstay of touch therapies, massage has been practiced essentially throughout the world. It is more than petting the animal when done for specific therapeutic intent, and it is an accepted tool to induce trust and bonding. One theory suggests that animals who are massaged frequently when they are young will produce fewer stress hormones as they age, which will in turn help the animal’s health.

Massage therapists identify different applications, such as deep connective tissue massage or deep muscle therapy, to indicate a specialty they provide or a recommendation for an animal. Effleurage is a massaging stroke done with the hand flat, initially in slow passes. It is often used in the beginning of a massage session. Petrissage is a deeper massage, characterized by kneading and rolling the skin and, indirectly, the muscles. Therapists may also use tools, such as chilled stones (cryotherapy) or heated rocks, towels, or other items to impart a different feel to the massage.

Regulations governing animal massage therapists vary greatly from one region to another. Some American states require therapists to first be certified as human massage therapists with several hundred hours or training, some require therapists to work under a veterinarian’s direction, and some are unregulated. Practitioners may skirt legal requirements by promoting their service as bodywork other than massage.

Myofascial Release

Taking trigger points a step farther, myofascial release is a massage that involves physical stretching and manipulation combined with cross-friction work in an attempt to alleviate adhesions and inelasticity in the tough connective tissue (fascia) around muscles. It can be uncomfortable but is often recommended for animals who have developed excessive stiffness, especially with old injuries.

Myofascial Release, Trigger Points, and Dead Tissue

The older, gaited mare had been lacking in impulsion, reluctant to move forward off the leg, and generally recalcitrant. An equine massage practitioner worked for two hours on the old mare’s neck. After just one session, the horse’s attitude improved remarkably, and she moved out. She went back to work at her job as a lesson and trail horse for very young children.

The owner was certain the massage had improved the horse. This is a subjective assessment, but one we trust when we trust the general competence of the speaker. If animals could talk with human language, we could ask clearly how they felt before and after the treatment, indeed how it felt while the treatment occurred.

I asked the happy owner exactly what kind of massage the equine massage therapist had administered to the old gaited mare.

“Myofascial release.”

I’ve had myofascial release, so an additional animal case study is a homo sapien, the author, a middle-aged recreational runner who limped into a physical therapist’s office, legs sparking with pain. The therapist reefed on my calves.

“Ow! What is that all about?”

“Myofascial release. You need it.”

She did cross-friction around my knees. Again, ow.

Next she pushed one fingertip into my thigh. It felt as though she bore in with all her power, though my skin was merely dented around her fingertip. Soon, it felt like she backed off, and I thanked her.

Smiling, she told me she’d kept the same pressure, but that she was touching a trigger point. The point had turned off and that’s why I felt relief, as though she’d finally eased her pressure. She touched again and again, switching off hyperreactive muscles.

Later, I received more trigger point therapy from a massage practitioner. I asked how she knew where to touch to find these trigger points.

She grimaced. “It feels like dead tissue.”

Like the physical therapist, her fingertips could palpate a difference in the feel of different sections of tissue.

Receiving myofascial release and trigger point therapy was always painful, but after the treatment, my legs felt so much better. They felt quiet, rested, ready to run ten miles.

Massage as a whole is a therapy that straddles the two worlds of alternative treatments and science-based medicine. Practitioners offer an enormous variety of theories, methods, and situations in which they recommend massage therapy.

A top equine veterinarian told me about a horse he examined that he determined needed colic surgery while an alternative practitioner suggested massage instead.

Colic is a lay term for intestinal distress. In severe equine colic, the horse’s gut quits working correctly. The horse does not pass digested food. The material can rot, and the intestinal wall can become permeable and leak. Yards and yards of the horse’s gut can literally die while still in the body. Surgery removes the necrotic (dead) tissue, saving the horse from lethal infection.

But the owner of the colic horse was swayed by the consult of the alternative practitioner and elected to have the horse’s inflamed and impacted gut treated simply with massage.

The colic horse died.


Andrew Taylor Still, an American physician who practiced in the late 1800s and early 1900s, is the father of osteopathy. He theorized that the musculoskeletal system could intrinsically overcome ailments and developed the manual touch treatment that would become known as osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM), or osteopathic manipulative treatment. OMM is similar to chiropractic manipulation but does not focus so exclusively on the spine and other joints.

In human medicine, osteopathy was the medical field that competed essentially on par with advances in modern medicine, to the point that doctors of osteopathy and medical doctors are largely synonymous terms.

Osteopathy and OMM soon came to animal care. Osteopathic care is sporadically available to pets in the United States. In the United Kingdom, osteopaths may belong to the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy and require a referral from a veterinarian before treating an animal. 


Formerly called zone therapy, reflexology is the theory that the body can be mapped on the foot, although some proponents extend this effort to the animal’s ear (known as auriculotherapy, as the outer ear appendage is called the auricle). Specific areas of the foot are thought to correspond to various organs and those areas are believed to be susceptible to manipulation from the corresponding area in the foot. Obviously the preceding could classify reflexology as other, not a touch therapy, but it is categorized here due to the massage aspect that is performed in treatment. (Note that zone therapy can also refer to a specific early chiropractic spin-off.)

One concern with accepting the idea of one body part being a representative microsystem of the entire body is the disparity in the various available charts attempting to map the body onto the foot or ear (or iris, in the case of iridology). A South African veterinary study of auriculotherapy had mixed results.

Reflexology does have both diagnostic and therapeutic goals. First the foot is examined to assess overall health, as the reflexologists believe various sections of the paw correspond to organs and systems, thus can be assessed through examining the animal’s foot. The foot is then massaged to treat the part of the body the practitioner’s examination determined is in need of treatment.

Among animal therapists, the usual practice is on a dog’s paw. Reflexology is essentially palm reading (followed by touch therapy) done on the paw (or ear, with auriculotherapy), with health instead of fortune being the topic.


Biochemist Ida Pauline Rolf, a peer of Moshé Feldenkrais, developed the concept of structural integration (later called rolfing). Rolfing is a treatment based on the idea that the body can be realigned through a myofascial massage that improves motion as well as emotion. Therapists soon adapted rolfing to horses and dogs, particularly recommending it for sports injuries and other gait or back problems.


The Japanese term for finger-pressure, shiatsu is an outgrowth of anma and Japanese acupressure. It focuses more on stress reduction and prevention than on reactive healing. Practitioners use their fingertips and thumbs to apply gentle pressure in an effort to stimulate the animal’s vital force. Therapists who do not ascribe to the notion of vital force point to the manual manipulation stimulating blood flow and promoting muscle relaxation. Initially more commonly practiced on dogs, there are now shiatsu practitioners for horses as well.

Shiatsu is sometimes done with both patient and therapist immersed in warm water, a combination sometimes called Watsu, or aquatic massage therapy, and is increasingly encountered as indoor canine spas become more common.

Trigger Point Therapy

Also called trigger point myotherapy, trigger point therapy treats hypersensitive areas in a muscle or the fascia surrounding the muscle. These oversensitive areas are thought to develop in response to injuries or strains that could have gone unnoticed, such as a fall, impact, or overextension, for example when a horse slips in mud or a dog roughhouses with a playmate.

Skilled therapists can sometimes locate an active trigger point through palpation alone, though usually the animal gives an indication of pain at the area. Often there is referred pain, that is, the point of pain in a shoulder muscle can indicate joint strain some distance away.

In the 1940s, trigger point injection therapy was done with small injections of saline or lidocaine to the painful point but physical therapists soon found they could achieve good results with manual manipulation. In successful treatment, trigger points are essentially turned off and the muscle is restored to a normal state. Because the treatment can be uncomfortable, especially early on, it may not be well tolerated by some animals.


Canadian Linda Tellington-Jones adapted Feldenkrais, a movement and awareness therapy for humans developed by Moshé Feldenkrais, to animals. TTouch can be considered both a training and treatment tool. The aim is to retrain the brain and the body to alleviate what are essentially bad physical habits in the way an animal moves. While originally caused by pain, stress, or fear, poor movement can later become habitual and problematic. Limping is an example of pain that can become habitual, such as someone with an old knee injury who continues to unnecessarily favor one leg while climbing or descending stairs, for example. Animals can develop similar habits of poor motion.

TTouch generally consists of gentle, circular massage in a rhythmic pattern that is performed all over the animal’s body in an effort to promote awareness, circulation, and relaxation. Different types of touches are taught for different circumstances and different species of animals. Trainers and zoo animal caretakers have reported benefits from the treatment.

TTouch is referred to by some as a limbic system massage due to its effort to retrain. Used here, limbic refers to the limbic system—brain structures around the hypothalamus concerned with affective sensations such as pleasure and pain.

TTouch is often combined with additional training methods called TEAM, which alternatively stands for Tellington-Jones Every Animal Method or Tellington-Jones Equine Awareness Method. The method has been criticized for its use of physiognomy (assessing character traits from facial features, for example).

Interestingly, hair whorls, a seemingly innocuous physical trait, may come from the same gene that is responsible for an animal’s sidedness (with sidedness referring to the being’s preferring to use one side, in the same manner that humans are generally right-handed or left-handed). It could be that an assessment of certain physical features beyond conformation (such as whorls) can aid in the understanding, and thus training, of some animals.

Tui Na

An instructor from one of the United States’ top TCVM schools characterized tui na as Chinese chiropractic. Sometimes hyphenated as tui-na, the manipulation aims to improve the function of tendons, bones, and joints. It is one of the five main branches of TCVM. 

Tuning Fork Therapy

Some acupressure practitioners employ tuning forks to deliver pressure to treatment points. One animal chiropractor suggested always using the C note tuning fork because it was the earth frequency. Called Acutonics by one school and its practitioners, tuning fork therapy has been used post-operatively for animals recovering from surgery, but it remains relatively uncommon.

Tuning forks are also used as a modality apart from any form of acupressure, in hopes of healing with the sound generated by the fork. This is sometimes referred to as harmonic medicine. While this therapy is classified as a touch therapy because it involves touching the patient with the activated tuning forks, it could also be classified as other in that the modality if healing—sound—is not a touch therapy.

Veterinary Orthopedic Manipulation (VOM)

Veterinarian William Inman developed VOM, a device-assisted adjusting technique in 1982. Inman posits neurological interference as a common factor in most disease states, and he uniquely distinguishes between subluxations and luxations to explain this. Conventional medicine defines luxations as dislocations and subluxations as incomplete or partial dislocations. VOM defines a subluxation as a condition of the nervous tissue, not of the bones or joint. Thus, VOM practitioners find subluxations they say are not visible on radiographs, though the luxations’ effects are sometimes visible radiographically. A supporter of chiropractic theory, Inman believes many veterinarians fail to treat anatomical subluxations, and he claims 80 percent of animals have neuronal subluxations. He finds manual chiropractic treatment too slow, especially on uncooperative animals, and he uses a spinal hammer that imparts minute, rapid motion to a very specific treatment area. The stainless steel device, called a spinal accelerometer, is used first diagnostically to read an

animal’s response, then therapeutically. Orthopedic problems, such as osteochondritis dissecans (OCD) and canine wobbler syndrome (instability in the skull-cervix joint, or intra-cervical joints) resulting in balance problems and other neurological deficits) as well as conditions not generally regarded as having an orthopedic etiology, such as gastric dilatation-torsion (bloat), are all treated with VOM.

The American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association recognizes VOM as a specialty certification. There are several thousand VOM practitioners to be found in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., and beyond. 

Excerpted with permission from Natural Healing for Cats, Dogs, Horses, and Other Animals: 150 Alternative Therapies Available to Owners and Caregivers by Lisa Preston. Copyright 2011, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.