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Massage therapy effect on sleep quality

Can canine massage help my senior dog sleep? Tips for improving sleep quality in older dogs.

27 Apr, 2018

Recently I had two clients with older dogs aged 12 and 13 years respectively, comment on changes in their dogs’ sleeping habits. Both noted that their dogs sleep more deeply during the day, after their morning exercise and have become “restless” at night, often waking to go out to the toilet or just for some reassurance.

Both clients noted that for up to two weeks after a massage treatment, their dogs sleep “normally”. They are more active during the day and sleep soundly at night.

Massage therapy has been used in human healthcare as a safe and inexpensive intervention to help improve sleep quality. Canine massage has also been used as part of a multimodal approach to managing the symptoms of canine cognitive dysfunction. Based on this, massage therapy along with physical exercise, enrichment and arranging the dogs’ sleep environment may improve sleep habits in older dogs.

Common behavioural changes in older dogs

The changes my clients observed are common behavioural changes in older dogs. These changes include anxiety, night waking, and changes in cognitive function. The extent of these changes may be compounded by medical conditions, changes in sensory perception like hearing and eye sight, and the effects of medication.

As humans, we know the effects of sleep disturbances like night waking and poor quality sleep on our mental and physical health and quality of life. Poor sleep in humans has been linked to coronary disease as sleep deprivation increases the heart rate and the need for oxygen.

Likewise, stress and sleep disturbances in dogs affects their immune system which in turn can affect gastrointestinal, respiratory, and cardiac function. Over the long term, it affects their quality of life.

Caring for a dog that is waking at night or is unable to settle also affects their family and the relationship with the dog, so it is a serious and important issue to resolve.

Tips for improving your dog’s sleep quality


Several recent human studies on the effects of massage therapy on sleep quality provide insight into the potential benefits for massage for dogs.

A study of the effects of massage therapy on anxiety, blood pressure, heart rate and sleep quality in family members caring for a person with cancer identified the negative psychological and physical effects of caregiving. These effects included stress, anxiety, sleep disturbances, increased blood pressure and heart rate and decreased quality of life.

After participants in the intervention group of this study received seven (7) × 15 minute massage sessions every day for one week, the study recorded the following results:

  • Anxiety – Plasma cortisol levels decreased.
  • Blood pressure and heart rate decreased.
  • Sleep quality scores decreased by 13.7%, indicating an improvement in sleep quality.

Another study of how massage effects the sleep quality of patients in a cardiac care unit, found that after a 24 minute massage session twice daily for one week, the sleep quality scores of the massaged group dropped from a mean of 13.96 pre-test to 11.03 post-test across 30 participants.

A further study of patients undergoing hemodialysis for renal disease found that after patients received a 5 minute foot massage on each foot, three times each week for four weeks, the massage intervention generally improved sleep quality. Specifically, it improved the duration of sleep and resolved patient’s difficulty falling asleep initially and after waking during the night.

A literature review of inexpensive and safe interventions for people with dementia, concluded there was sufficient research to indicate that massage therapy improved sleepiness and reduced sleep disturbances.

These studies show that even a brief, regular massage can significantly affect sleep quality.

Daily exercise and enrichment

Maintaining daily physical and mental stimulation is important to promote healthy sleeping habits. A daily walk or even several short walks helps maintain the dog’s mobility. A walk outside your house and yard also provides mental stimulation for the dog.

For dogs that are unable to exercise outside the house, enrichment opportunities like a drive in the car, scent games in the house or yard or simple tricks like paw or nose targeting, keep the dog mentally alert.

Change of routine and sleep environment

Depending on when your dog is waking at night and the reason for waking (e.g. pain, needing to go to the toilet, disoriented, anxious), you may consider changes in your routine. For instance, dogs that are unable to settle at bed time may benefit from a walk and slow stroking in a quiet, dimly lit space to help them go to sleep. A pheromone diffuser in their sleep space may also help reduce anxiety and prompt sleepiness. Depending on the dog, you may consider using a crate to help the dog settle. For some dogs, anxiety wraps may also be beneficial.

For dogs that wake to toilet during the night, consider lighting their path to the door, leaving a door open for them or at least ensuring they can easily let you know they need to go out. This may mean moving the dog’s bed closer to you.

For dogs that are slow getting up, ensure their bedding allows them to easily stand up without assistance so they can easily get out to the toilet. Consider beds that are raise on one end or have “bumpers” around the edges.

While changes in sleep habits are part of the ageing process in dogs (and humans), these simple ideas may be implemented to maintain your older dog’s quality of life. Please leave me a comment or a note on the Facebook page for tips on how you help your older dog sleep well.

Until next time, enjoy your dogs.


Du, Q. 2017 “The effect of inexpensive and safe interventions in people with dementia” Journal of Aging and Geriatric Medicine (1)

Khosravi, A, Bolourchifard, F, Ikhani, M, Pourhosingholi, M.A. 2017 “The effect of massage therapy on sleep quality in cardiac care unit patients” Bioscience Biotechnology Research Communications 10 (4): 645 – 651

Landsberg, G.M, DePorter, T & Araujo, J.A. 2011 “Clinical Signs and Management of Anxiety, Sleeplessness and Cognitive Dysfunction in the Senior Pet” Veterinary Clinic Small Animal 41: 565-590

Malekshahi, F, Aryamanesh, F & Fallahi,S. 2018 “The effects of massage therapy on sleep quality of patients with end-stage renal disease undergoing hemodialysis” Sleep Hypnosis: A Journal of Clinical Neuroscience and Psychopathology, June 20 (2): 91 – 95

Pinar, R & Afsar, F. 2015 “Back massage to decrease state anxiety, cortisol level, blood pressure, heart rate and increase sleep quality in family caregivers of patients with cancer: A randomized controlled trial” Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention Vol 16 (18):8127 – 8133

Robinson, N.G & Sheets, S, 2015 Canine medical massage: techniques and clinical applications. American Animal Hospital Press, Colorado.