Cat basking in sunshine.Dog playing with ball.PuppyCat Eating Food.Dog in a Sunny Field.Dog playing with stick.Cat on a Fence.Dog at the Sea.

The Five Elements and Acupuncture


Cat Basking in the Sun

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) describes a flow of Five Elements or phases as part of the TCM metaphor for the organs of the body and their complex physiological processes. Each element is associated with a pair of the major organs within the TCM organ system, which is somewhat distinct from our own Western Medical understanding of organ anatomy and function.

Five Elements in the Body and Nature

I think of the Five Elements as a model of what we call Homeostasis in Western Medicine. Each element creates another through a cycle of creation, and controls another via a cycle of control. This means that each element is in relation with all of the other Five Elements via these two cycles. Overall this creates a system of equilibrium (or homeostasis), which is a model of the complex nervous system, circulatory, hormonal and cellular feedback mechanisms that we understand in Western Medicine.

Each element and its associated TCM organs can be treated with acupuncture at points on its particular channel or meridian. An imbalance in a particular element will usually show itself in symptoms in the organs or meridians associated with it, but if left untreated it will also affect all of the other elements in turn. In an ideal situation, by identifying the underlying constitutional type of an individual and treating the root imbalance, it is possible to rebalance the entire system and treat symptoms appearing in any of the organs. Physical symptoms may not always be present in the organs or meridians of the constitutional (root) imbalance. Often complex layers of symptoms have built up before a patient is presented for acupuncture treatment, and these need to be addressed in order of their severity and risk to life.

Five Element Constitutional Acupuncture is a system developed in the UK from TCM principles that attempts to identify and treat the underlying constitutional imbalance in an individual, thereby restoring physical, emotional and spiritual good health. It has been developed for use in human patients particularly, but much of the traditional knowledge of constitutional types and methods of treatment using the Five Elements is very useful for animals.

The Five Elements in TCM are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. The colour associated with each is Green for Wood, then Red, Yellow, White and Blue. Each element is associated with a particular emotion and sound in the voice. These are Anger and Shouting for the Wood element, Joy and Laughter for Fire, Sympathy/Worry and Singing for Earth, Sadness and Weeping for Metal, and Fear and Groaning for Water. There are many other associations or correspondences with each element that can be helpful in diagnosis and treatment.

Dog in the Snow

In nature, each element is associated with a particular season, beginning with Spring for the Wood element, then Summer, Late Summer, Autumn and Winter. In TCM Five Element Theory these elements describe completely the interplay of conditions in the universe as well as within the body and mind.

Five Element Behaviour Patterns

In our animal companions it can be quite a challenge to find the root or primary imbalance which is affecting all of the other elements and therefore organs in the body. It is necessary to look at the order in which different symptoms have appeared, as well as the habitual emotional patterns shown by each animal through their behaviour. This includes how they behave around their carers (who are closest to them) as well as around other friends or family members, complete strangers and people they may not like. It is also important to look at how they behave with other animals of various species, around food, when resting, at different times of day or night, and in different seasons. Their attitude to the great outdoors and unfamiliar or new experiences is also important. As the animal’s owner or carer you will know them best and probably have an accurate picture of their habitual ways of behaving.

The following are some examples of typical behaviours shown by each element type. Any behaviour is one point on a sliding scale, and many possibilities of expression can be seen. Some can also manifest when an element is out of balance that is not the animal’s constitutional type, but has been influenced by another element.

Wood Type:

Dogs Playing in the Park
  • Often confident, dominant and assertive
  • Alert, responsive, fast in thinking or movement
  • Likes to feel useful, may be impatient
  • Tendency towards irritability, anger or aggression
  • May be good at adapting to change or making decisions
  • Can develop hyperactivity or seizures
  • May suffer from depression or lack of direction with long term illness
  • Body type can be lean, athletic, well muscled or tense.

Fire Type:

German Shepherd
  • Outgoing, bold, sociable, joyful, often curious
  • Likes to be the centre of attention, bright, humorous
  • May suffer from overexcitement, anxiety, fatigue, confusion or lack of joy
  • Can be very vocally expressive
  • Often has a strong bond with others
  • Body type can be small, strong, fast but quick to fatigue
  • Often do not tolerate heat and may suffer from heatstroke or fainting.

Earth Type:

Dogs in Field
  • Relaxed and good natured, slow, steady, contented, may be submissive
  • Kind and concerned for others, generous nature, eager to please
  • May worry about others, be needy or clingy
  • Can be greedy and obsessive around food
  • Likes comfort and the security of home
  • Can be heavily built with tendency to weight gain, or very underweight.

Metal Type:

Cat in Silver Birch Tree
  • Can seem aloof and self sufficient, may prefer to be alone
  • Quiet, intelligent or analytical
  • May appear to be searching for meaning in life
  • Tend to take the lead, be consistent and well disciplined
  • May be clean and well groomed, or have poor hair coat
  • Can be affected deeply and for prolonged periods by grief, and be unable to let go.

Water Type:

Dog at the Seaside
  • May be introverted and quiet, or sociable but with underlying fear
  • Fear may be hidden, can be fear-biters
  • May be watchful, looking for trust
  • Can be strongly driven, or lack willpower and lose the will to go on
  • Can have dislike of cold and be heat seeking.

Four Paws Five Directions by Cheryl Schwartz is an excellent guide to Chinese Medicine for Dogs and Cats. It describes each of the element types as well as the correspondences for each element, and some of the disease processes that can manifest through Five Element interactions.

Back to Top