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Understanding Carbohydrates and Interdigital Cysts and Damp Heat from a Chinese Medicine Perspective

In the quest to convince kibble feeders to switch to fresh feeding, those in the raw feeding movement have demonized carbohydrates and often use carbohydrates as a scapegoat for all of the health problems that kibble-fed dogs may experience. They claim that kibble is full of fillers and carbohydrates, which are not part of a dog’s natural diet and can lead to health issues such as obesity, diabetes, and allergies. While it is true that commercial dry kibble dog foods contain high levels of carbohydrates, this does not mean that all carbs are bad for dogs. The correct carbs, in the appropriate portions, are critical for the dog’s gut microbiome.  

When Excessive Carbohydrates are Bad

Kibble is comprised mostly of carbs, and excess carbs lead to a sugar spike by increasing insulin sensitivity and promoting glucose uptake by the dog’s cells.

Inappropriate easy food leads to an uptick in obesity, inflammation, and a host of other health problems.

Carbohydrates in Nature Are Different

Just because vegetables have carbs it’s not to be put in the same bucket as the carbs found in kibble. The soluble carbohydrates found in nature are much lower in starch and sugar than what you would find in kibble. And as opposed to using carbs as an energy source, the carbs in vegetables are, instead, used to feed the microbiome. These vegetables act as prebiotics which will support probiotics or help friendly bacteria already in the gut.  

Compounds like fructooligosaccharides found in asparagus, artichokes, and other plants promote the growth of bacteria and thereby improving the health of the intestinal lining in the intestine. It also reduces intestinal pathogens, increases mineral absorption, and decreases flatulence.  

Generally speaking, feeding vegetables to dogs in small quantities is helpful to help bind and escort pathogenic bacteria out of the body.   Rest assured the carbs in the vegetables will not cause the same problems as those in kibble.

Carbs Are Not The Fault of Interdigital Cysts

Interdigital cysts, also known as furuncles, are common in English Bulldogs, French Bulldogs, and Boston Terriers and can be quite troublesome. Many people believe that carbohydrates in the diet are the primary cause of these cysts. But it’s not the carbs that are the problem. Rather it’s the leaky gut that has caused the problem, coupled with poor circulation to the paw areas.

A leaky gut is a condition in which the intestinal lining becomes permeable, allowing substances to pass through that shouldn’t. This leads to inflammation throughout the body, which can appear in various ways, including interdigital cysts.

One of the main culprits in causing a leaky gut is a diet high in processed ingredients (kibble with too many carbs), but also seen when raw or home-cooked food dogs do not get enough fiber.  

This disrupts the balance of the gut microbiome, leading to an overgrowth of harmful bacteria that produce toxins that damage the intestinal lining. Over time, this damage can become severe, leading to a leaky gut.

Once a dog has a leaky gut, it’s much easier for infections to take hold. The paws, which are in constant contact with the ground and can harbor bacteria, are particularly vulnerable to developing interdigital cysts. These cysts can be painful and lead to limping or difficulty walking.

How Does Chinese Medicine View The Paws

Chinese Medicine is a comprehensive system that sees the body as a whole and has unique views on how different body parts are connected. One of these views is the concept of meridians, which are channels of energy that run through the body and connect different organs and systems. These meridians are often associated with certain parts of the body.

In Chinese Medicine, the front paws are said to be connected to the heart and lung meridians, while the back paws are connected to the kidney and bladder meridians. 

Interestingly, the paws of our dogs are also connected to the Liver. The paw pads, in particular, are considered to be the “mirror” of the Liver. This means that any problem with the Liver can manifest in the paw pads, and any issues with the paw pads can also be an indication of a Liver problem.

Moreover, the paw pads are also considered to be the “gates” of the body. These gates are the points where the body comes into contact with the earth’s energy, and the paw pads, in particular, are believed to be the points where the Liver Qi enters and exits the body. 

In TCM/TCVM, the Liver is also closely related to emotions. Any stress or emotional imbalance can affect the Liver’s proper functioning, leading to an imbalance in the paw pads. This is why it’s crucial to keep our dog’s stress levels in check and ensure that they lead happy and healthy life.

Immune Dysregulation 

Even though I lean heavily on viewing the body through the lens of Chinese Medicine, I do still like to explain what is happening biomedically simply because that is what most dog parents are used to.

When dogs that eat a home-cooked or raw diet still have leaky gut and the symptoms that come with it, we have what Dr. Marsden calls “immune dysregulation”. “A decrease in bowel wall integrity can increase exposure of the immune system to endotoxins (LPS), sparking an inflammatory response that can propagate to the skin.”

Dr. Marsden is a leading Naturapath Doctor as well as a Vet and Chinese Medicine Herbalist. He has formulated for many well known brands like Kan Essentials and more recently Gold Standard Herbs. You can watch a great video where he talks about the important of utilizing whole foods in your dog’s diets.

Instead of turning to novel proteins and hydrolyzed kibble or Apoquel, the focus will be to focus a real food that includes vegetables (for fiber), utilize various herbs and work to promote species diversification within the gut microflora while looking to reduce gut permeability.  

To do this, we want to feed foods that contain soluble fiber to have a prebiotic effect and strengthen the GI barrier.  

Foods that are helpful are Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, broccoli sprouts kale, and green beans, as well as the root vegetables like rutabagas, turnips, sweet potatoes, parsnips, yams, and pumpkin (the fresh version, not the canned version). 

Damp Heat

Damp Heat is a condition that occurs when your dog’s body accumulates too much moisture, and the excess dampness interacts with heat in the body, causing it to become stagnant. It often manifests as symptoms that include:

  • Damp paws
  • Sweaty armpits
  • Pink muzzle
  • Doritos odor
  • Sloppy stool
  • Sticky saliva
  • Excessive tears
  • Ear infections
  • Itching

The Liver and Gallbladder channels are often involved in Damp Heat conditions but ultimately it occurred because the Spleen/Stomach wasn’t getting the right nutrition for that dog.

The Goal is Harmony and Wellness

In TCM, the spleen (yin) and the stomach (yang) is where digestion starts.

Three organ systems—Spleen/Stomach, Liver/Gallbladder and Kidney/Bladder—must cooperate with each other to fully to create a healthy digestive system. 

Together the spleen and stomach take in the food that is ingested to digest it and then transport it to the rest of the organs in the body.

When there is an imbalance, the body sends signs of a deeper issue–the digestive system has fallen out of balance and is not functioning as it should. 

This energy of life force or “qi” (pronounced “chee”). All dogs have a genetic level of Qi (what they are born with), and then they acquire it from what they are fed.

Spleen Qi ascends as it distributes to the heart and lungs and to the rest of the body. Conversely, stomach qi descends to facilitate the digestion process and excrete the undigested food out of the body. The two are yin and yang and balance each other out.

In TCM this area is called the center burner and while I’ve only mentioned the spleen and stomach, this also involves the pancreas.

For the spleen to work well, it loves warm and dry. When dampness accumulates, it becomes stagnant. It may result in sloppy stools, and in the cases of our dogs as the imbalance increases, this internal dampness is often tied to yeast.

Certain foods are thought to make itchy symptoms worse, such as:

  • High histamine foods
    • Green tripe
    • Apple Cider Vinegar
    • Fermented dairy
    • Fermented vegetables
    • Raw Goat’s milk
    • Canned foods (canned sardines, mackerel, salmon, and pumpkin)
    • Apples
    • Spinach
    • Most Citric Fruits – kiwi, lemon, lime, pineapple, plums
    • Papaya
    • Shellfish (oysters, mussels, and clams)
    • Dehydrated treats and chews
  • Cold Food

Make sure none of these foods above are fed

Spleen is the central kitchen and where digestion starts.

When we look at working on an imbalance, we also want to bring balance back to the spleen. When the spleen is working properly, it can produce Food Qi, and this aids the rest of the organs.


Herbal remedies can also be used to support digestive health and strengthen the Spleen and Stomach meridians. Typically you would do this under the guidance of a TCVM Vet

For personalized herbal prescriptions, I refer and use Dr. Thomas who is available for phone consultations. 

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.

Additionally, you can ask Dr. Marsden a question yourself or read about similar cases in his online group Ask Dr. Steve, DVM.  

Tightening the Gut Junctions

Concurrent to this, you want to help your dog’s leaky gut by tightening the gut junctions.  

Bone broth (cooked on the stove for no more than two hours without apple cider vinegar) will have the lowest amount of histamine which you want to avoid if your dog is also itchy. 

Alternatively, you can turn to supplements that have L-Glutamine (the synthetic version of glutamine found in bone broth). Four Leaf Rover’s Gut Guard is one such supplement.   It also has ingredients like marshmallow, aloe, and slippery elm which can help sooth and heal the gut lining.

How To Heal A Dog Through Food and Herbs

Dietary changes are also an important part of the TCM/TCVM approach to treating leaky gut in dogs. 

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.  

  1.  Feed proteins that help to balance out your dog’s constitution. If they run hot, feed neutral or cool proteins. 
  2. Add soluble fiber in the form of vegetables. A 60 lb dog would have 45 grams of above-ground and below-ground vegetables added to each meal.   
  3. Add herbs that your TCVM vet recommends, or you can use Cessorex or Halscion for three weeks to two months. If you see mucousy stool opt for Halscion over Cessorex.
  4. Add a probiotic like Mercola’s Bark and Whiskers, which have Lactobacillus for two months.  
  5. Feed bone broth or a supplement that has L-Glutamine for six months.

While each dog is different, this approach helps most dogs. 

How Long Will It Take To See Change?

It can take as much time to heal as it does to get sick. That said, you do want to see hints that you are moving in the right direction.  

Maintain a health diary to track signs and symptoms and look for them to decrease over time.  

If you’re doing all of what is laid out above, then you should start to see improvement at the three week mark. And if this is the right path for your dog, it might take up to two months to see further improvements.

In Closing

There is nothing harder than seeing a dog miserably itching or walking painfully because of its interdigital cysts.

Feeding the right diet that includes the correct kind of vegetables, herbs and a leaky gut protocol can help your dogs symptoms improve.

The body has a remarkable ability to heal. We need identify what can best support it and get out of the way and help to remove any obstacles in its path.

Wishing you and your dog good health.


Campbell, K. L. (2019, March). Dermatological dilemmas in dogs and cats. IVC Journal, 2(1), 18-23. Retrieved from https://ivcjournal.com/dermatological-dilemmas-dogs-cats/

Hanks, P. (2011). Ruined by Excess, Perfected by Lack: The paradox of pet nutrition. University of California Press.

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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