TCM for Pets

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Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine

As people across North America are returning to more natural methods of improving their health, they are seeking the same for the companion animals that share their lives. Today Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM) is growing in acceptance and practice in veterinary clinics around the world. In China, it has been used in veterinary practice for over 3,000 years to treat many ailments. The Chinese regularly practised acupuncture on horses, as evidenced by Dr. Bo Le’s canon of veterinary acupuncture Bo Le Zhen Jing, written between 659 BCE and 621 BCE. Later it was gradually tried on other farm animals and finally dogs, cats, and birds.

TCVM focuses on health maintenance, illness prevention and non-invasive treatment through its four modalities: acupuncture, Chinese botanical (herbal) medicine, nutritional (food) therapy and tui-na bodywork massage. These modalities work together to restore health and wholeness and to maintain and optimize wellness. In human therapy there is a fifth branch- Qi-gong meditational exercise. One might argue that companion animals already spend a good part of the day in meditation, so do not require any instruction in this technique!

The philosophy and practice of TCVM are consistent with the most significant developments in veterinary healthcare today.

TCVM Philosophy and Practice

• emphasizing regular examinations and preventive care;
• less-invasive or non-invasive approaches;
• balancing environmental, physical, emotional and spiritual factors in health,
• focusing on the cause as well as the symptoms, and;
• the role of the veterinarian as a partner to the patient’s guardian, facilitating the pet’s health and well-being.

According to traditional Chinese thought the health of the body is dependant on the strength and the flow of Qi (Life Energy), and the balance of Yin and Yang (positive and negative). Each animal is born with a fixed amount of Jing (Vital Essence) at birth. Jing is spent in the work of living. The Jing is supported and expressed by the movement of Qi throughout the body via a system of channels (also called meridians). These channels flow on the surface of the body and also deep within the body connecting all organs and tissues in a vast network. Qi is replenished by nutrients in food and air (oxygen).

Disease can arise when there is an imbalance or disruption in the flow of Qi through these channels. TCVM stimulates an animal’s natural healing functions and restores flow, balance and regulation of Qi. The four modalities can achieve healing in different ways.


Certain areas along the channels that travel the surface of the body provide access to the Qi and allow a trained acupuncturist to affect the flow and quality of Qi in the body. These areas are the acupuncture points. The ancient Chinese discovered that animals have similar channels and acupuncture points to humans, and also have many specific points unique to each species. Modern research has shown that these specific points have a higher density of nerve endings, immune-cells, small arterioles and lymphatic vessels than the surrounding tissue. By stimulating these points, sometimes located far from the site of symptoms, the veterinary acupuncturist can assist the animal’s innate ability to heal itself by balancing or unblocking its flow of Qi. This balancing is now known to be mediated primarily through beta-endorphins (the body’s own pain-relief factor), serotonin (associated with behaviour), and similar neurotransmitters. Other mechanisms including hormonal factors that reduce inflammation are also involved. The stimulation of acupuncture points adjusts blood circulation, relieves muscle spasm, and alters hormone levels and the functioning of organs.


Tui-na is a form of massage that has been used in China for 2,000 years. It uses therapeutic manipulations to affect not only the muscles and joints, but also the flow of Qi in the body. Because of its focus on the stimulation of specific acupoints along the energy channels, some consider it a form of needle-free acupuncture. Tui-na methods include the use of soft tissue massage, acupressure techniques to directly affect the flow of Qi, and gentle manipulation techniques to align the joints. Simple tui-na techniques can be taught to the pet’s guardian for home care, supporting and reinforcing the treatments received during the visit.


Botanical preparations of various forms are often used in TCVM. They assist the flow and quality of Qi, supporting and complementing acupuncture and tui-na treatments. Botanical prescriptions are composed of a synergistic combination of herbs that are chosen for their unique properties, and are tailored to the individual’s specific needs. The use of plants, animal parts and minerals, or extracts thereof, to treat illness dates back thousands of years. The early use of botanicals is recorded in Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, a text over 2,000 old, which is still in use today. Chinese botanical medicine can be especially in useful in patients with chronic conditions, where long term therapy is required and internal organs need nourishment and support. It can be used effectively on its own or in combination with acupuncture and/or western medicine. If used in conjunction with western medications or supplements possible drug/herb interactions must be taken into consideration. Safety and effectiveness are as important when prescribing Chinese botanical medicines as when prescribing western drugs. An accurate TCVM diagnosis of the patient’s problems, after a complete assessment consisting of a comprehensive history, physical examination, and appropriate diagnostic testing, forms the basis of treatment. Any veterinarian prescribing botanicals for treatment purposes should have a thorough training in the applied medical philosophy and the Materia Medica of herbs. Chinese botanical medicine should only be employed under the instruction and supervision of an appropriately trained veterinarian.


In traditional Chinese thought, herbs and foods are closely related, if not extensions of one another. For example, ginger can be considered to be in both categories. Like Chinese botanical medicines, different foods have different energies and affinities for different body systems. Some are warming, others cooling. Some have beneficial effects on the bowel, others on the heart. Besides the common adage “we are what we eat,” TCVM views food as a daily replenishing of Qi. The appropriate foods for an individual pet will energize and harmonize; the wrong diet can not only deplete Qi but cause continuing imbalance and disruption of its flow. By adding or eliminating certain foods in a pet’s diet, the body can be supported and healing achieved.

Incorporating all four modalities into a treatment plan for an individual pet requires an in-depth history and physical examination from a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective. The home environment, personality of the pet, observation of the interaction and bond between the guardian and pet, even the season of the year and current weather are taken into account. The physical examination resembles a thorough “nose-to-toes” checkup a conventionally-trained veterinarian would perform, but with special attention paid to odours, sounds (breathing as well as barking/meowing), areas of sensitivity at special acupoints called the “Shu” and “Mu” points, and areas of the body that feel warmer or cooler compared to the rest of the body. The pulse is carefully palpated in six locations, and the tongue is examined for shape, size, colour and coating. All the information gleaned is synthesized into a final TCVM diagnosis and treatment plan.

The primary goal of treatment is to restore homeostasis (balance and harmony) to the animal permitting it to heal its physical, mental, emotional, and energetic symptoms. Restoring balance in simple cases allows the symptoms to dissipate on their own. In more complicated and serious cases, working to restore balance can reduce or eliminate the foundation of the symptoms, enhance their treatment, and minimize the amount of therapy required. When the animal’s body processes, emotional condition, spiritual state and energy flow is in balance, they feel good and they help us feel good too.

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