Massage therapist rubs pets the right way

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Massage therapist Jessica Dragan gets a tip from one of her clients.

Massage therapist Jessica Dragan gets a tip from one of her clients. – Photo: Courtesy

The massage therapist begins in Abby’s neck and shoulder region, gently kneading with her thumbs and the balls of her hands. At first Abby seems wary. She gives me a look that seems to ask, “Excuse me, but exactly who is this strange person and why is she touching me in such a familiar way?”

But eventually Abby relaxes, stretching out and staring off into space with her familiar dreamy look.

“Is she doing OK?” Dragan asks me.

“If she doesn’t like something, she’ll give you a big hiss,” I reply. “But don’t be intimidated. She only has three teeth left.”

Abby is my cat.

A growing number of humans who embrace alternative healing strategies such as massage, acupuncture and naturopathy are sharing these techniques with their pets. Massage works in animals exactly as it does in humans – by stretching out tight muscles and stimulating blood flow that flushes out toxins.

Dragan emphasizes that her pet massage therapy is not intended as a replacement for traditional veterinary care, but rather as an adjunct to provide pain relief and accelerate healing. She began working on humans seven years ago and added pets to her client mix two years later. An acquaintance with two German shepherds told her about the dogs’ problems with arthritis, and Dragan offered to help.

“The dogs were practically falling over,” Dragan remembers.

After just one session, however, the dogs’ owner called Dragan to say the pooches seemed much better. “I thought she was just being nice, but then she called me back for another session,” Dragan says.

By massaging the dogs once a week, Dragan was able to maintain their comfort and flexibility for some time.

In the five years since then, Dragan has become a leading expert in the field of animal massage. Today she applies her skill to dogs, cats and horses in the Milwaukee area, Chicago and Los Angeles. Although she also works for premiere human spas, the work with animals is her real passion, Dragan says.

Abby is a perfect candidate for Dragan’s skills. At 14, she suffers from chronic renal failure, probably exacerbated by diabetes. I infuse Abby with fluids under her skin every 48 hours to help her body eliminate toxins that her kidneys can no longer handle effectively. Dragan’s massage technique can help accelerate the removal of those toxins.

Abby seems to enjoy the massage. Occasionally, she shifts position on the bed and Dragan follows her lead. Having two cats of her own, Dragan understands the feline’s innate need to be in charge.

It’s a tribute to Dragan’s nurturing touch that Abby sticks with the massage for more than 40 minutes without jumping off the bed or uttering a single hiss.

“Jessica has a really nice presence with the animals – very respectful,” says photographer Peggy Morsch, who specializes in human and animal portraiture. Dragan provided therapy to Emma, Morsch’s 11-year-old English pointer, who has a congenital hip problem. Morsch says Emma can be skittish around strangers but was very calm with Dragan.

“Emma really relaxed with Jessica and let her get in a little bit deeper, and I think that really helped,” Morsch says. “She provides a nice service. Jessica has a national following.”

Morsch says she’s considering adding acupuncture and swimming therapy to Emma’s therapy mix.

Dragan says that over the years she’s worked on animals with a variety of conditions, from kidney failure to tail rehabilitation, arthritis to limb amputation. A specialist in several techniques, including Swedish, Reiki and Shiatsu, she uses all the tools in her arsenal, depending on the animal’s needs.

Her ability to connect with animals and intuit what they’re feeling adds to her effectiveness, Dragan says. Cats and dogs can’t describe their pain the way humans can, so it takes a special connection to administer to them, she explains.

“I’ve always loved animals,” Dragan says. “I always knew that I’d work with them in some way.”

Since Dragan’s visit, I’ve been applying some of the techniques I observed her use on Abby when I’m petting her – which, of course, is often. Although it’s impossible to know for certain whether it’s helping, a recent lab report on Abby’s kidney values showed great improvement.

And between catnaps, Abby seems pretty chipper – especially at night while I’m trying to sleep. Now, if only there was a therapy that could synchronize feline biorhythms with those of humans.