I am huge fan of facial gua sha—a form of facial massage using a smooth handheld tool, often made of rose quartz, jade or bian stone—to help relieve tension and reduce fine lines. So when I discovered that gua sha can be beneficial for our pets, I was thrilled. Chance is almost thirteen now and has been having some issues with lymphatic drainage and arthritis, so I was curious if it would be helpful for him. I reached out to Dr. Tori Countner, DVM, for a chat about the benefits of gua sha for your pet.
Q. What exactly is gua sha?
Gua sha is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for healing pain. Placing a smooth-edged tool at an angle to the body, the practitioner uses short to long scraping strokes in a downward motion along the skin. This creates petechia (tiny bruises) on the surface of the skin that release heat, stagnation, and stuck energy from the body.
Facial gua sha is much gentler and does not create these small microtraumas in the surface of the skin. Facial gua sha massage enhances collagen production, which smooths fine lines of the face. It also can ease muscle tension in the jaw, or other areas where stress is held, relieving headaches and tightness.
Both body and facial gua sha stretch and compress the underlying connective tissue (fascia), which promotes healing and breaks up knots and adhesions, therefore decreasing inflammation, pain, and relaxing muscles and other soft tissue structures.
In our veterinary patients, we use firmer pressure than in facial gua sha, but not as deep as the bruising-inducing body gua sha.
Q. What is fascia?
Picture holding a dry sponge. It is firm, stiff, brittle, and inflexible. But if you add moisture to it, the sponge becomes pliable, soft, and can absorb and expel fluid when squeezed or compressed. This is similar to fascia—when we keep it hydrated by stretching, massaging, moving, and compressing the underlying tissue, it remains flexible and smooth.
Fascia is a sheath of connective tissue that wraps around the whole body underneath the skin (superficial fascia) as well as around muscles, organs, nerves, and blood vessels (deep fascia). In its healthy state, fascia is a matrix of gelatinous, hydrated connective tissue that helps with movement, lymph drainage, blood circulation, nerve health, and supporting and protecting tissue.
When movement is diminished in an area, for example in a sore limb or arthritic joint, the fascia can become dry and sticky. Less blood and lymph can flow into the area to bring in good nutrients and remove waste products. The stickiness can cause adhesions within the fascia matrix and between muscles, causing knots and chronic pain.
Q. So, how does gua sha benefit my dog?
For our animal companions, we can use gua sha to help with pain by breaking up adhesions, stickiness, and stagnation in the fascia and surrounding tissue. Since fascia covers all the vessels, nerves, organs, muscles, and tissue in the body, it is important to keep it healthy and smooth.
Chronic pain is exacerbated, or even caused, by knots and dry fascia. Gua sha massage strokes along muscle groups and areas of stagnation to release adhesions and knots, increase the circulation, and therefore enhance healing. If the animal is feeling better, they will move more and help the fascia continue to heal.
Nerves are one of the soft tissue structures enveloped within the fascia, and by using the gua sha tool they get a “massage” as well! This can help regulate any nerves that are overstimulated with chronic pain, excitement, or energy. I’ve seen anxious dogs relax better overall, and a few clients with epileptic dogs report that with consistent gua sha at home, they’ve witnessed less frequent or less intense seizures.
Q. Is there a dog that would benefit more than others?
All dogs can benefit from gua sha! Young ones are kept healthy and mobile with preventative gua sha massage. Dogs experiencing pain, as well as older or ill dogs, can be supported with this technique. I see such a release with patients that are so stiff and sore from years of chronic pain and decreased mobility. By creating that fluidity in the underlying connective tissue, the body gets a chance to heal itself again.
Q. Are there dogs that you shouldn't use gua sha on?
I use a gentler approach on patients in a lot of pain that are receiving gua sha for the first time. The goal is to have a positive experience, not painful, to release the knots and trigger points on the first session.
Areas on the skin that have lesions, hot spots, or wounds should be avoided, as well as any lumps, bumps, or growths. Stay away from using the tool over bony prominences and structures, and stick with softer muscled areas.
Q. How did you learn about it ?
A few years ago, my acupuncturist introduced it to me for my chronic low back pain. She was in the process of developing her own gua sha tools (the "Wildling" line), and so she would teach me all about the technique and benefits in humans.
I used gua sha on my face as a nightly de-stressing ritual, and I started trying it out on my own dogs! I began to research fascia and the benefits of stretching, compressing, and keeping it healthy. I use the foam roller for my IT band that gets stiff and painful, and I do cupping on my back to help relieve soreness and stagnation. Its nearly impossible to foam roll or do cupping on an animal (you’d have to shave them to get good suction!), so gua sha was the best technique to use on my patients!
I researched fascia and the role it plays in our bodies, and most mammals bodies. It is now being called the "sensory organ" because of the huge role it plays in feeling, sensing, managing the nervous system, and proprioception (spatial awareness).
Q. Is it something I can do myself on my own dog?
Definitely! Always consult with your veterinarian before trying something new on your dog, but I am a huge proponent of this technique to help our furry companions. Plus, consistent massage and care at home can prevent major injuries, enhance your dog’s quality of life, and it's great bonding time!
To start, hold the gua sha tool at a 45-degree or less angle, use light pressure and move the tool in a stroking motion down and with the fur line. You can test the pressure on your own skin at first. Avoid bones by placing your non-dominant hand at certain prominences until you get used to the areas to avoid. For an enhanced stretching and compressing motion of the underlying tissue, anchor the skin above the region you are massaging with your non-dominant hand.
You can apply coconut oil to the coat, but the tool slides nicely along the fur without it (plus it can get messy). Avoid skin lesions, hot spots, lumps, growths, and bones.
For maintenance, start with one or two times a week, for five to ten minutes when you’re relaxing/reading/watching TV next to your dog. If your companion has a specific ailment (IVDD, hip dysplasia, osteoarthritis) you can massage every other day a couple minutes on the specific region, and another five to ten minutes on the rest of the body.
My favorite gua sha tools to use are from Wildling. They have big stones for larger
breeds, medium stones that are great for all sizes (and even cats!), and a small wand to get into certain nooks and crannies of the body.