Prescription Dog Food: When Is It Worth It?

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At some point, your vet may recommend a prescription dog food, either for a short time, such as recovering from illness or surgery, or for life. And it won’t be cheap. In fact, sticker shock may cause you to rethink the idea altogether. Especially when your vet is so conveniently selling these outrageously expensive prescription dog foods right there in their office.

So, what’s in those prescription diets? Why are they so expensive? And when is a prescription dog food actually worth it?

The following is not meant as veterinary advice. For specific medical questions, your vet is always the best source.

Prescription Dog Foods For Specific Illnesses

In the cases of some illnesses, diet is the first line of defense. And it can be surprisingly effective for managing a number of conditions. If your dog has a specific illness, a prescription diet can go far toward helping you to manage it.

Urinary Tract Problems

Some pets are prone to crystals and stones in the urinary tract. This is a painful condition that requires specific medical treatment. And it can become serious. Unfortunately, it also has a high chance of recurrence.

Prescription foods formulated for urinary tract problems dilute urine and optimize Ph balance, two things that can help to keep urinary tract problems from happening over and over. This will save your dog pain, and you money. It’s expensive, but if your vet prescribes it, it’s absolutely worth the money.

Kidney Problems

If your dog has kidney problems, or even kidney failure, your vet may recommend a kidney-specific prescription food. This food will be low in phosphorus and sodium, and lower in protein than regular dog foods. This, in turn, will help to keep your pet as healthy as they can be. It’s expensive, but speaking from personal experience, prescription pet food in this instance is well worth it.


Just like with human diabetes, diet is often the first line of defense against canine diabetes. And it’s important that you get it right.

Your vet may prescribe a dog food for your diabetic dog, with or without insulin. If your vet prescribes insulin plus a specific diet, it’s imperative that you follow those instructions to the letter. Prescription dog foods formulated for diabetic dogs are typically higher in fiber and protein than regular dog foods, and lower in carbohydrates and fat.

Heart Disease

The main feature of dog foods formulated for heart disease is low sodium content. Sodium causes the body to retain fluid, including in the lungs. A low sodium diet can reduce this effect.

There are several salt-restricted prescription diets on the market. Your vet may recommend one of them. If you’re interested in making your own low-sodium real-food dog diet at home, your vet can also help you to figure out how to do this in a safe and beneficial way, if they think it is appropriate.

Allergies and Intolerances

Allergies are no fun for anyone, and food allergies affect dogs as well as people. Figuring out a specific allergy can be a matter of trial and error. If your dog has a food allergy or intolerance, your vet will probably try a few different things to figure out what works best.

One prescription diet for allergy is food with hydrolyzed protein — that is, protein that occurs in molecules that are generally too small to trigger an allergic reaction. Hydrolyzed protein diets are also used for specific bowel conditions. If your dog has a protein allergy, this can be very helpful in managing it.

If your dog has a different kind of food allergy, or perhaps one that is as yet unspecified, your vet may also suggest dog foods with a limited number of ingredients. You can often buy high-quality limited ingredient dog foods at a pet store. Your vet may recommend a few that he or she feels works best.

Weight Loss

This can be a tricky question, because there are different types of weight loss dog foods, and none is one size fits all.

Some dogs lose weight when given a high fiber diet. The fiber is filling, and moves through your dog quickly, but doesn’t add extra calories. Other dogs do better with a diet that’s high in protein and low in carbohydrates.

There are numerous weight loss and weight maintenance dog foods on the market, available both with and without a prescription.

Arthritis and Joint Conditions

Dog foods that are formulated for arthritis and other joint conditions aren’t nutritionally different from other dog foods. They are, however, enriched with supplements that promote joint health. Specifically, they may contain glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, and Omega 3 fatty acids.

There are prescription dog foods that contain these ingredients. You can also find enriched dog foods at a high-end pet store. Another option is to discuss dosages of these supplements with your veterinarian and give them to your dog in pill and/or oil form. As with all medicines and supplements, dosages and concentration are very, very important, and your vet can give you the specific amounts your dog will need for optimal health.

If your dog is diabetic or overweight, you shouldn’t give them these supplements, or any kind of enriched dog food, without discussing it with your vet. Enriched dog foods and fish oils add calories, and glucosamine can affect blood sugar.

It’s Not Just Expensive Dog Food

Diet is often the best medicine. In the case of many specific medical conditions, a prescription dog food formulated for that condition is the first and best line of defense. For some less serious problems, other alternatives are available. But always check with your vet.

Featured Image: CC BY 2.0, by Amanda Kae’s Photoz, via Flickr

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