TCVM food therapy for dogs and cats

We know the right foods improve and maintain health in dogs and cats, but Chinese medicine goes several steps further. We spoke to TCVM veterinarian, Dr. Marc Smith, for an understanding of food therapy from a Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine perspective.

Q: Can you explain the concept of TCVM food therapy?

A: According to Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine Theory, disease in the body is due to some type of energetic imbalance. So the goal of TCVM and food therapy is to maintain balance or bring your dog or cat’s body back into balance. As your animal attains and maintains energetic balance, chronic health challenges become less of a problem, and he starts feeling much better.

At its core, TCVM is based on the principles of Taoism, a philosophy emphasizing a harmonious way of life and balance in everyday living. The practice of TCVM requires a thorough understanding and appreciation of two theories — Yin-Yang Theory and Five Elements Theory. These theories guide practitioners in every aspect of the treatment protocol, including food therapy.

Q: What is the Yin-Yang Theory?

A: The Yin-Yang Theory describes how every naturally-occurring event or state has equal and opposite forces. For example:

  • Hot/cold
  • Light/dark
  • Day/night
  • Weak/strong
  • Soft/hard
  • Left/right
  • Dry/moist
  • Man/woman

Although often regarded as opposites, these forces are, in fact, frequently related to one another. For instance, without heat would we ever be able to appreciate cold?

In other words, these forces stand alone, yet are totally interdependent on each other. One force cannot exist without the other, and one force is the origin of the other. These forces are in constant motion, change, conflict and struggle; but together, they represent the whole, the totality.

Q: How does Yin-Yan Theory factor into food therapy?

A: TCVM shows that food, like everything else in the universe, consists of the two opposite but complementary life forces of Yin and Yang. Yin is linked to dark, cold and negative while yang is associated with light, heat and positive. Similarly, certain foods can be warming or cooling. To maintain balance, both energies should be in harmony with each other. However, because every individual is unique in terms of body constitution, we all have different Yin and Yang constituents and dietary requirements.

Q: What about the 5 Element Theory?

A: The 5 Element Theory supports the Yin-Yang theory. Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water are the fundamental elements of everything in the universe, according to Chinese principles. These five elements correlate to every aspect of life, including colors, sounds, emotions, seasons, direction, climate, sense organs, solid bodily organs, taste, smell and more.

Q: So what does it mean when you say a food is “warming” or “cooling”?

A: Every naturally-occurring food is either warming or cooling, or else neutral. This approach is termed “food energetics” and denotes how each food affects the physiology and metabolism of the human or animal ingesting it.

Warming foods tend to increase metabolism and get energy flowing, whereas cooling foods calm the body and absorb some of the excess heat it produces.

For instance, a habanero pepper heats your body, gets your blood pumping and makes you sweat, while a banana cools the body and regulates heat. We frequently eat foods according to the seasons, such as warming chili in the winter (chili powder is energetically warming) and cooling watermelon in the summer.

The simplest approach to comprehending the Yin-Yang Theory and its relation to food is to understand disease pathology in TCVM. Disease or imbalances in dogs and cats are broadly classified as either “hot” or “cold”:

  • Hot diseases include allergies, hot spots, and renal failure. Redness, irritation, swelling, and pain indicate heat.
  • Cold diseases include geriatric arthritis, hind end weakness, and chronic diarrhea. These diseases improve with movement or the generation of internal heat, and are common in older animals.

Health is achieved when a balance between hot and cold is attained.

As an example, think of a young dog plagued by recurring hot spots. According to TCVM pathology, hot spots are a “hot” disease. Let’s also say this dog resides in the south where it’s very hot and humid in the summer. To help, you’d feed this dog cooling foods to balance the heat causing the hot spots, and also counteract the climatic heat. In short, this dog has a “hot” disease, and feeding him “cooling” foods will help bring him back into balance.

Q: What are some examples of warming and cooling foods for dogs and cats?

A: All foods are categorized according to their energetic characteristics. Here are some examples:

  • Warming proteins: chicken and venison
  • Cooling proteins: cod, turkey, duck
  • Neutral proteins: Beef, salmon, rabbit
  • Warming vegetables and fruits: sweet potato, pumpkin, sweet pepper, tangerine
  • Cooling vegetables and fruits: broccoli, cucumber, spinach, strawberry
  • Neutral vegetables and fruits: green beans, carrots, yam

Q: What else is food therapy used for in TCVM?

A: Any dog or cat will feel better and have more energy if you switch him from a low quality diet to a TCVM energetically-appropriate diet, which consists of healthy, whole foods.

The most common way I use food therapy at my clinic is simply by recommending warming, cooling, neutral, and blood-building diets. However, you can also use food therapy to decrease Stagnation and decrease Phlegm.

  • When an animal is suffering from Stagnation, you’ll see swelling in the internal organs and tumors and bumps under the skin. You may also see behavioral and emotional imbalance. For example, an animal suffering from Liver Qi Stagnation may be anxious or aggressive, and may even have seizures.
  • In TCVM, Phlegm is just as it sounds. Think of a cat with chronic upper respiratory disease. A Phlegm condition develops when body fluids aren’t transported properly by the body’s vital energy. The fluids become condensed, then accumulate in certain parts of the body. Another example of Phlegm is a lipoma or fatty tumor. In TCVM, even body fat is considered a form of Phlegm.

You can use food therapy to alleviate both Stagnation and Phlegm. However, in my practice I usually combine food therapy with TCVM herbal blends to help with both health situations. I’ve found the two to work very well together.

Q: How can someone incorporate food therapy principles into their dog or cat’s health and dietary regimen?

A: The easiest way is to simply home cook energetically-appropriate recipes. As an example, here’s a warming recipe for dogs:

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