Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine: Five Elements

There are five elements in many philosophical traditions throughout the world. The ancient Greeks had Air, Water, Fire, Earth, and Ether. The ancient Babylonians thought the five elements were Wind, Fire, Earth, Sea, and Sky. The Chinese also had five elements, which influenced the organization of their system of Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine (TCVM). These elements are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water.

In modern thought, these five elements are not taken in the literal sense, but they do stand for certain systems or groups of organs and certain characteristics. These groups interact in various ways to maintain health and when the interactions become imbalanced show up as symptoms of disease. The TCVM practitioner considers these interactions when making a treatment plan to put everything back into balance.

Wood is associated with the Liver and Gall Bladder as well as with the eyes and vision, tendons, and ligaments. Animals with a Wood personality tend to be athletic and confident, even a bit competitive. Owners may say that their pet is bossy or possessive. These animals may also be irritable and become angry very easily.

Fire is associated with the Heart and Small Intestine. It is also associated with the Pericardium (the membrane that surrounds the heart) and the Triple Heater, that is not really an organ but a means for nutrients and energy to be distributed throughout the body. Blood vessels are also associated with the Fire element. Animals with a Fire personality are friendly, very excitable, and can be quite noisy. These are the dogs that love to meet everyone on their walks and are hard to keep still when someone comes to visit!

Earth is associated with the digestive system (termed the Spleen in TCVM) and Stomach, and with muscles and taste. The Earth personality is laid-back and nurturing; these are the animals that don’t mind playing “dress-up” with your toddlers! On the downside, these animals can also be worriers.

Metal is associated with the Lungs and with the Large Intestine as well as with the skin and coat and with the sense of smell. These animals tend to be a bit aloof, quiet and confident, and disciplined. They follow commands quite well and seem to know what is expected of them. 

Water is associated with the Kidneys and Bladder and with bones, the ears, and hearing. The personality of Water is fearful and shy. The cat that hides under the bed at the slightest provocation or the dog that cowers behind its owner’s legs when another dog approaches- that’s Water! 

This is just a quick summary of the five elements. Your veterinary acupuncturist or other TCVM practitioner will have studied the characteristics and interactions of the five elements in much more detail and will understand how imbalance in one area may affect the expression of the elements in another area. S/he will then choose the best treatment plan to bring everything back into balance and help your pet to be healthy and happy!


Dr. Cynthia Glover of LunarPoodle Veterinary Services practices TCVM in-home and in weekly clinics at SplashDog in Edmonds.

Published in the November/December  2014 Pet Connection Magazine, North Sound edition.