Behavioral problems

Many pets suffer from behavioral problems such as separation anxiety, thunderstorm phobia or repetitive licking causing hair loss. These issues can affect old or young dogs and cats alike and can be very difficult for owners to cope with. Horses can also show behavioral problems, which can make training difficult or even impossible. While training and behavioral modification by the owner can often benefit these animals, these problems can also be seen as an internal imbalance from a Chinese perspective and can be treated with acupuncture and herbal medicine. Animals may display abnormal behavior due to past trauma, such as a rescued dog with separation anxiety. From a Chinese perspective, these animals have an emotional imbalance due to either past events or a genetic predisposition. By treating the imbalance, the behavior can be modified. While training can modify behavior, Chinese medicine will address the underlying cause of the behavior. A combination of training and Chinese medicine is therefore generally much more effective than training alone.

Behavioral Issues from a Chinese Medical Perspective

According to Chinese theory, behavior is affected by the major internal organs. In Chinese medicine, the animal or person has five spirits (or aspects of consciousness), each of which is associated with a specific major organ. The five spirits are:

  • Shen (Mind), associated with the Heart - interprets the senses and is in overall control of thinking
  • Zhi (Will), associated with the Kidneys - stores memories and is responsible for perseverance and the will to live
  • Yi (Intellect), associated with the Spleen - stabilizes the mind and controls both concentration and trust
  • Hun (Ethereal Soul), associated with the Liver - controls planning and coordination, putting Shen’s ideas into action
  • Po (Corporeal Soul), associated with the Lungs - embodies the senses and emotions and controls connections to others

Abnormal function of any of these organs can disrupt the associated spirit and therefore lead to behavioral problems. As a basic example, an animal with weakness of the Spleen (due to either genetic predisposition or factors such as poor diet) will show the effects of weakness of the Yi. They will become clingy, dependent, easily overwhelmed, unable to remember training and often be addicted to food due to these effects. The Spleen needs to be strengthened (together with consistency from the owners to rebuild trust) if these behavioral issues are to be resolved.

As another example, based on the descriptions of the spirits above, if an animal is difficult to train (unable to remember or focus), there may be weakness of the kidneys (lack of memory), spleen (inability to concentrate) and/or liver (cannot plan ahead and put ideas into action). Abnormal behaviors can therefore be seen as reflecting organ problems in Chinese medicine. If the organ affected is treated, the behavior will improve. Training and behavioral modification are still important, but Chinese therapies will make them more effective and produce an effect more quickly than training alone.

Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine for Behavioral Problems

Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine act synergistically to rebalance the mind and internal organs. Herbal formulas are particularly effective to treat the internal organ imbalances that often underlie behavioral issues. Herbal formulas have now been developed specifically to treat the common conditions seen in dogs and cats. For example, an animal that shows bizarre behaviors and excessive fear often has the diagnosis of Shen disturbance in Chinese medicine. These animals are often hot, with red tongues, and sleep poorly at night, often keeping their owners awake. There is a specific herbal formula that is used to treat this imbalance, cooling the body, calming the Shen and resolving the behavior. Chinese herbal medicine can therefore often quickly relieve abnormal behaviors.

In horses, behavioral problems are often caused by undiagnosed pain or discomfort, for example due to gastric ulcers, back pain or mouth/temporomandibular joint issues. Palpation of acupuncture points can often allow these conditions to be diagnosed, and they can then be treated with a combination of Chinese therapies. When these discomforts are removed, the horse's behavior will often improve.

Tui-na for Behavioral Problems

Tui-na, a form of Chinese medical massage, acts on the same principles as acupuncture by moving the body’s energy (Qi) and strengthening the internal organs. Most animals really enjoy the massage and undivided attention of their caretaker. For behavioral issues, regular massage by the owner can not only treat the internal imbalance but also strengthen the human-animal bond and build trust and confidence in the caretaker.

Food Therapy for Behavioral Problems

Diet is very important as it is the foundation of health, in both humans and animals. According to Chinese theory, different foods have different effects on the body and appropriate foods can be chosen to treat the specific imbalance shown by an animal. Whether you would like to prepare a diet from scratch for your pet or simply add fresh food treats as a supplement to their regular diet, food therapy can play a part in treatment of behavioral issues.

Behavioral problems that can benefit from holistic treatment

While training and behavioral modification are still important, Chinese veterinary medicine is often very effective to resolve abnormal behavior in animals, especially in cases where training isn’t helping and where underlying physical illness has been ruled out as a possible cause. Behavioral problems that can benefit from Chinese veterinary medicine include:

  • Excessive fear or phobias
  • Separation anxiety
  • Feline psychogenic alopecia (hair loss in cats caused excessive and persistent grooming with physical explanation)
  • Compulsive behaviors in dogs (such as tail-chasing, fly-biting or other repetitive behaviors)
  • Hyperactivity
  • Inability to be trained in dogs and horses
  • Submissive urination in dogs
  • Excessive urine marking (dogs and cats) and urinating outside the litter box in cats
  • Territorial or aggressive behavior


New York Veterinary Acupuncture Service provides acupuncture, herbal medicine, Tui-na and Chinese food therapy on either a house call basis or at several area clinics. House calls are offered in New York's Orange County (Newburgh, Middletown, Beacon, Warwick, Goshen, Washingtonville, Florida, Chester, Monroe, Harriman, Tuxedo and surrounding areas). Thursday house calls are available in Manhattan. Fees vary by location; for more information, please This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Office visits are available as follows:

High Point K9 Center
2224 Mt. Hope Rd., Middletown, NY
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for appointments

Compassion Veterinary Health Center
235 South Ave., Poughkeepsie, NY
Contact CVHC on 845-473-0358 for appointments

Contact NYVAS