A Perspective From Traditional Chinese Medicine

By Dr. Candice Chiu

Traditional Chinese Medicine considers each individual to have a primary constitution based on the Five Element Theory. At first glance it sounds mysterious. The theory goes that an individual’s constitution may influence the type of disease he or she is prone to.


Constitution is based on the personality and certain characteristics of an animal (or human). If we look at it from a modern medicine perspective, we know that genetics play a major part in an animal’s personality. The stereotypical eating-around-the-clock Golden Retriever, the friendly and vocal Siamese, the too-smart-for-their-own-good Border Collie, etc. We also know that each breed comes with certain disease risks. The ancient Chinese people did not know anything about genetics, but observation allowed them to categorize individuals into five basic constitutions and thus help with diagnosis and treatment. After all, genes are expressed phenotypically through our appearance and behaviour. Below are the five elements and their descriptions.

Wood: These are usually dominant individuals who like to lead. They tend to be great athletes, fast runners, and are quick and nimble. They adapt to changes easily and are always alert. They are confident and fearless, but can be prone to aggression, impatience, and may bite with little provocation. These individuals are prone to liver or gallbladder problems.


Social pets - Fire constitutionFire:  Social, playful and loves attention (lots of petting required!). They are extroverted and excitable, sometimes difficult to keep still, and can be prone to separation anxiety. They can be very talkative.  When unbalanced, these individuals can suffer from cardiovascular diseases.


Earth: Good old earth types are mellow and friendly. They are the type that come to the vet clinic and don’t mind being poked. They love to sleep, and prefer walking over running. They tend to move slowly and can be prone to obesity. The earth type has a tendency to worry too much. They are prone to problems associated with the gastrointestinal system.


Metal: These quiet animals like rules and order. They are confident like the wood type but they are more aloof and thrive on consistency so they can prepare for what happens next. They tend to follow the owner’s commands and are disciplined. They are prone to respiratory tract issues such as nasal congestion, asthma, and other lung diseases.


Timid Cat - Water ConstitutionWater: These timid creatures like to hide away to observe and analyze their surroundings. Shy and preferring solitude, they are prone to fear. These are the type of pets where we get phone calls from you 30 minutes before the appointment, “sorry but we have to reschedule, he is hiding somewhere and I can’t find him.” They may bite out of fear and can show signs through submissive urination. Kidney and bladder problems are common amongst water individuals.

Of course this is not one size fits all, as there are always a few “special” dogs and cats who forgot to read the manual.  As well, diseases are dynamic, and various factors (the old nature vs. nurture debate) can influence and even obscure the clinical picture. Nonetheless, it is something to consider next time when you describe your pet’s personality.



Xie, H. S. and Preast, V. (2013) Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine: Fundamental Principles (Volume 1). Reddick, FL: Jing Tang.