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Pet masseuse helps dogs, cats muscle through pain

Sarah Hrichena gives Kita, a Pomeranian-Poodle mix a therapeutic massage. Carrie Snyder / The Forum1 / 2
Sarah Hrichena works with the hair, not against it, while giving a therapeutic massage to Kita. Carrie Snyder / The Forum2 / 2

MOORHEAD, Minn. -- Sarah Hrichena’s clients react in all sorts of ways when she gives them a massage.

Some rave that she’s really helped their sciatica. Some ask if she could work on specific areas, like the right shoulder. Others just flick their tails and purr.

By day, Hrichena is a licensed massage therapist at Relaxation Plus in Moorhead and treats clients of the two-legged variety. But here’s the rub: In her time off, Hrichena offers massage to dogs, cats and even the occasional ferret.

Hrichena gives pet massages through her part-time business, Foxie’s Promise Pet Sitting. While she knows some people in the area who offer equine massage, Hrichena believes she’s one of the only people locally who offers the muscle-relaxation therapy to small animals.

“I know I feel better after a massage,” Hrichena said. “Animals have muscles, just like us, that need rubbing.”

During a recent session, Hrichena demonstrated her techniques on an 8-pound Pomapoo. Hrichena started at the shoulders of the animal and worked toward the back, moving her fingers in small circular motions. The dog initially seemed restless and eager to jump off her lap, especially when Hrichena began kneading its tight hip muscles. But the young woman rested her hands on the canine’s hips, practicing “energy work” – an energy-balancing practice similar to reiki – on the animal’s more sensitive muscle areas. She believes the energy work helped the dog settle down and relax, making it more receptive to traditional massage.

Hrichena has offered her services to limping animals, injured cats and even as a way to bring comfort to a dying dog. She once treated a cat with arthritis so bad that he couldn’t climb stairs. The owner told her that the cat never left the first floor because stairs were too hard for him. After working with him over a period of weeks, Hrichena dropped by one day to find he had actually braved the steps and was now napping on the owner’s bed.

Hrichena charges $45 for a 30-minute treatment, which she found is almost always all she needs to treat a small animal. Unlike human massage, she uses a lighter touch while avoiding essential oils or deep pressure. She has found dog and cat muscle groups to be very similar to those on a human. “Think of it as a human on all fours,” she said.

Cattie Coyle, an animal massage therapist who founded the website, writes in her blog that “there is a huge misconception about massage therapy for animals; that it is just another foofy spa service for overly pampered dogs in diamond necklaces and Prada boots. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

In fact, Coyle writes, pet massage offers all sorts of physical and psychological perks. It increases circulation of the blood and lymphatic systems, increases flexibility, relieves muscular tightness and spasms, flushes toxins from the system, interrupts the pain cycle, helps reduce excessive scar formation after injuries, promotes a healthy coat and gives the receiver a psychological boost via positive touch.

And, Coyle adds, it won’t simply benefit dogs and cats but can also help any creature, from sheep to rabbits and ducks. Hrichena’s most unusual client so far has been a ferret with a limp. Although she worried a little that the sharp-toothed pet could get nippy if agitated, he turned out to be unexpectedly mellow.

“He just sat there like he knew why I was doing it,” she said.

Then again, Hrichena said she’s felt a special connection with animals for as long as she can remember.

She also seemed to have “masseuse” encoded in her DNA. She recently came across a photo in which she was about 3 years old and giving her uncle a shoulder rub.

“I was just massaging those shoulders like I knew what I was doing,” she said.

While later enrolled at the massage therapy program at Williston (N.D.) State College, Hrichena was asked to research a specific topic for a report. She chose pet massage as her subject, and soon became interested in it. Eventually, she was able to help her own dog, Foxie – a Chihuahua/cairn terrier mix – after it was hurt in a car accident. She believes Foxie recovered more quickly because of it.

Although Hrichena makes the bulk of her income by doing traditional massage on humans, she sometimes finds animals are easier clients. They let her know when something hurts by staring at her or startling, rather than suffering silently in stoic Midwestern silence. And they are more easily able to relax because they aren’t fretting about their “to-do” lists and the kids’ orthodontic bills.

And, while she believes pet massage is a huge boost to healing and relaxation, she insists it isn’t a substitute to traditional veterinary care. “It’s a complementary treatment,” she said. “We still have to go to the doctor.”



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