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Integrating Western and Traditional Chinese Medicine Approaches to Manage Skin Barrier Dysfunction and Redness in Dogs

Skin barrier dysfunction and redness are common issues that can significantly affect a dog’s quality of life. Addressing the underlying causes of these issues is crucial for promoting healthy skin and overall well-being in our canine companions. In this article, I will explore both Western and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) perspectives on skin barrier dysfunction and redness in dogs, as well as discuss integrative strategies for managing these conditions.

My youngest dog Mr. Higgins recently had an acute reaction to an environmental allergen. He came in after being outside red on the muzzle and inside of his feet, and he didn’t want to put weight on his left paw. My first aid protocol involved inspecting him, giving him some herbs to cool the blood, and keeping a careful eye on him.

I brought him to the vet who said he probably reacted to an insect bite or something he stepped on.

We’ve had terrible rains in San Diego and my vet mentioned that with all the vegetation growing (it’s Spring now) that it would be the worst he’s seen it in the context of environmental allergens in his forty-three years in practice.

Understanding Skin Barrier Dysfunction and Redness in Dogs

Even though I lean very heavily toward Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) I like to explain both perspectives so that you can understand what is occurring.

The skin barrier, or stratum corneum, is the outermost layer of the skin that serves as a protective shield against environmental irritants, allergens, and pathogens. It also helps retain moisture and maintain skin hydration. A healthy skin barrier is essential for the overall health of dogs. Skin barrier dysfunction occurs when the integrity of the skin barrier is compromised, leading to increased permeability and a decreased ability to retain moisture.

Redness in dogs is often a sign of inflammation or irritation, which can be associated with skin barrier dysfunction. The redness is a result of increased blood flow to the affected area, as the body attempts to combat the inflammation.

  1. Itching: Dogs often experience intense itching, which can lead to excessive scratching, licking, and biting of the affected areas. This can further damage the skin and potentially lead to secondary skin infections.
  2. Skin lesions: Inflammation and itching can result in various skin lesions, such as bumps, rashes, and scaly patches.
  3. Dry or greasy skin: Changes in the skin’s barrier function can lead to dry, flaky skin or an oily, greasy appearance.
  4. Hair loss: Persistent scratching, rubbing, or licking can cause hair loss in the affected areas.
  5. Recurrent skin infections: Dogs with recurring skin infections are more prone to bacterial and yeast infections due to the compromised skin barrier and constant irritation.

The severity and distribution of symptoms can vary among individual dogs. Some may experience mild, seasonal flare-ups, while others may suffer from persistent, year-round symptoms.

In my case, it was an acute onset that came on from exposure to the allergen.

Western Medicine Strategies for Managing Skin Barrier Dysfunction and Redness

When I brought my one-year-old dog to the vet, he sent me home with a novel veterinary spray. Before I share what that was I will outline what the conventional approach is to manage redness:

  • Gentle grooming: Use mild, hypoallergenic shampoos and conditioners specifically designed for dogs with sensitive skin. Avoid over-bathing, as this can strip the skin of its natural oils.
  • Moisturizing: Topical moisturizers or barrier repair creams can help restore the skin’s natural barrier function and reduce inflammation.
  • Anti-inflammatory medications: In some cases, veterinarians may prescribe anti-inflammatory medications, such as corticosteroids or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), to help reduce redness and inflammation.
  • Allergy management: If allergies are the cause of the redness, a veterinarian may recommend allergen avoidance, dietary changes, or medications to help manage the dog’s allergic response.
  • Nutritional support: Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, and other supplements can help support the skin’s health and immune function.

Topical Spray With Probiotics To Manage Skin Barrier Dysfunction and Redness

There is a new product on the market called Linkskin. From what I gather it’s only available through your vet. It has a very simple formulation:

The active ingredients listed on their website include:

  • Tyndallised lactobacilli (Lactobacillus rhamnosusLactobacillus reuteri): heat treated to ensure stability and efficacy in aqueous solution
  • Algal extracts: provide a multitude of nutrients to support diversity and balance in the skin microbiota
  • Tamarind extract and vegetable polyphenols: antioxidant properties that help to normalize the micro-environment and prevent skin irritation

I could not find the full list of ingredients as it’s still fairly new on the market.

It’s so new that “The University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine is currently recruiting dogs diagnosed with atopic dermatitis (environmental allergy) for a clinical research trial to test the efficacy of a new probiotic topical skin spray in preventing secondary skin infections.”

Some dog parents have used Skout’s Honor as a topical but I found that formulation to have more ingredients than I was interested it.

Skout’s Honor Itch Spray Ingredients:


I’m not a grooming expert. But in looking at both lists, I wasn’t so keen on Skout and leaned more on the Linkskin spray. And while I normally do not like novel products but this formulation is so simple I agreed to try it on my puppy.

A probiotic spray containing lactobacillus and plant polyphenols can be effective for maintaining and improving the health of a dog’s skin due to their combined beneficial properties. Here are some reasons why this type of spray could be effective:

  1. Lactobacillus: Lactobacillus is a type of beneficial bacteria often found in probiotics. These friendly microorganisms can help restore and maintain the balance of the skin microbiome, which is essential for healthy skin function. Topical application of lactobacillus can:
    • Support the skin’s natural barrier function by preventing the overgrowth of harmful bacteria and yeasts.
    • Reduce inflammation and redness associated with skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis or allergies.
    • Promote the skin’s natural healing process, particularly in cases of skin infections or other irritations.
  2. Algal extracts: Algal extracts offer several skin benefits, including:
    • Moisturizing properties to maintain skin hydration and support the skin’s natural barrier function.
    • Anti-inflammatory effects to alleviate redness, itching, and irritation.
    • Antioxidant and antimicrobial properties to protect the skin from oxidative stress and harmful pathogens.
    • Support for skin repair and regeneration by promoting the production of collagen and elastin.
  3. Plant polyphenols: Plant polyphenols are natural compounds found in various plants, known for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Including plant polyphenols in a dog skin spray can:
    • Provide powerful antioxidant protection against environmental damage and oxidative stress, which can contribute to skin aging and various skin issues.
    • Reduce inflammation and alleviate skin irritation, particularly in dogs with sensitive skin or inflammatory skin conditions.
    • Offer antimicrobial and antifungal properties that can help protect the skin from infections.

By combining these three ingredients, a probiotic spray can offer a comprehensive approach to supporting dog skin health. It can address various aspects of skin health, such as microbiome balance, inflammation, moisture retention, and protection against environmental stressors.

Traditional Chinese Medicine Perspective on Skin Barrier Dysfunction and Redness

TCM takes a holistic approach to understanding and treating health issues in both humans and animals. Health is believed to be a result of balance and harmony among various forces, such as Yin and Yang, as well as the flow of vital energy called Qi through meridians or energy pathways in the body. From the TCM perspective, skin barrier dysfunction and redness in dogs can be understood as an imbalance or disruption in the harmonious interplay of these forces.

Wei Qi (pronounced “way chee”) is a vital component of the body’s immune system and serves as the first line of defense against external pathogens, such as environmental irritants, allergens, and harmful microorganisms. Wei Qi is a form of defensive energy that circulates near the surface of the skin and helps maintain the skin’s integrity and proper function.

There’s a saying in TCM which is ingrained in me:

  • When there is red, there is heat
  • When there is odor there is damp
  • When there is itch there is wind

In my dog’s case, he had redness, and he had a slight itch. That told me his pattern related to disharmony brought on by wind. Since it was an acute reaction I also realized that it was an external pattern and had not yet invaded the interior.

When Wei Qi is strong and well-balanced, it effectively protects the skin from external factors that can lead to redness, inflammation, and barrier dysfunction. However, when Wei Qi is weak or imbalanced, the skin becomes more vulnerable to these factors, resulting in redness, itching, and other symptoms associated with skin irritation.

Several factors can contribute to a weakened Wei Qi in dogs, including:

  • Poor nutrition: An inadequate or imbalanced diet can deprive the body of essential nutrients needed to maintain strong Wei Qi and overall immune function.
  • Stress: Emotional stress, overexertion, or environmental stressors can weaken the body’s defenses, including Wei Qi.
  • Chronic illness: Long-term health issues can deplete the body’s energy reserves and compromise its ability to maintain healthy Wei Qi levels.

From a TCM perspective, strengthening and balancing Wei Qi is an essential component of managing red skin and other skin issues in dogs.

Integrating TCM Approaches for Managing Skin Barrier Dysfunction and Redness in Dogs

In TCM, understanding the root cause is important so that the right management strategy can be put into place. A list of how I normally approach this would be to focus on one or combination of the following:

  1. Fortify the spleen and replenish qi
  2. Induce diuresis to drain dampness
  3. Clear heat and dry dampness
  4. Disperse wind and discharge heat
  5. Clear heat to cool the blood
  6. Tonify blood
  7. Nourish yin
  8. Invigorate blood

When I work with a client one on one, I would implement the dietary therapy strategy based on the pattern differentiation diagnosis.

There are herbs that can be used to support this as well. For my own dog I gave him a Chinese herbal formulat to fortify the spleen and replenish qi after a few days of cooling his blood. All herbs are personalized to the dog. If you need a TCVM vet I recommend:

Dr. Dennis Thomas

Holistic Health Care for Pets
1707 E. 11th Ave, Spokane WA 99202
Call: 509-214-2676

If you would like to contact him via email: DrThomasHolisticvet@yahoo.com

I use him for my own dogs, and refer clients to him when a TCVM vet isn’t available in your city.

Note: Some links in this article are affiliate links (Amazon Associates or other programs I participate in). At no charge to you, as an affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.  

Strengthening the Immune System

I often tell clients I do not “treat dogs”. Rather I do my best to understand what the body needs so it can repair itself.

The body has this desire to be healthy. We just need to figure out what to do to get it back into a state of harmony.

In TCM, strengthening the immune system involves addressing the root causes of imbalances and promoting overall harmony within the body. Here are some TCM strategies to enhance the immune system in dogs:

  1. Herbal medicine: TCM practitioners may prescribe specific herbal formulas to help support the immune system by nourishing and balancing Qi, blood, Yin, and Yang. Herbs like Astragalus (Huang Qi), Reishi mushrooms (Ling Zhi), and Cordyceps (Dong Chong Xia Cao) are known to have immune-boosting properties. Even if you do not have access to these Chinese Herbs you can feed these mushrooms as supplements (powdered or tinctures).
  2. Acupuncture: Acupuncture can help improve the immune system by stimulating specific points along the meridians to balance and regulate the flow of Qi, blood, and other vital substances. Regular acupuncture sessions can help strengthen Wei Qi and enhance the body’s ability to ward off pathogens and prevent illness.
  3. Moxibustion: This TCM therapy involves burning a dried herb called mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) near specific acupuncture points to warm and stimulate the flow of Qi and blood. Moxibustion can help improve circulation, alleviate cold or damp conditions in the body, and support the immune system.
  4. Tui Na massage: Tui Na massage can help stimulate the flow of Qi and blood, release tension, and promote relaxation. Regular Tui Na sessions can support the immune system by reducing stress and allowing the body to function more efficiently. There are several acupressure points that can help strengthen the immune system in dogs. Massaging these points can help stimulate the flow of Qi and blood, promoting overall well-being. Here are some acupressure points you can try massaging on your dog:
    • GV-14 (Dazhui): Located on the midline of the neck, at the base of the cervical vertebrae, just below where the neck and back join. This point is known to help boost the immune system and dispel pathogens.
    • LI-4 (Hegu): Located on the front paw, in the webbing between the first and second metacarpal bones (between the thumb and index finger). This point is believed to strengthen the Wei Qi and support overall immune function.
    • ST-36 (Zusanli): Located on the hind leg, about one finger width below the kneecap, and one finger width to the outside of the shinbone. This point is known for promoting overall well-being and supporting the immune system.
    • BL-23 (Shenshu): Located on the lower back, approximately one finger width lateral to the spine, level with the bottom of the ribcage. This point is thought to nourish the Kidney Qi, which is essential for overall health and immune function.
    • SP-6 (Sanyinjiao): Located on the inner side of the hind leg, about four finger widths above the medial malleolus (the bony prominence on the inside of the ankle). This point is known to help balance the body’s energy and support immune function.
    • Before massaging these points on your dog, make sure they are comfortable and relaxed. Gently apply pressure using your fingertips or thumb, and massage each point for about 1-2 minutes. Observe your dog’s reactions during the massage, and avoid applying too much pressure or causing discomfort.
  5. Dietary therapy: A balanced, species-appropriate diet is essential for supporting a dog’s immune system. TCM dietary therapy focuses on incorporating foods with specific energetic properties to address imbalances and promote overall health. Foods that are considered immune-boosting in TCM include goji berries (Gou Qi Zi), Chinese yam (Shan Yao), and pumpkin (Nan Gua). Book a call with me for guidance on the most suitable dietary recommendations for your dog.
  6. Exercise: Exercise is essential for maintaining a healthy flow of Qi and blood, which in turn supports the immune system. Make sure your dog gets regular, age-appropriate exercise, such as walks or playtime, to help maintain overall well-being. Aim for 30 minutes (minimum) to 60 minutes (ideal) of walk time per day.
  7. Stress reduction: Minimizing stress is crucial for a healthy immune system. Create a calm and supportive environment for your dog by providing consistent routines, comfortable resting spaces, and positive reinforcement. If your dog is prone to anxiety, consider using calming aids or consulting a professional for behavior modification strategies. I like Rescue Remedy for dogs. Fun fact if you put a few drops in your own tongue you might feel instantly less stressed.

Benefits of Integrating Western and TCM Approaches

Even though my preference is to implement TCM approaches to treating my own dogs, I know that there are benefits to both which is why whenever something happens I consult with both of my vets.

Combining treatments can provide a more comprehensive and effective strategy for promoting healthy skin and overall well-being in dogs.

In the case of my dog Mr. Higgins, I used the topical probiotic spray as well as Chinese herbs to manage his skin reaction to an environmental trigger.


Nothing replaces a hands-on examination by a veterinarian.

If you’re reading this because your own dog has red skin, I hope you have come away with a balanced understanding of skin barrier dysfunction and redness in dogs from both Western and TCM perspectives.

I hope that you consider exploring integrative approaches that combine conventional treatments with TCM practices so that you can better support your dog’s skin health and overall well-being.

I do not believe one is better than the other. I do appreciate I can draw from both. The wisdom lies in knowing when to use which modalities. Remember each dog is different and there is not a one size fits all approach.

Thank you so much for reading. I wish you and your dog well.


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Author Biography

Hannah Zulueta obtained her Certificate in Canine Nutrition from CASI Institute. She is also studying for her Doctorate in Acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Herbalism from the esteemed Pacific College of Health and Medicine.

She resides in San Diego with her three dogs, Maggie, Orbit, and Mr. Higgins.

She is available for one on one consultations. Additionally, you can find her sharing free content on Instagram.

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