You have to admit, just hearing the words, “cat massage,” is kind of funny. It automatically produces images of cats in white robes walking around on their hind legs at a day spa. In reality, however, the practice can give new life to cats, especially felines in their golden years.
Katie Tontala has been practicing cat massage for the past 20 years. A nurse by trade, she also became a licensed massage therapist in the late-1990s. An animal lover at heart, when she heard of cat massage, she decided to continue her education and traveled to Circleville, Ohio (located south of Columbus) to a place called Integrated Touch Therapy to learn the craft.
“People thought I was crazy because at that time, no one knew anything about cat massage,” she says. “I was excited about it. But I found there wasn’t much of a call for this at the time.
“That’s when I went to Animal Friends to begin working with the animals there.”
Tontala, who runs a website called catbehaviordemystified.com, says there are two types of massage: wellness massage and therapeutic massage. Tontala teaches the former to cat owners and shelter volunteers in a series of classes she holds several times a year at Animal Friends, in the North Hills.
Tontala says a wellness massage is best described as “focused petting.” It’s a treatment that anyone can learn. It’s a way of bonding with a cat and making them more socialized, something that is also extremely beneficial to shelter cats.
“A lot of the cats you find in shelters are scared and skittish,” she says. “This is a way to introduce them to touch and build trust. You learn where to massage and pet your cat in a way that is soothing and calming.
“And you’ll know if you’re doing it right because you’ll have a real massage junkie on your hands.”
Therapeutic massage, Tontala says, should only be done by a trained massage therapist. This is used to treat cats who have medical conditions like feline arthritis or geriatric cats that have a hard time getting around in their old age. Tontala often fosters older cats and provides hospice care for cats in their final days.
“Cats have a pretty high tolerance for pain and you might not always know they’re in pain,” Tontala says. “But if you observe them, you can tell. They’re probably not moving as fast or jumping up on things like they used to.
“I get in there and work the muscles, loosening them up very gently. It really does help their quality of life. That’s why I foster so many geriatric cats. I want to make them comfortable and, besides, no animal should ever die in a shelter.”
Tontala is also a believer in both wellness and therapeutic massages for all types of animals, not just cats. “It’s the same premise and process,” she says. “I’ve done this for dogs, bunnies and even gerbils. I think I’ve massaged just about every kind of animal there is. Well, I’ve never massaged a fish.”