One week in spring, during a routine massage session, I discovered a small hard lump on Sappho’s belly close to a nipple. Since Sappho got a weekly massage (and a general belly rub daily if she could persuade me), I knew that the lump was had developed since her previous massage. Using my fingertips, I could feel that the lump was a hard nodule beneath the skin and was not associated with a flea-bite.
Massage is an excellent relaxant for cat and owner and once you get to know the ‘feel’ of your cat you can quickly spot anything out of the ordinary that might need treatment sooner rather than later. Massage is regularly used by physiotherapists who can assess the condition of, and any damage to, muscles, ligaments and tendons. Massage can help free up stiff joints and seized muscles and promotes healing by encouraging circulation to affected areas.
I found out just how useful massage is as a diagnostic tool and healing aid after I broke some bones in my foot. Muscle doesn’t show up on X-rays, so a doctor or physio uses massage and manipulation to find out the extent of soft tissue damage.
I didn’t make the mental jump from physiotherapy massage to diagnostic cat massage until I watched the vet examine my cats. He used his fingers to assess the condition of their coats, skin, muscle-tone and abdomen. Sometimes he checked a joint by manipulating it and seeing if he could feel the joint ‘clicking’. He ran his hands over the cat’s fur feeling for fur condition and to see how prominent the bones were – an old or sick cat may lose weight, equally if the ribs can’t be detected at all the cat is overweight.
I realised that I spend a great deal more time with the cats than he does and I get plenty of opportunities to check them over while petting them. In fact I could assess their condition and check for abnormalities at the same time as reinforcing the cat-owner bond. But before I attempted any real massage, I got a friend to give ME a Shiatsu massage and tell me how to use my fingertips for feel for problems! Then I applied this to my cats.
Massage can reduce stress and blood pressure levels in both cat and owner. It stimulates the cat’s circulation and can aid convalescence. It is good at reducing swelling by breaking down fluid which has accumulated in the tissue (it’s a bit like massaging congealed soap until it becomes pliable).
Massage is especially beneficial to geriatric and arthritic cats and, as human athletes know, it eases stiff joints and rubs out muscle knots at the end of a hard day’s activity. Both cat and owner should find the sessions relaxing – if you or the cat falls asleep, then at least one aspect of massage is working, but you’ll need to stay awake a bit longer if you are to use it as a way of checking your cat’s wellbeing.
Cats need to become accustomed to being handled by humans; this normally happens during kittenhood. Massage in later life can improve socialisation in cats which are often aloof. How better to relax or reward a tensed-up show cat or a cat which is stressed out after vet check-up than a quick massage? While you pet your cat, it will show its pleasure by massaging you in return using its front paws.
American vet and qualified masseur, Dr Michael Fox, recommends that owners massage their cat(s) weekly, feeling and seeing with their fingers and comparing what they find with the usual feel of their cat. With practice, I’ve found that you can quickly spot anything which feels different from normal. Dr Fox gives cat owners six basic recommendations, though much depends on how much handling your cat enjoys and how confident you are.
1. Get to know the usual feel of your cat(s).
Once you know what is normal, you’ll be able to detect unusual lumps or bumps. Many cats have harmless skin tags or other minor bumps and scars (your vet will be pleased to confirm which irregularities are harmless). Once you’ve got to know the ‘landscape’ of your cat’s skin you will quickly recognise a new bump or one which has grown or spread. You will also feel any flea scabs or skin conditions and whether the cat’s fur feels sleek and well-conditioned or whether it has started feeling harsh.
Get to know how easily you can feel bones beneath the skin – don’t squeeze or prod, just be aware of which bones you can feel. This will help you work out if your cat is gaining or losing weight. The skin of a healthy cat seems to be attached only loosely to its body. If a pinch of skin is ‘tented’ (gently pulled away from the body) it should spring back quickly. If the skin stays tented or is slow to spring back, then the cat is dehydrated for some reason.
2. Feel for signs of pain, heat, swelling or atrophy.
These are usually signs of injury or illness. You may already know that your cat has injured itself e.g. it has been bitten by another cat or it has a sore leg and it may already be getting vet treatment. Massage can tell you if the injury is getting worse, staying stable or healing. Massage cannot help alleviate chronic conditions and can help get a limb working again after a period of immobility (e.g. a broken leg which has been in plaster will have lost flexibility and muscle tone).
One of my cats seemed to suffer from ‘pins and needles’ or stiffness after waking up. I often gave his legs a gentle rub-down when he got up. Since he always got up to greet me when I returned from work, a gentle massage was a nice way of greeting each other.
3. Check the abdomen.
Very, very gently palpate the abdomen. Don’t squeeze it or you could do damage, but very gentle massage will give an indication if the cat is comfortable. If the cat tenses up there may be a problem in that area. If you can feel hard masses, there is a potential problem (it may just be constipation, but it’s not worth taking a gamble with your cat’s health).
If your cat has a known condition, ask your vet or veterinary nurse to teach you about palpating the abdomen and checking for early warning symptoms of trouble,
4. Check the glands.
In humans, we often talk about ‘the glands being up’ during an illness. Cats also have glands in much the same places; while massaging your cat, check whether any of these are swollen or inflamed.
A cat’s glands are situated under its jaw, before its shoulder blades and in the armpit, groin and upper hock areas.
5. Know which areas to avoid.
Unless your cat, and your vet, are happy for you to gently massage areas which have been injured, you should avoid those areas. Avoid areas which are tender because of illness, injury or operation. In particular be careful of sites where the cat has had surgery, you don’t want to pull at stitches or risk damaging muscles or bone which are beginning to knit together and heal. Later on the healing process, the cat may enjoy a gentle massage to stimulate circulation. The vet will advise you of exceptions to these guidelines e.g. where you can use massage as a form of physiotherapy to get a cat mobile again after broken limbs.
The secret is don’t try too much too soon and don’t massage areas which are tender and which the cat doesn’t want touched. If it solicits a pain-relieving massage (such as Scrapper with his pins and needles) then go gently.
6. Seek advice from your vet if you’re unsure.
If you find an area which feels abnormal in some way or your cat shows signs of discomfort, get it checked by a vet. You have done your bit by detecting early warning signals. Later on you can help with a therapeutic massage.
There are a number of specialist massages e.g. Shiatsu or TTouch which you can learn. These are beyond the scope of this article.
Doing the Massage
I like to start my massage sessions by stroking the cat in the ways it enjoys most. First I feel the coat’s condition and take a closer look at any areas that feel harsh or sparser than normal. By dampening my hands I can use the palms of my hands to stroke out moulted fur. After the initial flat-palmed stroking, I press my fingertips down more firmly to feel the skin as I stroke. That way I can feel if Sappho’s eczema is flaring up, or if Aphrodite has any scabs under her long thick fur which means I need to use flea spray sooner than I thought. On Cindy I thought my fingers had found a skin tag, but it proved to be a small rabbit tick. Later on, that area became permanently hardened due to a reaction to the tick’s saliva. I added this information to my mental map of my cats’ bodies.
After stroking and checking for signs of external parasites or skin troubles, it’s time to start the real massage. I always start the massage with their favourite attention areas, usually the ears, neck and back though all cats have different preferences ranging from belly to paw-pads and even inside the mouth (seriously). The edge of the jaw between ears and chin is often a favourite area. I then work along their sides and down to their belly as by this time they are lying full length on their backs doing Tai Chi with their front legs.
Many of my cats have loved having a belly rub and I love running my fingers through their warm silky belly fur. I wouldn’t belly rub if they disliked it and I always stop if they get overexcited and decide to play-fight my hand. If your cats hate belly rubs or fight your hand then you should move straight on to the paws.
While they’re upside down or lying on their side, I massage each leg in turn, gently flexing the paws and feeling the pads and between the paw pads for thorns or splinters. I also check whether any claws need clipping! Then I go back to the belly until one or other of us gets tired of it though you should go back to whatever bit your cat likes best.
American behaviourist Warren Eckstein recommends you first relax your cat by stroking it and talking gently. Then massage using small circular motions of your thumb and fingertips as you stroke, never losing contact with the cat’s skin. He suggests you start either side of the spine and work along the cat’s back, shoulders, sides and hindlegs. These areas see a lot of wear and tear. Then work from the chest to the belly and finally the forelegs. Massage gently and stop if your cat protests.
‘No Go’ and ‘Yes Please!’ Areas
Many cats are unhappy having a tummy rub – they feel vulnerable and switch between kittenish enjoyment to defensive aggression. Another area to beware of is the back of the hind legs. Relatively few cats are happy being touched here though many can be gradually accustomed to having these areas touched or stroked. Once again, it’s up to the owner and the cat to work out between them what feels good. If the cat decides that one part of its body, e.g. the belly or backs of the legs, is a no-go area, then you must respect that.
With Squeak (my neighbour’s cat who used to sneak in for a regular rub-down) I always had one extra area to massage – she loved to lie with her mouth wide open for a roof-of-mouth massage. I’ve never worked out why, but it’s something she loves and she will lie flat out for ffive or ten minutes for this. If I forget, or I try to skip the mouth massage, she grabs my hand and sucks my finger against the roof of her mouth to remind me.
Some cats enjoy a massage so much that they ask for one if they feel low. Dr Michael Fox’s cat Sam asks for a hindquarter massage to relieve the muscular discomfort associated with his occasional bouts of cystitis. He knows it makes him feel better. Scrapper liked me to soothe away the pins and needles associated with old age and worsening circulation. Sappho and Affy loved tummy rubs. Queenie liked me to massage around her empty eye socket (the eye had been removed due to injury) and even pushed the socket against my thumb; I was always worried about massaging this area but it may have helped with a ‘phantom limb’ type of sensation. Sappho developed a bowel problem and the belly rub probably made her feel good.
Most cats just know how good it feels to be massaged and after a while they will probably pester their owners for more.
On the occasion I mentioned at the beginning of this article, Sappho’s lump appeared to be benign though I didn’t ask for it to be tested. Two years later, I discovered that its early detection and removal had probably prolonged or saved her life. Once again, I was massaging her belly (by then a little thinner due to age) and I felt a lump close to where I’d found the original one. Although it was promptly removed, three further lumps developed within a matter of months.
This time I decided against surgery since the cancer was spreading and Sappho was an old cat with several other medical problems (which were being managed). For several more months I kept an eye, or rather a finger, on their progress at the same time as watching Sappho’s general condition and demeanour. The spread of cancer was one of the contributing factors to Sappho’s eventual euthanasia (the others were Inflammatory Bowel Disease – probably one reason she loved a belly rub – and senility); but I’d given her two more years than she might have had.
All my feline family love her their massage session, blissfully unaware of its diagnostic aspect. So go on; spoil your cats with a weekly rub down.
About the Author
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