Ancient insight into modern pet personality types

November 18, 2009 at 4:48 pm Leave a comment

Bugsy was the boss cat of my neighborhood for years. I took him in when the neighbors who had been feeding him moved; he had no one else.

Bugsy took to life as a neutered cat with free food and massage on demand, but becoming “my” cat didn’t change who he was at heart: a pugilistic street cat who still tries to pick fights with one of my other cats. If he gets bored, he jumps on the computer keyboard, paws at me, or just stares until I get up and play with him.

The Western veterinarian and scientist in me sees this as the personality he developed while living on the streets. But there is another way to look at Bugsy, using a system thousands of years old that originated in a very different land than ours.

Animal constitutions

While I remain a critic of many alternative medical approaches including Chinese medicine, when I do find something that works and has at least the potential for a rational scientific basis, I delight in the discovery. One of the most fun and empirically useful of the Chinese medical techniques involves sorting patients into “biopsychotypes.”
Seeing patterns arise out of an individual’s composite biological and psychological characteristics tells a story about who they are inside and out. Often, a resonance becomes apparent between their personality, their inclinations toward certain foods, preferred climates, physical tendencies, and more.

When I learned this approach first as a human physician-acupuncturist, it was striking to watch patterns emerge in my patients based on their appearance and emotional demeanor, their medical and social histories, and their physical manifestations of health or disease.

Now that I am practicing veterinary medicine, too, I apply it not only to my furry patients, but also to the humans who care for them. I note how “types” interface in a household – do they nurture or irritate one another? Medically, it aids in my ability to anticipate medical challenges that my patients may encounter in the future; it may prompt me to probe more deeply and ask about unstated ailments based on biopsychotype expectations.

History of five phases

The ancient Chinese healers called their system the “Five Phases,” because through this philosophical framework, much of what they observed in nature as well as in medicine fell into five general categories. They developed the approach millennia ago as one of several ways to understand and predict natural phenomena.

These laws of “systematic correspondence” described how patterns in nature – the macrocosm – found parallel expressions in us, the microcosm. The simplistic yin and yang idea based on only two complementary influences gave way over time to a broader complexity based on five elements, capable of more precisely corresponding to natural processes like the seasons.

The five categories of Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water represented changes these ancient naturalists witnessed over the day, the year, and the life cycle as well as interrelationships between organs, emotions, people, and climate. The model embraces, expects, and accepts metamorphosis.

Much like the personality profiles of modern psychology, Five Phases analysis groups people and animals into constitutional categories based on psychological and physical manifestations. While not yet a scientifically validated means of determining Chinese medical treatments for humans or animals, identifying a predominant phase out of balance in an individual seems to provide clues about what a patient needs to restore homeostasis.

For example, a task-oriented metal-type dog needs a job to do, while the earth-type cat needs a warm lap.

The five elements

bigstockphoto_Wood_Chinese_Calligraphy_Five__3785219Wood types come across as confident and assertive; they typically excel as athletes or pioneers. They enjoy holding leadership positions and thrive in competitive environments.

When unable to direct their goal-focused energies into positive and physically challenging outlets, wood natures become corrupted. They can turn arrogant, reckless, impulsive, and aggressive. Hypertension, headaches, and heartburn can accompany pent-up muscle tension and frustration.

Wood dogs may bully others, no matter the size differential. They make themselves known through their loud and insistent barking.

Don’t get in their way of food, as wood dogs can show strong territorial possessiveness.

Wood dogs have well defined, muscular statures. They are prone to liver and gallbladder disorders, skin and ear infections, doggy odor, and bloodshot eyes.

Bugsy, my pugnacious street cat, is a wood cat. I work to assure him that there’s no need to fight with the other cats, though he needs frequent reminders. Today I caught him twice staring down my other cat, Woobie, while Woobie was trying to sleep. They’re both strong males, but Woobie’s a “water” cat (see below) who backs down and hisses in fear unless he gets pushed past his limit. Then he will fight.

When I took Bugsy in to be neutered at my friends’ practice, we discovered that his ears were teeming with tens of thousands of ear mites, the worst case they’d ever seen. He also had uveitis, an inflammatory eye condition, and his coat was greasy and matted. Bugsy was a typical wood with a hard start in life.

bigstockphoto_Fire_Chinese_Calligraphy_Five__3785214Fire types are charmers. They crave attention and will do whatever it takes to earn yours and win their way into your heart. They passionately plunge into life and seek emotional, physical, and mental stimulation. Their attractive and magnetic personalities make them the life of the party.

Fires can become confused or anxious; they restlessly move about even when sleeping, kicking and running as they dream. Physically, with the heart as the main fire organ, an imbalanced fire type may experience arrhythmias, palpitations, and insomnia. They overheat easily. Jack Russell Terriers often exhibit fire tendencies, performing endless tricks for applause and laughter.

Snowball, a charismatic fire cat, came into my life the day after I had a dream about a white kitten playing on a farm. I received a call from the clinic the next day asking if I had room in my house for a rescued grayish, long-haired stray cat, about two years old; it felt like destiny, and I said, “Of course.”

When I saw him, I fell in love. Once established in our household, Snowy’s zest for life filled the house. But one day, the play he ordinarily immersed himself in so completely made him pant and cough.

The subsequent workup revealed the heritable disease of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy; the cardiologist predicted that he would live another four, maybe six, months. He was a heart-breaker, this formerly neglected feline who became a big, all-white gorgeous boy.

After he was placed on medication, Snowball’s lightning-fast reflexes returned; even after his diagnosis, we were out for a walk one summer evening when he leapt into the air and caught a low-flying bat, much to my dismay.

He lasted two more years, until the dysfunctional heart formed a blood clot that left him paralyzed and purple, but still alive and fighting. Snowball yowled in pain, fighting against his impending but unavoidable departure from…

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Animal constitutions: ancient insight into modern pet personality types Will our food — and our pets’ — be safer soon?

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