A prescription dog food is only available through a veterinarian’s prescription. Just like prescription medications, these foods are designed to treat specific problems, and aren’t always safe for ordinary use. The manufacturer has to prove that these foods work as advertised, and the vet has to monitor the patient’s progress to see if the treatment works.
Are Prescription Diets Similar to Other “Healthy” Dog Food?
There are over-the-counter, store bought dog foods advertised as more healthy, or good for specific medical issues. These foods only have to meet the minimum nutritional standards that all dog foods must meet. Because the manufacturer’s claims are vague (“heart healthy!” for example), there is no legal requirement to prove that the claims are true. Some of them really are healthier, and your vet might recommend one, but they aren’t prescription diets unless you must have a prescription to buy them.
What to Look Out for with Prescription Dog Foods
Just like medicine, prescription foods aren’t foolproof. No treatment works perfectly in all cases, so you and your vet have to do your homework to use these treatments properly.
WHAT ISSUES MIGHT PRESCRIPTION DIETS ADDRESS?
Common prescription diets address kidney, heart, or joint problems, or allergies. Manufacturers are making more types of prescription diets all the time, too.
Kidney Diets: Prescription diets for dogs with kidney failure have less protein and less phosphorus than ordinary dog food. Reducing these nutrients slows the degenerative process in the kidneys. (Some diets sold for weight loss are also low protein. Note that these diets do not help with kidney problems, and are not appropriate for dogs with kidney failure.)
Another possible kidney problem in dogs is kidney stones. There is no single anti-stone diet, because there are several different kinds of stones and each type requires a very different diet. If your dog has kidney stones, your vet can decide what kind of diet will help.
Cardiac Diets: Cardiac diets feature restricted sodium -- although sodium is not the cause of heart problems, restricting sodium can, for some dogs, help the heart to work better. Some cardiac diets also include supplements suspected of supporting heart health. These diets may or may not work.
Joint Health Diets: Joint health diets contain glucosamine and chondroitin, often taken from various cartilage and green-lipped mussel sources. Extracts of this shellfish also contain long chain omega three fatty acids that can help to reduce inflammation in human arthritis patients. (Note that they don’t prevent arthritis, and there are limited studies on whether these extracts help dogs.) Most commercially available joint health diets for dogs probably don’t contain quite enough of the ingredients to have a real and lasting effect. Additional joint health supplements are often needed. (Mobility Plus by RC is one that uses these ingredients in very high concentrations.)
Diabetes and Weight Loss Diets: Diabetes diets for dogs feature high fiber. The extra fiber slows absorption, so blood sugar remains more stable. The extra fiber also lowers the total calorie content of the food, so diabetes diets and weight loss diets can be similar.
Allergy Diets: A lifetime of exposure to a certain ingredient can lead dogs to develop allergies. Sometimes changing proteins or brands isn’t enough, and dogs exhibit consistent intolerance. In this case, a prescription diet might be necessary.
As lamb and rice foods have gotten popular for general use, vets have started to have to switch to even more exotic ingredients for their allergy patients. If your dog has an allergy or a food sensitivity, it might take several tries to find an appropriate food.
Another option is hypoallergenic foods, in which common culprit ingredients have been hydrolyzed, making them unrecognizable by your dog’s immune system, and therefore non allergy-causing.
Several gastrointestinal problems, like inflammatory bowel disease, may be related to food allergies or sensitivities but require more specialized prescription diets.
If your dog has a chronic health problem, it’s worth asking your vet if a prescription diet could help.
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This information is for informational purposes only and is not meant as a substitute for the professional advice of, or diagnosis or treatment by, your veterinarian. It has however been reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Joe, a board certified veterinary nutritionist and graduate of Cornell University's program for Veterinary Medicine.