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An Introduction to Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine Herbs

by Bruce Ferguson

In future editions of this column I will present veterinary case examples in which Bian Zheng (Pattern Differentiation) is used to diagnose and suggest treatment strategies. Those strategies will be used to select TCVM (Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medical) herbal formulae that are safe and effective treatment modalities for non-human patients. In this issue, I will begin by giving the readers some historical and practical background regarding the practice of TCVM herbal medicine.

TCM does not have quite the rich history concerning the majority of our companion animals as it does for humans. Many of these animals (e.g. cats, many avian and reptile species) were not held in great regard in ancient China and were considered either food items or expendable. In modern Western cultures this is clearly not the case. For example, more than 60% of companion animal caretakers in the USA allow their companion animals to sleep in the caretaker’s bedroom. Moreover, a number of municipalities in the USA have moved or are moving to classify companion animals as “sentient” beings rather than merely “property”. Several recent judicial cases have furthered this trend by ruling that companion animals have greater “value” to their caretakers than merely the replacement cost of the animal (Black and Black 2004).

Further, although we have many important documents delineating diagnosis and treatment strategies for human disharmonies, it is still unlikely that the majority of ancient TCM documents ever written have survived into modern times. Similarly, any early “experiments” with TCVM in non-agricultural species that may have occurred are unlikely to have extant written records. We will see that this absence of significant historical antecedents has not hindered the development of a flourishing TCVM educational system throughout the world today. This education includes Acupuncture and Moxibustion, Herbal Medicine, Tui Na and Food Therapy (e.g. Chi Institute of Chinese Medicine, IVAS)

Following is a brief history of TCVM in China (cited in Xie 1994). Zhou Dynasty to the Spring and Autumn Period (11th century-476 BCE). In the Western Zhou Dynasty there were full-time veterinarians who were in charge of treating animal diseases. There are records of using oral herbal medicines and surgical procedures on horses. It was recorded in the Zhou Li Tian Guan (an Historical Book of the Zhou Dynasty) that veterinarians were in charge of treating animal diseases and boils. The Zhou Li (The Rites of the Zhou Dynasty), Shi Jing (The Book of Songs) and Shan Hai Jing (The Book of Mountains and Rivers) recorded the use of more than 100 herbs for veterinary treatment.

Early Stage of the Feudal Society (475 BCE- 265 AD). This was the most important stage in the development of TCVM. In the period of the Warring States there were veterinarians who specially treated horse diseases and who were known as horse doctors. In the books of this period there were records of domestic animal diseases such as cattle boils, weak cattle, elbow ulcers of horses, bone fractures of horses, wounds of horses, and sudden death of horses.

Qin and Han Dynasty. The government of the Qin dynasty made Jio Yuan Lu (Animal Husbandry and Veterinary Medicine Laws) which were the first ever in China. During this period it was recorded in text that a combination of acupuncture and herbal medicines had been used to treat animal diseases.

Middle Stage of the Feudal Society (265-1368). In the Jin dynasty the famous doctor Ge Hong (281-340) wrote Zhou Hou Bei Ji Fang (Pocket Book for Emergency Therapies) which includes a chapter called prescriptions for treating domestic animal diseases. Jia Sixie (533-544) wrote Qi Min Yao Shu (Basic Techniques for Farmers) which contained a special volume on animal husbandry and veterinary medicine. One of the most famous treatises on equine diseases written by Bo Le, Bo Le Liao Ma Jing (Bole’s Classics on Treatment of Equine Diseases) was published soon thereafter. A large number of veterinary medical texts delineating acupuncture, moxibustion and the use of herbal medicines for large animals were published over the following two hundred years. During the Sui dynasty, Tai Pu Si (a branch of government in charge of animal husbandry and veterinary medicine) was established with 120 employed veterinarians.

Tang Dynasty (618-907). A comprehensive veterinary education system was established in the Tai Pu Si. For example, from 705-707 there were 600 veterinarians, 4 teachers and 100 veterinary students in the system. The Tang dynasty government published Xin Xiu Ben Cao (Newly Revised Materia Medica) in 659; it contained 844 Chinese herbal medicines and was the earliest pharmacopoeia of both human and veterinary medicine in China.

Song and Yuan Dynasty (960-1368). TCVM continued to develop with the Bing Ma Jian (Hospital of Sick Horses) established to treat sick horses around the capital area. The government also established the Pi Bao Suo (Necropsy Sites) for postmortem examination and the Yao Mi Ku (Storage of Honey and Medicine) as the first veterinary herbal dispensary in China.

Late Stage of The Feudal Society (1368-1840). During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) the government made it a rule to train veterinarians for every group that took care of 25 or more horses. In 1606 Yuan Heng Liao Ma Ji Fu Niu Tuo Jing (Yuan-Heng’s Therapeutic Treatise on Horses) was written by two famous veterinarians, Yu Benyuan and Yu Benheng. Li Shizhen (1518-1593), a scientist during the Ming dynasty, wrote the famous book Ben Cao Gang Mu (Compendium of Materia Medica) which covers 1,892 Chinese herbal medicines and 11.096 prescriptions for human and veterinary use. In further books published during this period there were records of castration of horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, dogs and cocks.

In modern times, small companion animals are now treated with TCVM herbal medicines dependent upon their patterns. This includes canine and feline companion animals as well as rarer mammalian, reptilian and amphibian species. Unfortunately for the veterinary doctors who practice TCVM, diagnostic information that is readily available in human practice is often lacking in veterinary practice. Of the Si Zhen or Four Diagnostic Methods, Looking (Wang), Hearing (Wen), Asking (Wen) and Touching (Qie), the Asking aspect or historical inquiry is commonly either absent or incomplete and, necessarily, second-hand. Furthermore, something as seemingly simple as Looking at the tongue may be complicated by species which resent oral examination (e.g. Llamas) or the tongue characteristics may change if the oral cavity is forcibly opened during examination as with most small carnivores.

Herbs may be absorbed and excreted from our companion animals at rates far different than in humans. The form of herbal preparation complicates the process even more. Small carnivores, for example, have relatively short gut transit times and some herbal preparations such as Pian (Teapills) may be incompletely digested and absorbed. Other herbs that have relatively mild toxicities when used at proper dosages in humans (e.g. Ma Huang, herba ephedra) may actually be toxic in some patients such as cats. While horses that ingest some species of useful TCVM herbs that are important in resolving their Disharmony may test “drug”-positive in competitive, athletic events.


Black, K, Black, M. (2004). ‘More on the Sentient Property Debate’. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 225 (10), p. 1526.

Xie, H. S. (1994). Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine. Beijing: Agricultural University Press, Beijing, PRC .

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