If your dog develops a medical condition you probably take him to the veterinarian for an exam. Depending on the diagnosis, your dog may be prescribed some medications or other therapeutic treatments. It is also common for veterinarians to recommend a specialized diet for dogs suffering from various medical conditions – these are called prescription dog foods. Before you shell out $50 for a small bag of prescription dog food, however, you would be wise to learn the history of prescription diets and to consider the pros and cons of this type of dog food.

The History of Prescription Veterinary Diets

If you do a little research, you will find that a prescription dog food exists for nearly every condition you can think of ranging from your garden-variety conditions like itchy skin or sensitive stomach to serious medical problems like kidney disease or cancer. Over the last few years, the number of prescription veterinary diets on the market has greatly increased but the prescription diet for pets is by no means a new development. In fact, the history of prescription dog food can be traced back to the 1930s to a Cornell-educated veterinarian named Dr. Mark Morris, Sr. who was hired by the American Humane Association to create a meat-free diet for dogs during that rationing period of World War II.

Even if you aren’t an expert on dog nutrition, the term “meat-free” appearing in the same sentence as “dog food” should immediately raise a red flag. After all, domestic dogs are descended from wild wolves – the same wolves that follow an almost completely carnivorous diet. While there is no arguing that protein should play a key role in a balanced diet for dogs, there is some controversy regarding the efficacy of plant-based proteins and other meat-free alternatives in creating a balanced canine diet. During World War II, rationing was in full swing and things like meat and eggs were not readily available and any supplies that were available were not to be wasted on dogs. Thus, the necessity for a meat-free dog food became apparent.

In response to the request from the American Humane Association, Dr. Mark Morris, Sr. developed a meat-free diet for dogs that was formulated in such a way as to provide for the dog’s basic nutritional needs. In his biography, Morris stated, “pets do not need fresh meat, but can get their protein from rejected eggs, unsalable fish, soybeans, or even sour milk”. And thus the first “Prescription Diet” was born. The term is actually a registered trademark of Hill’s Pet Nutrition, Inc. and today it applies to special pet diets that are available for sale only through licensed veterinarians. During the 1930s, however, it was simply an affordable option in dog food that provided for the nutritional needs of dogs without using rationed ingredients.

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After the war ended, many pet food manufacturers started a trend toward meat-based diets for dogs and cats. More and more, pet foods were being designed around the carnivorous nature of cats and dogs, relying on animal proteins as the primary source of nutrition. Even as other pet food manufacturers began to move in this direction, however, Dr. Morris remained steadfast in his previous formulations, stating that, “when I remember in wartime thousands of dogs in this country were kept alive and healthy on diets of cooked cereals and vegetables fortified with soybean meal, the effort to lure the American public into feeding pets an all-meat diet consisting of meat by-products is ridiculous”. After the war, Dr. Morris continued to develop largely meat-free dog food products under the name “Prescription Diet”.

Is a Prescription Dog Food Really Worth It?

When your veterinarian recommends a prescription dog food for your dog, you may just take his word for it that your dog needs it. Having learned a little more about the history of prescription dog food, however, you may find yourself questioning this advice. In fact, once you find out how much prescription dog food costs, you may be questioning that decision even more. It is not uncommon for a small bag of prescription dog food to cost upwards of $25 – that is equal to (or even greater than) the price of a super-premium dog food. If you take a look at the ingredients list for the prescription dog food, however, you are unlikely to find many of the high-quality ingredients that you would expect to see on that bag of super-premium dog food.

In addition to the price of prescription dog food, you also need to consider the ingredients that go into the formula. Although the FDA and the American Association of Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) regulate the production and manufacture of pet foods to some degree, there are no hard and fast regulations that apply to prescription diets. In fact, Scott Ziehr, a Feed Program Regulatory Specialist for the Colorado Department of Agriculture has been quoted saying, “there are no specific regulations for prescription feeds beyond the regulations in place for commercial animal feed”. This means that there are no official requirements that a pet food must meet in order to be labeled a “prescription diet”. Even a cursory analysis of the pet food label for prescription diets in comparison to traditional dog foods reveal an absence of any “special” ingredients that would differentiate one from the other. Furthermore, the Deputy Director of Communications for the Center for Veterinary Medicine has been quoted saying, “prescription diet is an industry-coined term and holds no legal meaning”.

Given the information about the price of prescription diets and the lack of regulation for the use of the term, it should be clear to you by now that you cannot make any assumptions about the category of prescription dog food on the whole. The word “prescription” misleads many dog owners to believe that veterinary diets are somehow inherently healthier or better for their dog than traditional dog food. All it takes is a quick review of the pet food label, however, to determine that this is not necessarily true. Prescription diets make heavy use of by-products and plant-based ingredients – even ingredients that have been scientifically proven to provide limited nutritional value for dogs. This is by no means the case for all prescription and veterinary dog foods, but it is definitely common enough to warrant a deeper analysis of these products before purchasing them.

What are Prescription Dog Foods For?

If you do a little research, you will find that a prescription dog food or veterinary diet exists for nearly every health problem imaginable. Some of the conditions for which prescription diets are available may include the following:

  • Kidney Disease
  • Diabetes
  • Urinary Tract Infection
  • Liver Disease
  • Skin Allergies
  • Thyroid Issues
  • Joint Problems
  • Food Allergies
  • Metabolic Stress
  • Cardiac Health Problems
  • Digestive Disorders

Though there is a great deal of controversy regarding the benefits of prescription dog food for specific medical problems, there is one type of prescription dog food which has the potential to be beneficial for a large number of dogs. Overweight and obesity is a major concern for dog owners because obesity can increase a dog’s risk for developing a number of serious diseases. Many dog food manufacturers that offer prescription dog food or veterinary diets offer one or more recipes designed to help dogs lose weight or to maintain a healthy weight. Many of these diets are lower in fat than traditional kibble, though you need to be wary of formulas that also have a reduced protein content. It is also worth noting that there are plenty of weight reduction formulas out there offered by quality dog food manufacturers outside the scope of prescription diets.

If your dog develops some kind of medical problem, you should consider whether it is better to feed him a prescription diet or a regular high-quality dog food. Keeping in mind that many prescription dog foods and veterinary diets are made with low-quality ingredients and by-products, you should seriously consider the benefits of choosing a premium dog food instead. Premium dog foods are similar in price to most prescription diets but they are made with better ingredients. High-quality dog foods are usually made with premium animal proteins, healthy animal fats, and digestible carbohydrates. Many of them also include supplementation with chelated minerals for maximum nutrient absorption as well as dried fermentation products to support healthy and regular digestion. If in doubt about which option to choose, review the information provided by the pet food label on a prescription diet versus that of a regular, high-quality dog food product.

Top Recommended Prescription Dog Food Brands:

Because prescription dog food varies so greatly in quality, you need to be very careful about which brand you choose. Having learned a little bit more about the history of prescription dog food may lead you to wonder whether a prescription diet is really the best choice for your dog. If you decide to give prescription dog food a try, however, the following brands offer some good choices:

Blue Buffalo Life Protection Healthy Weight Chicken & Brown Rice Recipe – Though the Blue Buffalo Company began modestly with just a few homemade recipes, this company has grown into one of the largest, most well-known natural pet food companies in the world. One of the things that sets Blue Buffalo apart from their competition is the fact that they believe pets are family and they should be treated as such. That is why Blue Buffalo uses only the freshest, natural ingredients and their formulate their recipes with great care to ensure complete and balanced nutrition. In fact, many of Blue Buffalo’s products are designed to mimic the natural diet of wild cats and dogs. Blue Buffalo offers four different product lines for cats and dogs – the Freedom line of grain-free foods, the Blue line of all-natural diets, the Wilderness line of protein-rich formulas, and the Basics line of Limited Ingredient Diets.

If you are concerned about your dog’s weight, you might want to consider the Blue Buffalo Life Protection Healthy Weight Chicken & Brown Rice Recipe. This recipe features protein-rich, deboned chicken as the primary ingredient followed by brown rice, barley, and oatmeal. Unlike many prescription diets for weight loss, this Blue Buffalo recipe is high in protein to support your dog’s lean muscle mass – it utilizes reduced fat content to keep the calorie content low. In addition to offering plenty of protein and digestible carbohydrates, this recipe is fortified with glucosamine and chondroitin for strong bones and joints, plus a balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids for healthy skin and coat. Another important ingredient in this recipe is the Blue Buffalo LifeSource bits which contain a proprietary blend of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to support whole body health and nutrition. This recipe will help your dog achieve and maintain a healthy weight without sacrificing quality nutrition.

Annamaet Grain-Free Lean Low-Fat Formula Dry Food – Annamaet Petfoods is a family-owned and -operated company located in the United States. This company uses only fresh, natural ingredients from local sources and their products are designed and manufactured according to the strictest standards for quality and safety. Something that sets Annamaet apart from many low-quality pet food manufacturers is the fact that their meat and fish ingredients are all fit for human consumption – if it is good enough for humans, it is good enough for dogs! This company offers two separate product lines, a line of original formulas and a line of grain-free formulas. All of Annamaet’s products are corn, wheat, and soy-free plus they are made without artificial additives and designed to provide complete and balanced nutrition. Because they are properly balanced and full of natural nutrition, Annamaet’s dog food products can help with a variety of health problems including ear, skin, and coat issues as well as chronic digestive problems and weight management issues.

If you are concerned about your dog’s weight, the Annamaet Grain-Free Lean Low-Fat Formula Dry Food formula may be a good option. This recipe was designed with input from experienced veterinary nutritionists, made with superior ingredients and all of the aspects of a weight control diet – high protein, low fat, and balanced omega fatty acids) – without the unnecessary extra fiber than many weight control recipes have. The first ingredient in this recipe is chicken meal which, when combined with the duck meal, and herring meal, leads to a high protein content of 30%. For healthy fats, this recipe includes chicken fat and menhaden oil. For carbohydrates and fiber, this recipe features field peas, chickpeas, potato, and tapioca – all highly digestible ingredients. In addition to plenty of protein and moderate fat content, this recipe is also supplemented with chelated minerals, prebiotics, and plenty of healthy vitamins and minerals.

Nutro Limited Ingredient Lamb & Rice Adult Dog Food – The Nutro Pet Food Company was founded in 1926 and while it began with a limited number of products, the company now offers a wide variety of selections divided across several product lines. The Nutro Company is dedicated to providing dog and cat owners with super-premium nutrition, using only the freshest natural ingredients available. This company understands that pets are more than just companions – they are family and they deserve a fresh, high-quality diet. When it comes to their dog food products, the Nutro Company offers a wide variety of options for puppies, adult dogs, senior dogs, and even overweight dogs. Nutro uses only super-premium, wholesome foods in their recipes in order to promote the total body health and wellbeing of your dog in all life stages.

If your dog suffers from food allergies or simply has a sensitive stomach, this Nutro Limited Ingredient Lamb & Rice Adult Dog Food recipe might be a good option to consider – it is also great for dogs that have digestive problems. This recipe is made with two primary ingredients – lamb and whole brown rice. This all-natural adult dog food recipe features premium, natural ingredients in a recipe that is designed to offer complete and balanced nutrition for adult dogs. Because this recipe is made with a limited number of ingredients, there is a low risk for triggering food allergies and it will be easy for your dog’s body to digest. This recipe also offers natural sources of glucosamine and chondroitin for healthy bones and joints, plus plenty of antioxidants for a strong immune system. This formula offers 22% protein, 14% fat, and just 3.5% fiber so it will be easy to digest without any excess fiber.

Holistic Select Radiant Adult Health Chicken Meal & Rice Formula – As the name of the company suggests, Holistic Select is a pet food company that follows a holistic approach to animal nutrition. This company is still fairly young, but it has already gained a name for itself in the natural pet food industry. Holistic Select is dedicated to creating natural, healthy products for pets and they believe that total body health begins with digestive health. This is why all of their pet food recipes include their Unique Digestive Health Support System which consists of prebiotics, probiotics, natural fiber sources, and other natural ingredients like protein, fruits, veggies, whole grains, and omega fatty acids. In fact, Holistic Select offers their customers a complete money-back satisfaction guarantee – if you aren’t satisfied with the product you can return it for a full refund.

This Holistic Select Radiant Adult Health Chicken Meal & Rice Formula dog food is the perfect recipe for pet owners looking for a quality diet that will support their dog’s digestive health. This recipe features a healthy triple protein blend, made with chicken meal, pork meal, and anchovy & sardine meal – there is also dried egg product for an additional source of supplementary protein. This holistic formula features a blend of omega-3 fatty acids as well as fresh fruits and vegetables as natural sources for key vitamins and minerals. This Holistic Select Radiant Adult Health Chicken Meal & Rice Formula is made with digestible carbohydrates like ground brown rice and oatmeal to ensure digestibility. These low-glycemic grains also make this recipe a good choice for diabetic dogs. All in all, this recipe provides complete and balanced nutrition that is optimized for holistic nutrition.

Merrick Limited Ingredient Diet Grain-Free Salmon & Sweet Potato Recipe – The Merrick Pet Care Company was founded by a husband and wife duo in 1988 with the goal of provided pet owners with high-quality, handcrafted diets that meet the nutritional needs of pets in all life stages. Merrick knows that the best ingredients mean the best flavor and the best nutrition which is why they use only the freshest, most high-quality ingredients available. In addition to using quality ingredients, Merrick also manufactures their recipes in small batches to ensure safety as well as nutritional integrity, and they source all of their ingredients from trusted local farmers. When it comes to their pet food offerings, Merrick has an assortment of dog food products divided over several product lines, both classic and grain-free options. The Backcountry product line is comprised of recipes inspired by the natural diet of wild wolves while the Limited Ingredient Diet line features pure, simple recipes designed for dogs with food allergies or sensitive stomachs.

If your dog suffers from skin problems, food allergies, or various digestive problems, the Merrick Limited Ingredient Diet Grain-Free Salmon & Sweet Potato Recipe may be a good option to consider. This recipe is made with a limited number of ingredients to help reduce the risk for triggering food allergies or sensitivities. The first five ingredients are deboned salmon, salmon meal, sweet potatoes, peas, and potatoes – these ingredients point toward the high-protein and digestible nature of this recipe. Other healthy ingredients worth noting in this recipe include sunflower oil, organic alfalfa, an assortment of chelated minerals and dried fermentation products. Chelated minerals are those that have been chemically bound to protein molecules, making them easier for your dog’s body to digest and absorb. Dried fermentation products act as probiotics to support healthy and regular digestion.

No matter what kind of dog food you are looking for, it is important to do your research before you buy something. Prescription dog foods sold through veterinary offices are often assumed to be of high quality when, in reality, many are made primarily of by-products and plant-based ingredients. If you are concerned about your dog’s weight or if he has food allergies or other general health concerns, consider one of the dog food brands reviewed above.

Kate Barrington

Kate Barrington holds a Bachelor’s degree in English and is the published author of several self-help books and nutrition guides. Also an avid dog lover and adoring owner of three cats, Kate’s love for animals has led her to a successful career as a freelance writer specializing in pet care and nutrition. Kate holds a certificate in fitness nutrition and enjoys writing about health and wellness trends — she also enjoys crafting original recipes. In addition to her work as a ghostwriter and author, Kate is also a blogger for a number of organic and natural food companies as well as a columnist for several pet magazines.

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  • Looking for an alternate, less expensive prescription dog food for my dog that has been diagnosed with diabetes..currently using Hills prescription dog food. Any suggestions? Thank you.

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