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Winter Season Wisdom from Chinese Medicine

December 12, 2023

Originally published in Bay Woof, December 2023
“Ask Dr. Dog”
Dr. Lisa Franzetta, L.Ac.
[email protected] 

Winter Season Wisdom from Chinese Medicine

Baby, it’s cold outside! If you’ve noticed your bones are aching a little bit more on these chilly winter mornings–your senior dog is probably feeling it, too. Estimates are that up to 80% of dogs aged eight and older suffer from arthritis. In Chinese medicine, we take a holistic approach to supporting an animal’s wellbeing–and this includes factoring in the effects of seasonal changes on our four-legged friends.

Exposure to cold is regarded as a potential cause of disease in Chinese medicine, and certain ailments are exacerbated by winter weather. A top example of this I see as an acupuncturist working with animals is osteoarthritis–the often-painful joint degeneration that typically occurs with age or after injury. That’s pretty intuitive to understand–ask any human with osteoarthritis, and they will likely tell you it is aggravated by cold conditions, especially when that chill is accompanied by drafts or dampness.

Though dogs can’t tell us in words what they are experiencing, as an attentive dog guardian, you’ll probably recognize some of the telltale signs that your canine companion might be suffering from arthritis. These can include:

  • Decreased activity
  • Difficulty getting up
  • Inability to jump
  • Reluctance to walk, play, climb stairs
  • Snapping when touched
  • Lagging behind on walks
  • Limping or favoring a limb

One of my very special animal patients is Baxter, a gentle-hearted mutt who was adopted from the SF SPCA as a puppy years ago. Baxter is a loveable white-furred floof with a long back and short legs, similar in shape to a Basset Hound. Like many common dog breeds and mixes with this body type, Baxter has what we call an “angular limb deformity”–meaning that his elbows have a characteristic bowlegged look. And while I insist he is, of course, absolutely perfect exactly how he is–because of their misalignment, his elbow and wrist joints have experienced joint degeneration and become increasingly painful as the years have passed.

Baxter is an example of how genetics can put your dog at an increased risk for arthritis. At-risk breeds and breed mixes include those with short, bowed legs like Baxter’s; long backs (think Dachshunds) prone to intervertebral disc disease (IVDD); and unstable hip joints (hip dysplasia). Joint injuries and surgeries as a youngster can also mean your dog is more likely to develop arthritis at the site of injury as they age. 

When dogs with joint pain receive acupuncture (most find it relaxing!), a combination of arthritis-fighting acupuncture points will be selected that increase blood circulation, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of their body’s natural painkillers, like endorphins. My buddy Baxter’s dads report that he is much more active when he’s getting regular acupuncture treatments, along with laser therapy and supportive nutritional supplements. 

Yin and Yang for Your Dog’s Health

You might already be familiar with the concept of yin and yang. Part of the theory underlying acupuncture and Chinese medicine, yin and yang is a philosophical concept describing opposite but interconnected forces. Yin relates to coldness, darkness, and form; yang relates to heat, light, and activity. In optimal health, these qualities are evenly balanced.

In Chinese medicine, we’ll often use the concept of yin and yang to describe how an animal is out of balance. For instance, if your dog had a hot, burning rash or skin infection, she would be experiencing an excess of yang, which is heat. In osteoarthritis, there is a lack of sufficient circulation of blood, warmth, and vitality in the joints, so we describe this as a cold, or yin, disease. Arthritic dogs’ backs or extremities might actually feel cold, and you might  find that they naturally seek out warm spots for relief.

Fortunately, the concept of yin and yang can also suggest lifestyle and environmental recommendations that you can implement at home to support your senior dogs and those at higher risk for developing arthritis. (You might even find some holiday gift ideas here for the senior pets in your life!)

  • Provide heated dog beds or heating pads designed for pets
  • Dress them in doggie sweaters or jackets–fashion meets function!
  • Cover animal companions in a cozy blanket to keep them warm
  • Keep your animals away from cold, damp, and drafty areas

Gentle exercise (a “yang” activity) is also important as dogs age. Moderate, low impact movement will strengthen muscles, keep ligaments and tendons flexible, and help blood circulate to stiff joints.Gifting your dog with regular, gentle massage is another way to help maintain good circulation. 

I wish you and your family a very happy and healthy holiday season, with hopes that this seasonal wisdom from Chinese medicine will help keep those tails wagging through the holidays, into 2024 and many golden years ahead.

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