I consider my personal self-care needs to be fairly low-maintenance—treating myself usually consists of slapping on a face mask, putting my texts on “do not disturb,” and queuing up Netflix. Caring for my dog, however, is a different story. Maybe it’s because I’m destined to be a helicopter parent, or maybe it’s that she was rescued from a rough past, but I’m unequivocally committed to letting my shepherd mix, Wifi, live her best life.
She’s showered with treats, hot new fitness classes—nose-work wasn’t for her, but she’s killing it at agility—and high-end grooming products. (Hot tip: If you have allergies, you need a Furminator brush in your life.) As a beauty obsessive as well as a pet owner, I was understandably excited when I recently discovered a whole world of pooch pampering that I’d previously never even considered: spa treatments for dogs.
A quick survey of Los Angeles pet salons reveals a slew of treatments every bit as luxe as their for-people counterparts. Your pup can relax with a “pawdicure,” detoxify with mud masks and even get an energy tune-up via Reiki. And it’s not just L.A. A cursory online search uncovered similarly lavish treatments available to four-legged friends in New York, San Francisco, Vegas, and beyond.
Helping your dog treat herself certainly brings joy to the more extra among us—but can these mega-indulgent grooming sessions actually improve your dog’s wellness? According to licensed holistic physical therapist Sally Morgan, pampering your pup does have benefits: “Acupuncture and massage, as well as many other treatments, provide incredible benefits for an animal’s health and wellness. These are not just relaxing spa type treatments, but significant components of a program to find and maintain optimum wellness for pets and horses.”
Morgan notes that nail treatments are especially important, as “nails left too long can compromise a dog's gait and posture, leading to more significant orthopedic and back problems down the line,” and that “acupressure can enhance organ system function, relieve chronic conditions such as Lyme and arthritis, as well as bring relaxation to the dog.”
Veterinarian Judy Leigh Morgan, DVM, confirms that older, injured, and anxious pets in particular benefit from a trip to the spa. “Animals receive many medical benefits from these therapies, particularly pain relief. Animals living with chronic pain are generally more anxious and have difficulty relaxing because they can’t get comfortable,” she reveals. “When the pain is decreased, they sleep more soundly and become more active when awake. They will be more interactive with house mates and people.”
Both experts agreed that one of the best modalities also happened to be one dog owners could try at home: massage. Morgan says of massage, “It can decrease muscle tension, improve gait and posture, and thereby also help address some behavior issues in a tense or nervous dog.”
According to the American Animal Hospital Association, “Evidence supports the positive effect of massage and soft-tissue therapy on a range of clinical conditions, including hip dysplasia, osteoarthritis, and epilepsy.”
My dog, Wifi, is physically healthy but does suffer from some anxiety due to being a rescue, so I set out to discover whether an at-home massage would leave her blissed-out (and well behaved).
As it turns out, the internet is a goldmine of dog massage how-tos. (Even if you don’t own a pet, I highly recommend exploring the adorable world of dog massage videos.) I wanted my advice to come from a professional, and after some research, I settled on a Daily Candy tutorial led by registered veterinary technician and certified animal massage therapist Pam Holt. (Holt also runs Buddha Dog, an L.A.-based animal massage clinic for those of us who don’t want the DIY spa treatment experience.)
I also followed the advice of Leigh Morgan, who notes that the most important thing to remember is to “always listen to the pet. If the pet moves away, the pressure is too much. If the pet pushes into you, they want more pressure applied. They are just like people—some like a deep tissue massage while others like a light touch. If the muscles are very tense, the pet is more likely to be sensitive and painful. Applying warm packs like a warm moist towel to the area for five to 10 minutes prior to starting the massage, and the muscles will be softer and more relaxed.”
Luckily, Wifi is all about human touch—she’s a Taurus and also a dog—so it was easy to have her lie down and get comfy. It’s midsummer in L.A., and Wifi didn’t seem very into the warm towel I prepared for her, so after about a minute, I dove straight into the full spa experience. (I also lit a scented candle just because.)
Holt suggests you start your massage with long, even strokes down your pup’s body “as if you were painting the dog.” Next, Holt instructed me to smooth each of Wifi’s ears: “Glide your fingers along as if it were a flower petal.” Wifi seemed a little confused, but she didn’t shy away from any of the action. When Wifi seemed warmed up, we moved onto the main event: “rolling” her muscles and kneading the skin and muscles along her back. There was also some gentle assisted bending and stretching, reminiscent of Thai massage techniques. My dog loved this—she seemed to melt into the floor as I rubbed and stretched her, even releasing a satisfied little groan when I rolled out her wrist joints.
After her massage, Wifi slept on our makeshift massage bed for a good three hours. After dozing off myself during a great massage, I took this to mean that the treatment was a success. I’m not sure that the treatment provided long-term results (she was back to barking at dogs by our nighttime walk), but it was an interesting and new way for us to connect: Wifi and I spend a lot of time together, but most of our bonding occurs when I’m walking her with a podcast on full blast or when she’s sleeping near me while I work or watch TV.
Massaging her made me realize that it had been a while since I had devoted 10 minutes to focusing solely on her. Paying close attention to her body and her mood seemed to relax and focus both of us. As Leigh Morgan notes, “Dogs are pack animals; people are part of their pack. Social interaction is a big part of emotional and physical well-being.”