Bella Rich is 105, but she never forgets her weekly massage appointment.
In fact, she conducts the entirety of her Wednesday with her 6 p.m. massage in mind. She rises from her orthopedic bed about mid-morning, then spends the day strolling around the Lesley University campus before returning to her home, a second-story Porter Square apartment. Afterward, she recovers from the exercise by settling in with a warm compress on her hip (a treatment her massage therapist recommended) and eating an early dinner of white rice and rotisserie chicken. When the doorbell rings at 6 on the dot, she hastens to the top of the stairs, eager to greet one of the people she loves most in the world.
“Hi, lovebug!” Julie Polvinen coos, crouching down to scratch Bella’s ears. Bella barks, wagging her plume of a tail and stamping her four little feet on the floor. “Oh, you’re so pretty.”
Bella Rich is a “lovebug,” a “princess,” a “baby,” and a 15-year-old Pekingese dog with bulging eyes, a short snout, and a tongue that tends to loll. She and her brother, 12-year-old Bacio, are two of the 26 animals who regularly patronize Polvinen’s massage therapy business, Zen Animal Massage.
As one of Somerville’s best-known certified small animal massage therapists, Polvinen spends her evenings delivering relaxation to a menagerie of clients—from Great Danes to domestic shorthair cats to Pomeranians to rabbits. This is Polvinen’s eighth year in business, and she’s built up a substantial fan base over that time, boasting a perfect 5.0 rating and nearly 30 rave reviews on her Facebook page.
Typically, animals get an hour-long full body massage from Polvinen, including the head, ears, and face. But Bella and Bacio are a special case.
“Whoever wanders into my space is whoever I work on,” Polvinen says as Bacio settles down on the carpet in front of her. We are sitting in the living room, a kingdom that Bella is currently ruling from the memory foam bed that Polvinen recommended for her. Polvinen begins to slowly trace her fingers down the length of Bacio’s back.
“My fingers are right and left of the spine, so I can compare the muscles on either side,” she explains to me. Polvinen’s voice is exactly the kind of voice you’d expect a massage therapist to have—low, reassuring, a little like a yoga instructor’s and a lot like your kindly next door neighbor’s. Bacio begins to close his eyes.
Dana Rich, Bacio and Bella’s owner, first met Polvinen at the Somerville Dog Festival. She took Polvinen’s card, but didn’t call her until five years later, when she had a bit of extra cash.
“I got a bonus at work, and I told my husband ‘I’m going to get the dog massaged!’” Rich says.
Rich immediately saw the impact Polvinen’s massages had on Bacio. As he aged, Bacio had gotten stiffer from degenerative discs in his spine, but Polvinen was able to help restore some of his mobility.
“You can see how calm he is during his massage,” says Rich. “He’s a high-strung dog, but when Julie’s here, the whole atmosphere is relaxing in the house.”
While her voice could easily lull the listener to sleep, Polvinen’s hands are far from sluggish. She often says that her fingers are her eyes, and they’re traveling a practiced route around Bacio’s back, relaxing muscles, loosening knots. She’s on high alert for anything that feels off—it’s not uncommon for her to make critical discoveries about her clients’ bodies.
“I had seen this one dog every week,” Polvinen says. She remembers the dog settling in as usual, but then rolling over to expose his abdomen to her. “In the process of that abdominal massage, I found a mass about 5 inches around. And my heart sunk.”
As she remembers having to tell the owner about the mass—which the vet later diagnosed as a lethal tumor on the dog’s spleen—she gets choked up.
“The woman just started sobbing … and she said, ‘Julie, we just came back from the vet,’” Polvinen remembers. “The vet never spotted it.”
Polvinen emphasizes that as an animal massage therapist, she is only allowed to discover, not diagnose. This is why, she says, it’s highly valuable to have multiple people working on your pet. Working in alternative therapy alongside regular vet visits is “the best possible care you can be giving your animal.”
“I can’t cure arthritis,” Polvinen explains. “But I can bring comfort and ease of movement and lessen the pain.”
It was Polvinen’s first dog, an arthritis-inflicted beagle named Dillon, who initially introduced her to animal massage therapy. Diagnosing the severity of Dillon’s arthritis would require anesthesia, which made Polvinen wary. She opted instead to research some holistic treatments, and came across an animal massage therapist. Polvinen was so impressed by Dillon’s improvement that she decided to not only become an animal massage therapist herself, but to attend the exact institution Dillon’s therapist did: the Bancroft School of Massage Therapy in Worcester.
The 200-hour program was no joke—Polvinen studied for six months before she was even allowed to touch a dog. After the class passed the technical exam, however, their days got a little livelier.
“The people in the class would bring their dogs to class after that,” Polvinen remembers. “They would allow us to work on their dogs. It was so fun!”
It’s hard to imagine someone being uninterested in getting a degree in what seems like glorified dog-petting. But one look at Polvinen’s calendar demonstrates how taxing her career is. Her 60-minute massages may be the core of her work, but Polvinen also regularly spends time before and after her appointments helping owners make their homes friendlier for their mobility-impaired animals, connecting them to her personal network of acupuncturists and holistic vets, or even helping them make the difficult decision of when to put their pet down.
In other words, animal massage therapists don’t simply love animals—they have to love people, too.
“When we were in school, they said—I’m going to choke up saying this—‘As much as you affect the dog, you affect their owner,’” Polvinen says. “And I was like, ‘I don’t get it, I’m not massaging the owner.’ And now I’ve come to understand this, eight years into the business. They are looking at anyone who works on their dog as someone who can help. And oftentimes they’re in a desperate state … I’m with people on this journey a lot of the time. It’s sometimes like a constant state of grieving.”
In the month of September alone, Polvinen had to say goodbye to three clients who “crossed the rainbow bridge,” as she calls it. Some owners have even asked her to be present when their animals “cross,” to provide a gentle massage for their pet and emotional support for themselves.
To her amazement, many of these owners stay in contact with Polvinen after their pets are gone.
“I’m seen as a connection still, to that animal,” she says. “It’s amazing and beautiful.”
Pet owners, Polvinen says, typically contact her when they realize that their pets’ health is declining, or when a vet hasn’t been able to provide adequate treatment. This means that the very nature of her work is to constantly build intimate, trusting relationships with frantic owners and animals who simply don’t have a lot of time left.
“We’re doing everything we can to try to give quality of life during the time that is left,” Polvinen says. “And this restores peace of mind to a lot of the owners.”
As Polvinen delivers firm, long strokes to Bella’s ears with her thumbs—in the same way you might make a sharp crease in a piece of paper—Rich is in the kitchen, outfitting an IV bag with a needle. After Bella stopped eating and dropped from 10 to 7.4 pounds five months ago, the vet diagnosed her with kidney disease.
“I really thought we were going to lose her,” Rich says.
Bella requires intravenous fluids every other day, but Rich can’t bear sticking her with needles—so naturally, Polvinen has stepped in, administering fluids after Bella’s massage appointments.
“It’s happening, Dana,” Polvinen calls from the living room with a smile, finishing up on Bella’s ears. “She’s getting well.”
Bella shakes herself off, licks the air furiously, then scurries into the kitchen to check if there’s any chicken left in her bowl.