I was lying on the tiled bathroom floor, my face just inches from the back of the cold porcelain toilet. Was I ill or inebriated? Not at all. I was simply trying to help a cat who had taken refuge in a bathroom.
My feline adventure began days earlier when a 50ish gentleman named Jim called me about his cat. He explained that the cat, whose name was Boots, had suddenly begun dragging her hind legs. After a few trips to the veterinarian and an assortment of medications, Boots’ condition had not improved. Since Jim had experienced the benefits of the Feldenkrais Method® in eliminating his back pain, he wondered if I could help his cat. That’s how I found myself in Jim’s home in Orange County, California.
As I entered the house, Boots retreated to the hall bathroom. It was amazing to see how quickly she could get around using only her front legs. While I patiently waited to see if Boots would get more acclimated to my presence, Jim filled me in on his cat’s details. Boots, a beautiful Maine Coon with large green eyes, had been semi-feral for 11 of her 13 years. Jim had been feeding Boots for most of her life, but she had started coming inside his house only two years prior. The brown tabby still spent most of her time outdoors, and Jim was rightfully concerned about her safety in her current disabled state.
Although Jim lovingly cared for Boots and fervently hoped that she would become a lap cat, Boots wanted no part of human contact. Of course, Jim neglected to mention any of this when he made the appointment with me!
After waiting about twenty minutes or so to see if Boots would come out of hiding, I slowly entered the bathroom. The cat began to hiss and growl as I approached. I used my voice soothingly and advanced very, very gradually toward Boots’ hiding place. I let the cat decide when she was ready for me to get closer. I never hurried her. Fortunately, this kitty was my last appointment of the day and I had all the time in the world.
Eventually, I was able to extend the soft eraser end of a pencil to touch Boots without her moving away. I moved the eraser end very slowly and softly on her body. It was only when she was fully comfortable with that contact that I touched her with my fingertips.
Lest you think this achievement was easy to accomplish, I’ll fill you in on some details. My relationship with Boots did not follow a linear path. There were several advances and retreats – from both of us. After what seemed like an eternity, the cat finally left the bathroom. Yay! But then she hid behind a bedroom dresser and I found myself lying on the floor once again.
Boots and I finally did connect through the pleasure of slow, soft movements on her body. In fact, the tabby relaxed enough that I was able to move onto a sofa, where I placed her on my lap and began once more to touch her. I used my fingertips to trace the outline of her spine, helping Boots become aware of how her spine served as a connection between her front and hind ends.
When the Maine Coon was lying on her side, I used the flat of my palm against her hind paws, first singly and then together, so that her brain could be reminded of what it felt like to stand on her hind legs. I also very delicately pushed through each hind leg to feel the movement travel in a wave up to her spine.
After I finished the session, Jim encouraged Boots to come to him. We both looked on in amazement as she used her hind legs to propel herself off my lap and walk over to him with characteristic feline dignity. Jim and I were both speechless!
While the cat’s renewed ability to move her hind legs was both amazing and unusual, that was not the end of the story. After Boots experienced the pleasure of slow, gentle movements with me, she sought out human contact. This pleased Jim tremendously, and Boots was often seen nestled in his lap, purring away as he stroked her.
Why do slow, gentle movements seem to ease anxiety, relax tense muscles and deepen the bond between human and animal?
In the two decades since I met Boots, I have used slow, gentle movements to help many dogs, cats, horses and humans. Many people are surprised to witness the effect that such delicate contact can have with even large, powerful animals such as horses.
I was certainly not the first person to discover the effectiveness of slow, tender movements. It is often said that the late Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais, the originator of the Feldenkrais Method®, instructed his students to touch their clients “As a mother touches her child.” So what is it about gentle contact that seems to ease anxiety, relax tense muscles and deepen the bond between two individuals? I have a few ideas:
Humans and animals have a specialized set of nerve fibers that are activated only by slow, gentle movements. These fibers, which are found on the hairy parts of skin, are called CT-tactile afferents (CTs) in humans and C low-threshold mechanoreceptors (CLTMs) in non-human animals. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll refer to these fibers as CLTMs, as they seem to react similarly in humans and animals. It is important to note that CLTMs are activated only by slow, gentle movements at skin temperature, such as a caress or an affectionate, soothing pat. Fast touches, deep contact and temperatures much hotter or colder than the individual’s skin temperature are not registered by CLTMs.
Since CLTMs only recognize slow, gentle movements at approximately skin temperature, movements produced by your hand are ideal. This contact is similar to what a mother does when she instinctively soothes her child, or what you do when you gently rub your friend’s back when she’s having a rough day.
I find it interesting that CLTMs send information about this pleasurable contact to the insular cortex of the brain, rather than the somatosensory cortex, which processes many kinds of tactile stimulation. The insular cortex processes taste, pain and emotion. As the pleasant sensation of gentle stroking is registered in the reward center of the brain, the touched animal may feel less stress and be motivated to interact with the toucher. It’s possible that this mechanism helped Boots overcome her fear and enjoy human contact.
To gain the benefits of gentle movement, the animal must be receptive to your contact. Forcibly restraining an animal so that you can lightly touch them will usually not result in a positive experience for either one of you. The unpleasantness of the encounter will probably prevent the animal from making a positive association with your contact. Think about a stranger stroking your arm on a public bus. You’d probably consider that contact disagreeable, no matter how tender the touch was! Please take your time and respect your animal’s responses.
In addition to the fascinating benefits of stimulating CLTMs, slow, light movements allow both the giver and receiver to feel fine distinctions in muscle tone and quality of movement. We know that the less pressure you use, the more you and your animal will feel. The more one feels, the more one can improve body awareness and functioning.
And lastly, using one’s hands to gently lift and support an animal’s soft tissue seems to relieve the discomfort of tight, sore muscles. Since the animal’s nervous system needs a bit of time to feel your support and signal the muscles to relax, this hands-on support is best provided unhurriedly.
It’s important to note that slow, gentle touch is not the only type of contact that is therapeutic. It’s simply a type of touch that I’ve found particularly helpful in many situations, including with the fearful Maine Coon, Boots. There may be times when faster and/or deeper contact is beneficial, and there are specialized nerve fibers that process that sensory information.
In summary, it seems that humans and animals can derive physical and emotional benefits from receiving slow, gentle touch. Providing this calming contact may improve your animal’s quality of life by enhancing comfort, reducing neuromuscular tension and deepening the human-animal bond. And I bet you’ll feel better too!
Why are slow, gentle movements transforming?
I’ve offered three possible explanations for the beneficial aspects of slow, gentle movements. What has your experience been using gentle contact? Do you have any additional explanations for why it can be so powerful? Please leave a comment and tell me about your experiences and/or theories. I’d love to hear from you!
Scientific American Mind, July/August 2015, “The Social Power of Touch,” by Lydia Denworth
The Scientist, September 1, 2012, “Pleasant to the Touch,” by Sabrina Richards
Neuron, Vol. 82, May 21, 2014, “Discriminative and Affective Touch: Sensing and Feeling,” by Francis McGlone, Johan Wessberg and Hakan Olausson
 Skin is classified as either glabrous, found only on the plantar and palmar surfaces, or hairy, which is found on the rest of the body. That means that in humans, the “hairy skin” areas cover a large part of the body, but exclude the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet.
 CLTMs also register gentle stroking made by soft brushes and other tools that are neither hot nor cold.