Veterinary diets are foods that are developed with specific nutrients for pets with certain conditions and health issues. You must have a prescription from your veterinarian to purchase them though they can be bought from a vet or online. They are also known as prescription diets.
Dogs can need prescription diets for all kinds of reasons and there are many different formulations. Dogs with extreme food allergies sometimes need prescription diets. There are also diets for dogs with skin problems, gastrointestinal problems, urinary tract issues, weight problems, metabolism issues, renal health issues, liver problems, heart problems, joint and mobility problems, and other things.
There are only a few companies that make prescription diets – Hill’s, Royal Canin, and Purina make most veterinary formula. Hill’s pioneered this field and they probably make more of these diets than any other company. These are all large companies that can afford to invest in the nutritional research required for veterinary diets. Some of the research used for developing prescription diets does end up being used for their commercial foods so it benefits other pets.
The companies that make these foods also have labs and facilities that allow them to test the foods. They can make the foods in facilities under precise conditions which is not true of all USDA-inspected pet food facilities.
Veterinary diets are often criticized for having low quality ingredients such as grains. They are often high in carbohydrates and they often use by-products. Most pet food review sites won’t review these foods because it’s counterproductive. Even if the foods get a low grade based on their ingredients, they may still be helpful for pets who need a specific formula for a health problem. Many dog lovers report that these diets do help their dogs. You can usually find research on PubMed and other sites for scientific papers to back up the claims made by the companies for their veterinary foods. If you visit the company web sites, they often provide links to some of their research.
In order for a company to claim that a food can treat or prevent disease, the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM), part of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has to see research that proves it. The pet food manufacturer has to provide thorough documentation that the food does what it claims. It must prove that it’s both safe and efficacious. The CVM also oversees and enforces all veterinary health claims on the labels of these foods.
Prescription diets are very expensive. They have been in the news recently because of an anti-trust lawsuit that charges that pet food companies have conspired to fix prices for prescription foods. The companies named in the suit are Mars Petcare (parent company for Royal Canin), Nestle Purina, and Hill’s Pet Nutrition. PetSmart and veterinary service providers Banfield and Blue Pearl are also named in the class action suit. (Mars and PetSmart own Banfield, while Mars owns Blue Pearl.) A spokesperson for Mars Petcare/Royal Canin said, “While we do not otherwise comment on pending litigation, we believe the allegations to be without merit and will defend ourselves accordingly.”
The plaintiffs in the case claim that the defendants overcharged consumers by making the foods prescription-only. According to the plaintiffs, these veterinary diets do not contain any drugs or ingredients that are not found in ordinary pet foods. Documents in the case state “a prescription requirement implies that a substance is medically necessary, contains a drug, medicine or controlled ingredient, has been FDA evaluated, and legally requires a prescription. The plaintiffs allege that the prescription pet foods do not meet these criteria.”
This case is just starting so it will be interesting to see how it plays out. If the plaintiffs prevail, it could theoretically be the end of veterinary diets. The defendants in the case will need to prove that their diets contain more than just ordinary dog food ingredients to in some way justify their high prices and prescription status. This assumes that the case goes to trial, of course. Many cases never reach trial.
There are often other options if your dog needs a prescription diet. There are many good quality commercial dog foods today and you can often find a food suitable for your dog, even if he has a health problem. The cost will probably be less than a veterinary diet although premium quality dog foods with novel proteins or other specialized nutrients are not cheap. It may take some research on your part to find the right food but it can often be done. Non-prescription dog foods are not allowed to make the same kind of health claims that veterinary diets can make but they may make some general claims about how they can improve your dog’s health or benefit him. (The FDA will force companies to remove health claims from these regular dog food labels if they do not have the research to back up their claims.) Read their labels carefully and check their ingredients and dry matter percentages. Contact the company for exact nutrient percentages so you can find the information you need to know for your dog’s health.
You may also wish to consider making a homemade diet for your dog. If you choose this option, it’s often a good idea to talk to a canine nutritionist or pet food expert. Be careful about taking the advice of friends or random people online. Many people mean well but they may not be experts. We recommend visiting the Dogaware.com site for more information about homemade diets and foods for specific health problems.
If you do feed your dog a veterinary diet, remember that these foods are formulated for specific health issues. You need to work with your veterinarian when you feed these foods. Make sure that your dog’s health is frequently monitored. You may need to change foods at some point. It’s possible that you could safely switch to a non-prescription diet at some time in the future if your dog’s issues resolve.