Deepening the Bond: How to Connect with Your Rabbit through Massage
Massage is a relaxing healing treatment that engenders a feeling of well-being in both human and non-human recipients. Rabbits benefit from massage because it may help them to relax and it may also improve certain medical conditions. Additionally, if a rabbit has become distrustful of humans for any reason, massage can help socialize the bunny to human contact.
Chandra Moira Beal became a licensed massage therapist after a special mini lop named Maia entered her life. Ms. Beal noted the health benefits of daily massage for her bunny and authored The Relaxed Rabbit: Massage for Your Pet Bunny. She also developed massage workshops for rabbits and their humans. About this alternative treatment, Ms. Beal says:
Massage is touch with a healing purpose. I believe that the intention (the aim or purpose) guiding the massage is as important as the bodywork itself, and that positive intent is a calming and healing force.
Massage specifically works the soft tissues of the body (i.e., the muscles and connective tissue) and mechanically affects blood and lymph circulation as well as the nervous system. Although massage is not for every condition [reference “When to Use Caution”], there are myriad ways in which rabbits benefit from the work, including:
Increased range of motion in the joints.
Improved peristalsis and elimination, keeping a bunny’s gut moving.
“Exercise” for ill or disabled rabbits. Because massage strokes lengthen and contract the muscle fibers, it’s like a form of exercise, although not a substitute for it. Massage is something humans can do if a rabbit is ill or injured and must be confined for a period of time.
Increased circulation of blood and lymph. Massage helps maintain strong immunity by delivering oxygen to and removing metabolic wastes from every cell.
Temporary relief of physical discomfort caused by selective breeding (e.g., the weight of a lop’s ears pulling on the head and neck muscles).
Release of emotional baggage and establishment of trust. Rabbits who have been abused or neglected often equate human touch with pain. Reprogramming them with calm, positive touch can help them heal from trauma. (Tellington TTouch® is good for this, too.)
Increased chance of survival. It especially helps those rabbits who are housed alone, including at a shelter where they live with rabbits in the same room, but not in the same cage.
Easing stress from traveling, visits to the veterinarian, changes in the household (e.g., new people or animals), changes in the environment (e.g., location of the rabbit condo), and interruption of routine (e.g., late meals).
Possible recovery from head tilt, if caught very early. For bunnies living with a chronic condition, massage can be very comforting and a high point in their day.
Comfort for deaf and blind bunnies – helps orient blind bunnies in their space.
Familiarity with the rabbit’s body and health, so any changes can be quickly recognized and addressed.
A bunny should be handled regularly (preferably daily) as a way to bond and to keep tabs on his or her health. Routinely touching a rabbit’s body alerts the guardian to weight loss (sometimes hidden under all that fur) and the development of other health problems. Ms. Beal shares her experience with this:
People have found jaw abscesses, benign lumps, cysts, small scabs, and sores. They’ve been surprised to discover (whether by feel or because the bunny pulls away) knots between the shoulder blades and areas of tension on their rabbits that might not otherwise be found.
A caregiver can find these areas of tension when giving their rabbit a light-touch massage. “Tension” is distinct from normal body tissue because it is less smooth and pliable than the surrounding tissue, and it has distinct borders. For example, you might detect something that feels like a small pea, a piece of rope, or, as you roll your fingers over the area, a ridge.
When to Use Caution
It’s important to note that massage isn’t for every condition. In fact, there are times when it’s contraindicated. For example, massage is not recommended after all types of surgery, and it’s generally not done when the bunny has an infection or disease because massage can spread pathogens through the blood and lymph systems. Since digestive issues are often secondary to some other illness or injury, it may be that the rabbit should not be massaged when there is digestive upset. In addition, massaging a rabbit with a serious digestive problem could result in rupturing the stomach, intestine, or cecum. Having your rabbit treated by a qualified veterinarian and following the prescribed home-care regimen are of paramount importance.
Before massaging, a bunny’s guardian should always take the rabbit’s health into consideration. I tend to be really cautious when it comes to surgery and digestive issues, so I would never massage without the blessing of a veterinarian who is skilled in the treatment of rabbits. In addition, it’s helpful for a person to know how their bunny’s tummy normally feels by doing some gentle, sweeping strokes when the rabbit is healthy.
Massage may also be contraindicated for certain other health conditions, such as hyperthermia, hypothermia, and obesity.
Massage of a hyperthermic (high fever) rabbit creates risk. A fever is the body’s natural reaction to warding off infection. Because massage increases circulation, it can raise a fever to dangerous levels and interfere with the body’s natural process.
A bunny who is hypothermic (below normal body temperature) could go into shock. To supplement emergency procedures, gentle resting positions, holding, or energy work with the focus/intention on getting the rabbit warmed up are best. Light resting touch over the spine is a comforting, warming gesture.
If your bunny is overweight, it can be difficult to massage through the fat to the muscle, and massaging the fatty tissue can cause pain and stress for the bunny. The rabbit should slowly be brought down to a healthy weight before starting a massage program. In the meantime, simply laying on of hands or light fur strokes would be more appropriate for showing affection and reducing stress while the bunny is dieting.
Giving Your Bunny a Massage
It’s important to turn off the phone, ground yourself, and establish your intention/purpose before starting any massage session. Some people like to use soft classical music and dim lights to help relaxation and inner focus – factors that help them better connect with their bunny. Avoid scented candles and fragranced soaps, especially if your rabbit is prone to respiratory problems. A rabbit’s sense of smell is superior to ours and some “nice” scents may not be pleasant to them.
Since you will be entering your bunny’s personal space to work on her body, it’s important to approach with an attitude of respect. Give your rabbit the opportunity to move away if the massage creates any kind of stress or discomfort. With continued practice, both of you will come to enjoy it.
Ms. Beal makes the following suggestions for a short massage session that can be incorporated into a rabbit’s daily social time:
Place your hands lightly on your rabbit’s back, and take some deep breaths to center yourself. Nudge the bunny’s body gently from one side to the other in a rhythmic rocking motion, without actually pushing the body back into position. Then start using the long gliding strokes (effleurage) down the head, neck, and back. This is a good, all-purpose stroke that is like an extension of petting, and it’s the one that bunnies seem to enjoy most.
Start with long passes down the length of the body, from the nose, over the top of the head, down either side of the spine, and ending at the tail. Make the strokes complete, all the way to the tip of the tail, because that affects something called proprioception, which is how nerve endings tell where we are in space. This gives the bunny a feeling of wholeness, and it feels delicious.
Go SLOWLY. Try to move as slowly as you possibly can and see how your rabbit reacts. Most really love it, and you’ll notice more if you slow down. Do several of these strokes, increasing the pressure slightly each time. Include some circles around the cheeks and temples, lightly knead (petrissage) around the neck, and also massage the ear base and down the length of the ear.
A rabbit’s body is delicate and they don’t tolerate pain well. As you massage your rabbit, think about the amount of pressure you’re using. Ms. Beal advises that, like humans, some rabbits only want light work; others are okay with a slightly deeper touch. Some want light pressure in one area, but will tolerate deeper work on a point that feels tense. She also emphasizes the importance of watching your rabbit for feedback:
If he is enjoying the massage, you’ll see positive signs of that: closed eyes, perhaps dozing; slow and even breathing, sighs, or yawns; submissive chin; tooth purring; licking you; stretches or a happy bunny flop.
If your bunny is feeling threatened or in any way uncomfortable, she will signal displeasure or fear by tensing muscles when pressure is applied, flattening the ears in a defensive posture, lunging or boxing, nipping or biting, tail twitching, feet flicking, showing the whites of the eyes, or hopping away. Honor your bunny’s messages: always let your rabbit be in charge of the massage session.
By incorporating some massage time into each day, you’ll become more familiar with your rabbit’s preferences. As you grow closer through this daily relaxation ritual, you’ll be well prepared if the time comes when you need to use massage for more specific healing purposes.
Caregivers who wish to know more about massage for their rabbits, including for head tilt and to help support healthy peristaltic action, will be aided with Ms. Beal’s book or DVD. Also refer to the short resource list below for additional information.
Consider researching and using alternative therapies as a wellness measure to prevent illness or, if your rabbit is already ill, to facilitate healing. Keep in mind a rabbit’s low tolerance for pain and the potentially life-threatening problems that can quickly arise if pain and underlying issues are not treated in a timely manner. Consult with your veterinarian as necessary, discuss the diagnosis, and seek appropriate treatment. When your rabbit needs a veterinarian’s help, alternative modalities can act as a complement to standard veterinary care.
Carefully select the professional who will provide care for your rabbit, reviewing training and qualifications. Consider also the condition of your rabbit as well as the physiology, nature, and needs of these small creatures. Be clear and realistic about your expectations and goals for treatment, which should prioritize your rabbit’s comfort and quality of life.
- Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals (www.abmp.com)
- International Association of Animal Massage Therapists (www.iaamt.com)
- Boulder College of Massage Therapy (www.bcmt.org)
by Marie Mead with Chandra Moira Beal, RMT
Copyright © 2013 by Marie Mead. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
I wish to extend my sincere gratitude to Chandra Beal, RMT, for sharing her expertise in this article and to Dr. Susan Brown for her review of it. Warm thanks also to Cheryl Abbott, Sandi Ackerman, Heidi Anderson, Dr. Stephanie Crispin, Nancy and Gary McConville, and Karen Witzke for their suggestions. – Marie Mead
Marie Mead has been involved in various capacities with animal rescue, advocacy, and education for over twenty years. She has made a home with special-needs rabbits and other animals, all of them rescues. Author (with collaborator Nancy LaRoche) of Rabbits: Gentle Hearts, Valiant Spirits – Inspirational Stories of Rescue, Triumph, and Joy, Marie has also written rabbit-related stories and articles for other publications. Additional writings have covered topics such as aging and the environment.
Chandra Moira Beal, RMT, is the author of The Relaxed Rabbit: Massage Techniques for Your Companion Rabbit, available as a book or DVD. She is a longtime rabbit welfare advocate and has volunteered with the House Rabbit Society since 1997. Ms. Beal is a professional massage therapist, yoga teacher, and a freelance writer who is dedicated to improving the lives of bunnies through these skills. She lives in California with her two amazing house rabbits, Molly and Gilligan.