Prescription Pet Foods: 6 Myths About Therapeutic Diets

Dr. Patty Khuly

dog eating prescription diet

With so many pet foods, what do you pick? It’s a dilemma that affects every single pet owner in this age of pet food aisle overpopulation.

Even if you thought you were okay with your well-researched choice, you’ll forever walk down the teeming aisles wondering whether the food you’re feeding is truly ideal. Maybe there’s something safer, healthier, more wholesome, more humane, better for the environment, less expensive…

But what if your veterinarian has just informed you that a therapeutic diet is in order? It’s suddenly become a more complicated equation. How do you even begin to compare your choices? Do you have any choices? Where do you get them? What’s the deal with these foods anyway?

It’s an increasingly common conundrum. Here are a few myths about these foods I hope will help illustrate the issues involved and help you make better choices when selecting these foods.

Myth #1: Prescription pet foods need a prescription because they’re just like medications.

These foods are not like medications. While they’re all required to show research that supports one or more of their ingredients’ efficacy in the treatment of some condition or ailment, they are effectively nutraceuticals. Nutraceuticals are digestible products akin to therapeutic vitamins and minerals that can support and direct normal biological functions. That’s why veterinarians tend to refer to them as “therapeutic" diets rather than “prescription" diets.

While some are not appropriate for long-term use, as they’re not 100% nutritionally balanced (some low fat or low protein foods fall into this category), all are safe for pets in the short term. This means that if one pet in the household requires the diet, others may safely consume it (should owners prefer to feed only one diet rather than have each pet receive a different food). Check with your veterinarian first to be sure it’s not one of the diets that is inappropriate for long-term feeding.

Myth #2: The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) requires a written prescription before these foods can be sold.

The FDA does not regulate therapeutic diets, just as it does not regulate nutraceuticals and vitamin supplements. Nevertheless, pet food companies require retailers to receive a written prescription from a veterinarian upon purchase.

Why? It’s a complicated issue, but it comes down to marketing and distribution of these diets. Therapeutic diet manufacturers want veterinarians to recommend their diets but they know that veterinarians are unhappy when big box retailers and online pharmacies carry them. That’s because we veterinarians believe they might be misused by owners, or worse, implemented in lieu of veterinary care. Neither of these things are good for pets.

Ultimately, requiring a prescription makes it possible for pet owners to get their foods more conveniently and shop around for the best price.

Myth #3: Therapeutic diets can cure diseases.

These diets are often a great addition to treatment of a variety of conditions. There are diets for liver, heart, skin, kidney, urinary tract and gastrointestinal diseases, diabetes, bladder stones, arthritis, and more.

However, these diets are seldom used as a standalone treatment for any condition. And they’re never considered a cure. Given that pets will revert to their original condition if the diet is discontinued, it’s clear that diets can only be used to help manage a condition.

Myth #4: You can only buy these foods at a veterinary hospital.

Though only a veterinarian can prescribe these foods, that privilege doesn’t extend to their sales. As long as you have a veterinarian’s authorization, you can buy therapeutic diets at most any certified online veterinary pharmacy (look for VIPPS certification for safe online purchases).

With a physical prescription in hand, you can also buy some of these diets at most big box retailers. However, they tend only to sell the most popular diets, not the full range of diets available. Some of the newer diets are only available online through their manufacturer’s individual websites. Some smaller upstart pet food companies are working this way.

If you’re a price shopper, you should know that your veterinarian isn’t always the most expensive place to buy. Most online pet food retailers have been quietly upping their prices over the past few years so be sure you explore your full range of purchase options.

Myth #5: There’s only one brand of food for your pet’s condition.

With the explosion in pet owner interest in therapeutic diets, we now have a selection of diets for any given condition. If your pet’s palate – or gastrointestinal system – disagrees with the exact diet your veterinarian recommends, there’s always another brand to try.

Wet, dry, morseled, gravy-ful, paté-ed, etc. We even have multiple choices for pets with two different disorders to treat. For example, dogs with both skin problems and bladder stones or gastrointestinal disease can choose diets to address both conditions. High and low-calorie options may also be available for the same diet.

Myth #6: There’s no substitute for a standard commercial therapeutic diet.

You can always find a home-cooked recipe for any condition. Some veterinary nutritionists offer their services either independently or through veterinary schools to pet owners who are motivated to prepare their pet’s diet themselves. This way, owners with very specific food preferences can meet their personal dietary goals (humane raised meats, GMO-free, vegetarian, etc.).

For some conditions, there’s also the option of adding supplements to commercial diets to make it equivalent to the veterinarian-recommended therapeutic diet. Joint formula foods, for example, are often based on standard formulas with fat acids, glucosamine, and chondroitin added for joint support. Be sure to check with your vet so you don’t end up feeding an out-of-balance diet.

Therapeutic diets can be confusing but they’re a hurdle I’m sure you can handle. Just be sure to include your veterinarian in the decision-making process!

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