TCVM – chinese food therapy for the veterinary clinic

From a TCVM approach, different foods can warm or cool the body, resolve stagnation, increase energy, dissolve Phlegm or drain Damp.

“You are what you eat” is a phrase that can be traced back to the early 19th century. It was originally attributed to the famous gastronome, Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, when he said, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.” This certainly applies to our patients. In my practice, we follow the philosophy that food is the foundation of life. We educate our clients about the benefits of feeding a high quality diet to help them understand how food affects their pets.

The better the nutrients we put into the body, the better the body will perform. It’s impossible for our patients to attain good health if they are being fed processed foods, sugars, dyes, and high-carbohydrate diets.

Not only do I advocate the use of real foods for my patients, I also advocate foods that help heal specific conditions. From a TCVM approach, each food affects the body in multiple ways. The major categories I use for food therapy include the ability of the food to warm (Yang) or cool (Yin), resolve stagnation, increase energy, dissolve Phlegm, or drain Damp.

Cooling diets

Many of our patients have diseases that cause inflammation in the body, like arthritis, Cushing’s disease, diabetes and infections. These dogs commonly drink and pant excessively, in an effort to cool their bodies. Their tongues will usually be red or dark on examination. By changing the diet, we can cool these pets internally, decreasing the annoying symptoms that cause anxiety for their owners. I like to use a protein base of rabbit, wild caught fish, or duck for these animals. Grains like millet or barley would be good choices. I try to get these pets off dry kibble, as kibble promotes heat and drying in the body. For treats, I like to use pieces of melon or banana, which are also cooling and moisturizing.

Warming diets

Other patients may seem cold, seeking sunny spots to sleep or hiding under blankets in an attempt to get warm. These pets need to be warmed internally, so proteins like lamb, venison, or chicken will contribute Yang energy. If grains are being used in the diet, oats would be a good choice. I find that many of my older patients in renal failure really enjoy a warm bowl of oatmeal with cinnamon to warm them first thing in the morning.

Chronic skin and allergies

Many veterinarians will choose “novel” proteins like lamb or venison for dogs with chronic skin inflammation and allergies. While these may be novel proteins for the pet, they may not be the right choice for the disease from a TCVM perspective. For heat, inflammation, and itchy, red skin, a cooling protein would be a better choice. Again, many of these pets will respond better when taken off dry kibble. Personally, I am a big fan of feeding a well-balanced raw or home-prepared diet for these patients. Rabbit is my favorite cooling, novel protein for most patients with dry, itchy, inflamed skin. Luckily, there are now many rabbit-based raw and canned diets available. For those in the south, alligator might be another good choice.

Qi tonics

In addition to warming or cooling the body, foods can be used as Qi tonics to add energy. Qi is the energy of life, which means old or weak dogs and cats need foods that will increase this energy. These pets commonly have pale, wet tongues. Some common Qi tonics include meats like beef, chicken, rabbit, lamb and tripe, and vegetables like pumpkin, squash, sweet potato and Shiitake mushrooms. These ingredients can be used to make home-cooked meals or to make a “topper” to add to the pet’s current diet.

Dissolve phlegm

Food can also be used to dissolve Phlegm. Phlegm is thick, sticky and mucoid. It is seen in pets with pneumonia or upper respiratory disease, and can be found in lumps, bumps and nodules internally or under the skin. Bladder and gallbladder stones are also forms of Phlegm. The thick, sticky discharge seen in dry eye (Keratoconjunctivitis sicca) would also be considered Phlegm. Phlegm can be seen on the tongue as thick bubbles or a greasy, sticky coating. Phlegm is formed when the secretions in the body become too dry. Dogs on dry kibble diets tend to have more issues with Phlegm. Foods like clams, radishes, kelp, pears, apples and peppermint are great for dissolving mucous. Foods to avoid would include any dairy products, since milk is really just a form of mucous.


Many tumors, lumps, bumps and swollen internal organs fall into the category of stagnation. IVDD is a localized area of Qi and Blood stagnation. Pets with seizures, anxiety or aggression may be suffering from Liver Qi stagnation. These are forms of stagnation in which blood and energy have become “stuck”. Commonly, pets with these problems will have a lavender-colored tongue. The easiest way to remember this is to think of a bruise, an area where blood has pooled or become stagnant. It has a lavender color and is painful to the touch. To help move the blood and decrease stagnation, the dog or cat can be given foods like lamb, venison, crab, shrimp, radishes, ginger, turmeric and vinegar. Golden Paste, made with organic ground turmeric, black pepper, Ceylon cinnamon, and coconut oil is a great supplement when trying to resolve stagnation.


There is a saying in TCM: “The Earth element creates Damp and the Metal element stores it.” The organs associated with the Earth element are the stomach and spleen. The organs associated with the Metal element are the lungs and large intestine. When Dampness is created by impaired digestion, it likes to end up in the lungs and large intestine. When the Dampness is stored in the large intestine, we see mucoid stools, loose stools, sticky stools that are difficult to clean up, or diarrhea with undigested bits of food. Damp diseases include ascites, edema, or anything that causes fluid retention in the body. The tongue will generally be swollen with a thick white coating. There may be indentations along the edges of the tongue where it contacts the teeth. Foods that promote Damp conditions include dairy products, pork, lamb, cucumber, and melons; these should be avoided in pets with Dampness. Foods that drain Damp include seaweed, mushrooms, celery, barley, turnips, radishes, and asparagus.

Food therapy gives us one more tool in our box of magic to treat our patients. Many clients enjoy knowing they are helping their pets to improved health by preparing ingredients at home and seeing the benefits of wholesome, delicious meals.

Case study

Myra is a six-year-old Cavachon who presented with chronic allergies, oxalate bladder stones, otitis externa, dental disease, lethargy, and a decreased desire to interact with family members. Her skin was red, thickened, malodorous, and alopecic along all four limbs and her ventrum. The external ear canals were swollen almost completely closed, with a waxy, foul-smelling discharge.

From a TCVM perspective, Myra had excess Yang Heat in her skin and bladder. She had Phlegm in the form of bladder stones and waxy discharge in her ears. She had stagnation contributing to the bladder stones as well. The swelling and edema in her skin and ears constituted a form of Dampness.

Myra had been fed a commercial, low quality, corn-based, dog food kibble her entire life. One ingredient in the kibble was animal digest, a rendered product that can be made from any species of animal found at the rendering plant. One of the least likely animal proteins in animal digest, that would be easily accessible as a novel protein, is rabbit. Rabbit is cooling and also acts as a Qi tonic; both actions would be beneficial for Myra.

A stew was designed using rabbit, rabbit organs, pumpkin (Qi tonic), turnips (to resolve stagnation), carrots (to resolve stagnation), pears (to resolve Phlegm), radishes (to resolve Phlegm), Shiitake mushrooms (to drain Damp), and barley (to drain Damp). All ingredients were cooked at low heat in a crockpot.

Within a few weeks, Myra’s itch score decreased from 10 to 2. Initially, her ears were too painful to allow cleaning or treatment, but after ten days on the new diet, the swelling in the ear canals was gone and there was no more discharge or odor. The ears were healed by food therapy alone. Thera-clean baths were instituted twice weekly; this is an innovative system that does not use any soap. The bladder stones were removed surgically to increase comfort for the patient.

Myra has been eating a rabbit-based diet, with modifications as needed, for over a year now. She has grown a thick coat, with no further itching. She has had no recurrence of bladder stones or ear infections. Her energy level is great and she loves to play and interact with other dogs and family members


Xie, Huisheng. Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine – Fundamental Principles, 2nd Edition, 2013.

Xie, Huisheng, et al. Xie’s Veterinary Acupuncture, 2007.

Xie, Huisheng, et al. Practical Guide to TCVM – Emergencies and Five Element Syndromes, 2014.