If you’ve had a tough day (or week) or find yourself sore from throwing one too many hay bales around, you might have considered getting a massage. Therapeutic massages have grown in popularity and in the scientific literature over the years as researchers gather evidence that shows various massage methods really can be a significant benefit to humans.
But what about our animals? Have you ever considered giving your cow a massage? Don’t laugh. Livestock massage just might be the next new thing.
Hands on the Horse
Sports massage and physiotherapy in horses has a long history. There are numerous types of massage specialties available for equines. Some even come with certifications, such as CEMP (certified equine massage therapy). A quick Google search will likely locate at least one equine massage specialist in your area.
Riders of top equine athletes, from endurance horses to Olympic contenders, tout the benefits of regular equine massage. As athletes, horses develop tightness, trigger points and muscle knots just like we do. But they just can’t communicate this to us in nuanced ways.
It’s not infrequent that a stubborn but subtle lameness or behavioral problem such as bucking (or acting “sour” when the saddle goes on) is alleviated by a thorough physical exam followed by some physical therapy that includes massage.
Read more: For your consideration: Can cows feel comfy?
Livestock Like Lovin’, Too
OK, so horses are somewhat unique in that we actually ride them. But what about our other farm animals, like our beloved ruminants?
As public concerns over animal welfare increase scrutiny on the farm, many producers and hobby farmers are working on maximizing “cow comfort.” This concept supports the design of barns and other facilities with the animal’s natural needs in mind, such as stall space and access, as well as flooring considerations.
These aspects can make a big difference in how an animal moves, rests and interacts with her herd mates—all important pieces to her overall health and well-being. Adding to this, some farmers have installed cow scratching posts in various ingenious designs.
Imagine large bristle brushes that allow a cow to scratch her head, back and shoulders.
A paper published in 2020 tried to objectively develop a massage protocol for goats and measure their reactions to it. They concluded that, “Stroking massage promoted positive interactions between the masseur and the goats, especially when applied individually.”
So here we have scientific data proving that goats like being petted. While most goat owners already knew that, it’s useful to have this type of data in the scientific literature. It may encourage other researchers to study other types of human-animal interaction that may benefit overall animal welfare.
Now back to the original question: Can you massage your cow? Or rather, should you massage your livestock?
Researchers in Austria demonstrated that when heifers were spoken to in low, soft voices, their heart rates lowered, a reliable signal indicating their stress level decreased. A previous study by the same researchers indicated that heifers responded positively to gentle touch as well.
If you take what little information is available regarding physical human touch and ruminants and combine it with common sense and what we already know about interactions with our farm animals, it’s probably safe to conclude that there’s no harm in trying out livestock massage.
Who knows—if you get really good at it, you may wind up with referrals from across the fence line.