Scaredy cats are Maryjean Ballner’s specialty.
She props her feet on the wooden desk and gently cradles the timid gray short-hair known as Jasmine. Eventually, the kitty — who has been a resident at the East County Animal shelter in Dublin for more than a month — untucks her head from the protection of Ballner’s arm and rests her chin on top of her shoulder.
Jasmine, Ballner says, is a classic scaredy. Among the signs of a scaredy cat are cringing, trembling, shrinking back and loss of bladder control. But Ballner is nonplused. Accustomed to such occasions, she simply drapes a pale green towel over her shirt.
For four years, Ballner has rubbed more than 1,000 cats the right way.
A professional masseuse and author of “Dog Massage” and “Cat Massage,” Ballner has adapted close to 50 different techniques from traditional Swedish massage. Her graduate paper at the Institute for Massage in New York City was entitled “Massage Therapy from a Feline Point of View.”
Ballner’s small professional practice is exclusively reserved for homo sapiens.
“Frankly I don’t think people will pay money to rub their cats,” she says.
But the Castro Valley resident volunteers at the Dublin shelter and one in the Peninsula to help cats — her first love — reduce kennel stress and make them more sociable, and therefore adoptable.
Whether soothing affection-starved strays or aloof pets, massage is a form of communication between owner and animal.
“We don’t speak fluent meow, and we don’t speak basic bark,” Ballner explains. “The best way we communicate with our animals is through touch, and the best touch is massage.”
Ballner explains that felines are basically fit into four categories: shy, scared, aggressive or friendly. Her goal is to make them all friendly.
The previously anxious Jasmine is beginning to look even a tiny bit relaxed, as Ballner applies the “No Mo” or no-motion technique, an approach so deceptively simple few people think to use it.
“We get so busy that we forget cats don’t maintain that same level of frenzied activity,” Ballner explains. “They appreciate just being held. She feels the warmth of my body, the rise and fall (of my breathing). I’ll prop my feet up so she lays against me.”
For scaredy cats in general, she does Chinny Chin Chin, Fingertips, Whiskerbeds and Check Out Those Cheeks with dime-size circle rubs under the cheek and chin with the finger pads and tips. The instinctive petting zone is the top of the head, but to a cat that can be an ambush. “Too intense,” Ballner says.
In such occasions, she restricts the action to near the face area. So long as the cat sees what’s happening, it feels more in control and less defensive. Sometimes she does “voice massage” as well, singing customized kitty verses to the tune of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
Four minutes of a focused massage, she believes, has more of an effect than 20 minutes of random rubbing, even with a cat — or dog — one has owned for years. Most people rub too fast, too hard and in the wrong places. Proper touch is good communication, and pets will answer back.
“They’re more responsive and more affectionate, because cats become appreciative of good touch,” she says.
Ballner returns a mellow Jasmine back to her metal cage and moves on to the next. She checks on a sweet tabby, Oliver, who agreeably undergoes a brisk breast stroking. Ballner has worked with the orange cat in the past two months, so he’s made the transition from “scaredy” to “friendly.”
Next she approaches Luigi, a black-and-white, bug-eyed kitty who’d just checked in the day before. She carefully lets him smell her hand, watching to see if he’ll rub against it. The growl isn’t a good sign, but she picks him up and returns to the office.
The growling makes Ballner cautious, but not intimidated.
“He’s a force to be reckoned with,” she says of his deep-throated early warning system. She pulls at his nape, and Luigi’s eyes seem to settle back into their sockets in wary contentment. When she touches the tip of his nose, he stops growling all together.
Indeed, Luigi gets so relaxed that he becomes limp. It takes her a few tries to nudge him back into his cage before he languidly relents.
“Strays are much more affectionate than you can ever imagine,” she says. “They’re so appreciative to have a home.”
The books and video were the idea of an editor at the National Audubon Society. She published “Cat Massage” in 1997 and did a follow-up video showing the hands-on strategies.
The debut of “Dog Massage” last year — a video is in the works — spurred an appearance on “Live with Regis and Kelly” last February. Recently, Ballner began offering free workshops for shelter employees and has begun opening some to the public.
The volunteer work can be trying, though, knowing that so many of the cats she works with may never leave the shelter. “Sometimes, it’s easier not to know,” she says, her eyes reddening. “I cry just about every time I come.”
Still, Ballner perseveres, knowing that she made a cat feel loved for at least 15 minutes.
“Touch is so powerful. It conveys love,” she says. That’s why long after Ballner retires from her human practice, she’ll continue her shelter work. “As long as there are cats.”
Vera H-C Chan is the Times event editor. She can be reached at 925-977-8428 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BOOKS: Maryjean Ballner, author of “Cat Massage” and “Dog Massage” (St. Martin’s Griffin, $11.95 each), “Your Cat Wants a Massage” video (VHS, $24.95)
WORKSHOPS: The free animal massage workshops for shelter volunteers are open to the public. Feb. 19 and March 9, San Francisco SPCA, 2500 16th St., S.F.; March 23, Tri-Valley Animal SPCA, 4651 Gleason Drive, Dublin
CONTACT: 877-636-9636, www.catmassage.com