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The Basics of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Food Therapy

By Dr Caroline Hoetzer

ZenVet Holistic Therapies

BA/LLB, BVB/DVM, GDVA (CIVT), Dip. Ryoho Yoga

How can Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) influence food choice?

A general principle of raw and natural feeding models is to rotate between sources of animal protein. The reasoning behind this is that each protein source has a different amino acid profile and protein to fat ratio, and different types and amounts of fat contained. This allows the animal to benefit from variety of nutrient profiles, flavours and textures.  


In certain circumstances, this approach is not appropriate for the animal patient.  For example, some animals have an intolerance or an allergy to a specific protein.  In other cases, for example in a protein elimination trial, we may be trying to restrict the number of proteins in the diet to try to resolve a chronic condition.  


In these cases, as a practitioner trained in Traditional Chinese Medicine (“TCM”), one consideration in designing a diet is TCM food therapy principles. TCM food therapy allows a practitioner to provide individualised dietary guidance to address constitutional, lifestyle or stage of life issues for animal patients.   

For TCM, food is medicine.

For TCM, food is another form of medicine, like herbs.  TCM principles have a foundation in the observations that practitioners and scholars have made over the centuries about the effect of different foods on, and their interactions with, the body.  Studying the food substances in nature, the physical conditions in which plants and animals have lived, where and what time of year they flourished, and under which conditions they struggled to survive, has together provided relevant information to these scholars over time, informing a system of medicine.        


TCM practitioners assess a food in terms of the qualities of the food in TCM terms (that is, direction, flavour, organ system, nature and temperature) which then associates foods with each of the Five Elements.  Described very simply, Five Element Theory organises the observations of scholars over the centuries into a system of explaining the nature of the world around us and its interrelationships. 

The five elements are:

  • Earth (late summer/change in season)

  • Metal (autumn)

  • Water (winter)

  • Wood (spring)

  • Fire (summer).

The importance of flavour:

In terms of qualities, there are five food flavours, and each is associated with an element and organ system.

  • Sweet is associated with Earth element, and the digestive organs of Stomach and Spleen (the pancreas in modern medicine).  Sweet foods are used to support digestion and Qi.   

  • Salty is associated with the Water element, and the organs of Kidney and Bladder.  Salty foods are used to support the nervous, hormonal and water/urinary systems.

  • Sour is associated with the Wood element and the organs of Liver and Gall Bladder.  Sour foods have an astringent character, for example lemon.  

  • Pungent foods are associated with the Metal element and the organs of Lung and Large Intestine.  For example, fermented foods assist with bowel function, and garlic can assist with breaking up mucous congestion.  

  • Bitter foods are associated with the Fire element and the organs of Heart and Small Intestine.  Bitter foods have an impact on circulation and digestion.   

Food has a thermal nature:

Food also has a thermal nature, which relates to the way the food makes you feel internally after you have eaten it (not the temperature with which it is served).  Food is either hot, warming, neutral or cooling.  As a TCM practitioner, these qualities help me to choose which foods are appropriate to include in the diet of a particular patient.  For example, if I knew that an animal overheated easily, I would recommend including cooling foods in the diet to help make this animal more comfortable, and avoid including heating foods, especially in the warmer months.  On the other hand, I would advise that the dog or cat that is chilly, often elderly, and is always looking for a blanket, would benefit from warming foods in the diet. Warming foods help with digestion (Earth) and invigorate circulation (Fire).  Neutral foods are also added to the diet as balancers, as they don’t create a thermal quality. 

Blood builds blood:

In a carnivore’s diet, animal protein in the form of muscle meat and organ meat forms the main source of nutrition and calories. From a TCM perspective, consuming the blood of an animal builds the Blood of the body.  Blood in TCM is the same as how it is described in Western medicine, that is the red liquid that travels through the body’s circulatory system. In a simple summary of TCM theory, blood and Qi are formed from the essence of food digested by the Stomach and Spleen (pancreas), which is mixed with bone marrow maintained by the Water element, and moved by the Heart in circulation. The direction of where blood goes is the function of the liver. Thus, in TCM theory a dog that has dry, itchy skin may have Liver Blood deficiency. That is, there is not enough blood being moved by the liver to nourish and bathe the tissues and skin. In this case, a diet high in animal organ meat would be recommended to boost the blood of the body. 

Paw Grocer Black Label products contain freeze dried animal organ meat, which can provide a nutritious, animal protein rich treat for dogs that need to strengthen blood and qi. Owners can choose from goat offal, grass fed beef kidney, duck liver or duck hearts.

Another relevant consideration is Ziwi Peak. All recipes contain high amounts of free range animal protein and a good variety of nutritious organ meat, such as kidney, liver, spleen, heart, lung, and cold washed green tripe. 

Which protein do I choose?

Which protein should you choose for a patient? In TCM theory, chicken, lamb, goat and venison are warming in nature, the flavour is sweet, and they support the digestive system organs and functions. These proteins are generally suitable for growing puppies and kittens, and for adult dogs and cats that have weak digestive systems or that need to build muscle mass or body condition.   


Warming proteins are not suitable for an animal that is hot, or that suffers from moist dermatitis of the skin, ears etc. For these dogs and cats, it is recommended to choose cooling or neutral foods. Fish such as mackerel, white fish and salmon have a neutral thermal nature so are a great choice. They also have a sweet flavour and support the digestive system organs and function, thus supporting the body to generate blood to nourish healthy skin. Great neutral proteins to consider are grass fed beef, duck, pork and rabbit. Kelp, contained in all Ziwi recipes, is cold in thermal nature and is used in TCM to help clear heat in the body and regulate circulation. 

Further TCM learning sources:

If vets are interested in learning more about TCM principles of food therapy, there are short courses, Certificate level and Diploma level courses in TCM available online through the College of Integrative Veterinary Therapies (  The Chi University in Florida USA has a continuing education course in Veterinary Food Therapy (

This article has been written by  

By Dr Caroline Hoetzer

ZenVet Holistic Therapies 

BA/LLB, BVB/DVM, GDVA (CIVT), Dip. Ryoho Yoga 

Dr Caroline has been involved with the team at Number 1 for many years, providing advice relating to nutrition and natural health products for companion animals. Dr Caroline has an interest in Traditional Chinese Medicine and has completed a Graduate Diploma in Veterinary Acupuncture and Chinese herbs (CIVT). She is currently completing a Graduate Diploma in Animal Biomechanical Medicine, expanding into chiropractic and osteopathic care. In her practice at ZenVet Holistic Therapies, Dr Caroline treats mainly small animals using acupuncture, herbal medicine, laser therapy and physical therapies.  You can catch Dr Caroline once a month discussing animal health topics with Paul Turton on NSW Mornings on ABC Radio.

There are a few veterinary TCM food therapy textbooks available:

  • Fowler M & Xie H (eds). 2020, “Integrative and Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine Food Therapy”, 1st ed, www. 

  • Schwarz, C 1996 “Four Paws, Five Directions: A Guide to Chinese Medicine for Cats and Dogs”, Celestial Publishing, California USA.   

  • Wynn, SG & Marsden S 2002, “Manual of Natural Veterinary Medicine: Science and Tradition”, Mosby, Missouri USA.


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