Food Therapy in TCVM

Food Therapy in TCVM

By Cathy Alinovi, DVM, CVA, CVCH, CVTP, CVFT

Author: Chi Institute/Monday, June 2, 2014/Categories: TCVM Articles, TCVM Newsletter, 2014 Spring Issue

Day in and day out, our clients spend the majority of their interaction with their pets feeding them. When their pets get sick, most clients will look for a specific medicine or treatment. However, we would be negligent or at least remiss if we did not address the food we feed them, particularly for those whose ill health started years ago with what they have been eating. Americans say "You are what you eat". Chinese say "Medicine and food (share) the same source." If it weren't so important, the two different cultures wouldn't have their own sayings advising the importance of food.


Food becomes Gu Qi. The five treasures cannot thrive without proper Gu Qi, i.e. nutrition. "Health exists when the five treasures are abundant, and properly moving and flourishing. Obstruction or insufficient quantities of the five treasures result in disease."1 When there is poor nutrition, there will be disease.


Food-related disease is common in our western, modernized, industrialized society - the convenience of processed foods is both a benefit and a health hazard. It is very difficult to argue against the convenience of processed dog food in a bag.


Regardless of the species of the animal, the more processed the food, the less pure nourishment it provides to the body. Be it extruded horse pellets, cookies for our children, or dry food for our dogs and cats, the processing required to make these foods safe and non-perishable results in damages to the nutritive sources of the food. The outcome is less nourishment for the body.


According to the World Health Organization, 60% of chronic disease is a consequence of industrialization: processed foods and a sedentary lifestyle. Processed foods have nutrition condensed into small packages. These foods are full of saturated fat and refined carbohydrates, which causes chronic diseases to all kinds of animals.2 For example, a kibble has a minimum of 30% carbohydrate content.3 For many breeds of dog, and all types of cats, carbohydrates at this level are far too much. Moreover, the quality of ingredients that goes into most animal feeds is substandard, as animal feed is often a direct outlet for rendered foods and by-products.4 Therefore, our biggest opportunity to improve the health of our patients exists in improving the nutrition contained in their daily food. Nonetheless, because of the inconvenience of home-prepared food, client compliance is a major concern and changing our patients' diet is our biggest obstacle. It is much easier for pet owners to accept and implement other branches of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM), such as acupuncture, herbs, Tui-Na, and exercise.


Pet owners always want to know what they can do at home to help their pet. Massage is easy. Exercise is just a little bit more work. Returning for one or two acupuncture treatments each month is also doable. However, for the average pet owner, preparing home cooked meals every day for their pets when they don't even make it for themselves is a large hill to climb. Lucky for us, many clients who seek TCVM are willing to follow our recommendations.


As TCVM practitioners, our most powerful medicine is to educate our clients to feed real food to our patients! Ge Hong, Taoist physician in the Three Kingdoms Period, commented, "Don't over emphasize any of the five flavors, for too much sour damages the spleen, too much bitter damages the lungs, too much acrid damages the liver, too much salt damages the heart, and too much sweet damages the kidneys." Therefore, the same food, meal after meal is going to be too much of something, too much of one of these flavors or energies, and will damage one of the Zang-Fu organs or five treasures.


For example, consider puppies, who tend to be very Yang. They should be fed neutral foods rather than high Yang foods, such as processed kibble, so as not to damage their Yin. On the other hand, foods that are too Yin (like cold, raw meat) may damage their spleen, because there is not enough heat in a young pup's lower Jiao to properly transport and transform the food (Gu Qi). For another example, young foals are often creatures of Fire and should not be given foods that damage the Heart, such as salty or extruded foods. An elderly cat with Kidney Qi Deficiency, will never regain strength if she does not stop eating dry food and change to Qi-building meats such as lamb or chicken liver.


Once it has been determined what the patient should not eat, the next step is to determine what the patient should eat. For most breeds, dogs are considered omnivores. A good rule of thumb is to have equal parts of protein, carbohydrate, and vegetables or fruits in the meal.5 There are some exceptions, like the northern dogs (Huskies) who need more protein, and Chow Chows who were bred to thrive on grains.6 Cats are almost exclusively carnivorous, therefore their diet should be at least 80 to 90% meat.7 However, the types of meat provided should be varied and some cats will eat small amounts of whole grain and vegetables in their food (such as sprouts or sunflower seeds).


Horses and livestock deserve the best nutrition, especially as many of the latter become our food. The primary feed for any of the large animal species should always be fresh grass. Dried hay is only a second option when grass is not available. Whole grains, either raw or cooked, are medicinal, and should be served as such, rather than as a primary daily food. Even the source of the water will affect the horse's body: spring water harmonizes Blood, while well water clears Heat in the Heart.8


The aforementioned principles can be extended to any species. Guinea pigs thrive on fresh fruits and veggies, and the feed shall be balanced based on seasons, availability, and the pig's personality. Rodents will shine with fresh seeds, fruits, vegetables and even some meats, but not with dried packaged feeds. Similar principles apply to birds.


Further considerations include life stages, geographical locations, and seasons. The elderly tend to be Qi Deficient, therefore need care to rebuild their Qi, or at least to avoid damaging it further. Patients who live on coastlines are predisposed to Damp conditions, therefore should avoid Damp foods. Spring and fall on the coast can accentuate the Damp condition, so foods that drain Damp may be indicated, especially in the rainy season. Patients who live on deserts are predisposed to Dryness. All of these factors must be considered when formulating diets for our patients.


Fortunately, these are exactly the same factors that must be evaluated when we choose an herbal formula and acupuncture points. Lifestyles and living conditions impact our patients’ patterns and must be considered regardless of the specific branch of TCVM we use to treat our patients.

Case One

Patient: Lady, a 14-year-old 40-pound terrier mix, spayed female dog.

Personality: Metal.

Habitat: Indiana.

Pulse: Weak on the right, strong at Liver on the left.

Tongue: Light pink, no coating, moist.

Clinical signs: Dry skin, lots of dandruff, greasy hair coat, sleeps a lot, prefers pillows to hard floor, extremely itchy, no PLR, pupils dilated at all times, doesn't hear well.

Western diagnosis: Bilateral blindness (SARDS), food allergies (to grains and beef), hyperplastic scar tissue in the left ear canal from chronic allergies.

TCVM presentation: Kidney Qi Deficiency. Kidney fails to nourish Liver, leading to Liver Blood Deficiency, causing Internal Wind.

Food therapy protocol: Nourish Kidney Qi and Liver Blood to stop Wind.

Winter Diet: Provide equal proportions of meat, vegetables and legumes. The meat mixture consists of equal parts of chicken or pork liver and kidney, which then is mixed with an equal part of ground chicken (liver:kidney:chicken = 1:1:2). Liver and kidney are to tonify Liver Blood and Kidney Qi respectively. Chicken is provided for its warming property. Vegetables include sweet potato which build Qi, Blood and Yin, carrots which build Qi, and brussel sprouts (when they are in season) which are warm. Legumes, such as kidney beans, can tonify Blood and Yin. As for seasoning, a touch of nutmeg is added to provide Yang and balance the Yin of some of the other ingredients.

Summer Diet: Same proportions of meats, vegetables and legumes as in the winter diet. Meat still includes liver and kidney, but chicken (hot) is replaced with turkey (cool). When it's hot and humid, the meat mixture is top dressed with saltwater to cool and drain Damp. Occasionally, a neutral fish such as mackerel, or a different cooling meat such as rabbit, can be used for their cooling properties as well as their ability to strengthen Qi and tonify Yin. Most summer fruits and vegetables have a cooling effect. Apples, pears, berries and most other fruits all can be served when they are in season. For legumes, kidney beans continue to be a good choice in summer as they drain Damp and water. Mint is used for seasoning in summer, as it cools and promotes the circulation of Qi.


Case Two

Patient: Liberty, a 2-year-old, 18-pound, black English Cocker Spaniel, spayed female dog.

Personality: Fire.

Habitat: Georgia.

Pulse: Left pulses are weaker than the right, except the Liver pulse which is bounding.

Tongue: Pale and dry, a hint of a crack in the center, tip is red.

Clinical signs: Smelly ears, dandruff, high-energy, very agile, dreams a lot, vomits bile and occasionally her digested food, doesn't like to be left alone.

Western presentation: Separation anxiety, occasional yeasty, ear infections, a Diva.

TCVM presentation: Heart Fire presents as the root for all other issues. Heart fire has damaged Stomach Yin and caused Heat and thus Stomach Qi rebellion. Heart Fire has drained Yin from mother, leading to Liver Yang Rising. Moreover, Heart Fire flares up, resulting in Heart Blood Deficiency, so Shen is disturbed. As an unbalanced Fire dog, "The problem is usually severe, difficult to treat, or requires a greater number of treatments."1 She needs very special care in the diets to deal with her acute conditions.

Food Therapy Protocol: Tonify Heart Blood to sedate Heart Fire, cool Stomach and Liver Heat, strengthen Liver Qi.

Winter Diet: Provide equal parts of meat, vegetables and legumes (meat:vegetables:legumes = 2:1:1). The meat mixture consists of beef liver which tonifies Blood and regulates Liver, yet being neutral in temperature; and pork, also neutral in temperature, to strengthen Spleen, Stomach, Liver and Kidney - the three most challenged systems in Liberty. As pork can cause Phlegm, it is only used 2-3 times a week, while beef is used the rest of the time. Vegetables include spinach to tonify Blood and Yin, and turnips to clear Stomach Heat, circulate Qi and Blood, drain water and resolve Phlegm. As for legumes, kidney or Aduki beans are chosen to tonify Blood. Kidney beans can also tonify Yin. Sprouted Mung beans are used when Heat (Heart Fire or Stomach Heat in particular) is present. Cardamom is added to season the food when Stomach Heat flares, but the use is sparing as it can warm the body. Liberty also gets figs as special treats, especially when signs of Dryness are present.

Summer Diet: Use the same ratio of 2 parts of meats/proteins to 1 part of fruits/vegetables and 1 part of legumes. Mainly, turkey is used for the meat for it is cooling and helps with Qi circulation. Two to three times a week, rabbit, quail, or fish like mackerel or clams, is added. Rabbit is cooling and helps circulate Qi and Yin. Quail is neutral but is able to move Qi and Blood. Both treat the Liver, Stomach, and Spleen efficiently. Clams are quite cold, thus they tonify Yin. Mackerel is neutral but can treat Liver and Stomach while draining water and reduce Damp, which is a major issue in Georgia in the warm rainy months. One duck egg is added in the breakfast to cool and nourish Yin. Most summer fruits, especially berries, are cooling and help drain Damp, therefore, can be provided whenever they are in season. Pears are particularly good, because they are wonderfully cooling, counteract

Heat and regulate the Spleen and Stomach channels. When Liver Qi stagnation is present, beets are added into the feed. For legumes, chickpeas or Aduki beans are used in the early summer to drain Damp and tonify Spleen and Heart channels. Both beans are neutral, yet Aduki beans regulate Blood while chickpeas regulate Qi. Peas are also good in the summer, as they help to drain water and regulate Stomach, Heart, Large Intestine, and Spleen channels. As the summer gets hotter, either Lima beans or Mung beans can be provided for their cooling properties. Limas treat Liver, while Mung beans treat Heart and Stomach.

These two examples demonstrate food therapy formulation is as simple or complex as the patient. Just as herbals and acupuncture treatments adapt to the patient in front of us, so does food therapy. While the second example may seem quite complex, the simple beauty is that most of the recommended fruits and vegetables will be in season at the time they are needed. In conclusion, what our patients eat determines their level of health. Feeding properly will help drive our patient's recovery and optimize their health.


1. Xie H, Preast V. Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine Fundamental Principles. Tianjin: Tianjin Jincai Arts Printing, 2007.

2. World Health Organization. Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases. Switzerland: 2003, accessed 2/14/14,

3. Patton, R, PhD, nutrition. Personal communication, 2012.

4. USDA/APHIS Carcass Disposal: A Comprehensive Review. Kansas: 2004.

6. Basko, IJ. Fresh Food & Ancient Wisdom. Hawaii: Makana Kai Publishing, 2013: 88.

5. Cusick, WD. Canine Nutrition. Oregon: Doral Publishing, 1997: 9.

7. Taylor, B, Becker, K. Dr Becker’s Real Food for Healthy Dogs & Cats. Illinois: Natural Pet Productions, 2011: 16.

8. Yu, C. Annotated Yuan Heng’s Classical Collection on the Treatment of Equine Diseases. China Agriculture Press, 2012: 484-5.

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