Lying on a padded, sheet-covered table, Abby closes her eyes, relaxes — and begins wagging her tail.

The yellow Lab is getting a massage.

Her owner, Patricia Whalen-Shaw, kneads Abby’s muscles, then glides her hands in a smooth, stroking motion over the area she’s worked.

Pet massage classes are filling up with pet owners, groomers, competitors and others, instructors say. Books and DVDs about the techniques are getting more attention, too.

“I think owners overall are looking for different ways to connect with their dog beyond the traditional walk around the block or play with the Frisbee in the park,” said Lisa Peterson, a spokeswoman for the American Kennel Club who has been a dog breeder for 20 years. “Massage is sort of filling that niche.”

The ministrations are part of an increase in pet pampering, including designer dog clothes and home parties selling canine products. Americans spent an estimated $38 billion on their pets last year, compared with about $28 billion in 2001, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.

Advocates say massage can help pets relax, recover more quickly from injury or surgery, improve performance in competition and be more comfortable if they have chronic conditions.

Veterinarians caution that massage done incorrectly can harm animals, and they urge pet owners to get their vets’ approval.

Narda Robinson, a veterinarian and physician who teaches at Colorado State University, said she considers massage a great addition to traditional medicine as long as it’s veterinarian-approved.

“Any time you’re using force on an animal, there’s room for an injury there,” said Robinson, who has seen dogs whose backs have been reinjured during massages.

Massage is increasingly used in agility competitions, which require dogs to run an obstacle course at high speed, said Katherine Leggett, assistant coach for an American Kennel Club team. Owners learn massage techniques themselves but also use professional massage therapists; one has traveled with the team to Europe.

“Most of the people I know in the sport do some level of stretching and massage on their own dogs, and it makes such a difference,” Leggett said.

As Whalen-Shaw demonstrates on Abby, the pup at first positions her body to protect her front legs. Eventually, the dog exhales audibly and allows Whalen-Shaw to massage that area as well.

Whalen-Shaw, who teaches massage classes at her farm 30 miles south of Columbus, has been showing students how to work on horses, dogs and cats for about 15 years. She stresses that the techniques she teaches are for relaxation — not medical purposes.

The massage techniques are the same as used on people but with a much lighter touch, she says.

They include making a spreading movement with the palm of the hand and fingers. Or she might knead with her fingers in a circular pattern or press down with a palm or fingers, as if she were pressing down on a wet sponge and then lifting her hand up.

She watches the animals closely during a massage to gauge their reactions. A pet’s resistance — a curled lip on a dog, ears flattened back on a horse, for instance — means she stops.

Pet owners make up about a third of the students at the Northwest School of Animal Massage in Fall City, Wash. The school, founded in 2001, graduates 80 to 150 students annually.

“We’ve been very fortunate to see tremendous growth each year,” said Lola Michelin, director of education.

Kristie Long, a retired accountant from Olympia, Wash., frequently uses what she learned there on her three dogs and the 10 ragdoll cats she breeds.

“It’s kind of a natural thing but to take the classes to really learn what you’re doing, it was wonderful,” she said.

Rules governing animal massage vary. In Utah, practitioners must be licensed to perform human massage first, then complete additional hours of animal training. Washington’s Legislature recently passed a bill allowing people to become certified after taking 300 hours of animal massage training. In some states, massage can be performed only by a veterinarian or under a vet’s supervision.

The International Association of Animal Massage and Bodywork, which has about 600 members, is working to set national standards and develop a certification test for massage practitioners.

“The interest in helping and being of service to animals is just huge,” said Jonathan Rudinger, who formed the group.

The founder of PetMassage in Toledo, Rudinger said that when he first started teaching dog massage about 10 years ago, only a handful of the thousands of people at dog shows were interested in talking to him about the practice.

Now, nearly a hundred students — including some from other countries — take his classes each year. Rudinger also sells about a thousand copies annually of a home-study course.

A weeklong canine foundation class at PetMassage runs $1,400, while a four-day canine beginner workshop costs $550 at Whalen-Shaw’s Integrated Touch Therapy.

Rhonda Cruze, who runs a day spa for dogs in Corinth, Texas, ordered Rudinger’s course about three years ago when looking for services to offer clients in addition to grooming and boarding.

“Once they understand the benefits, I do get a lot of requests for it, to add it on to the grooming service while they are here,” she said.

The increased acceptance of massage reflects the way people’s views of their pets have changed, Peterson said.

“Now that pets are considered a member of the family, owners want to give their dogs more and more of the same things that we humans enjoy,” she said.