What Is Prescription Dog Food?

Prescription Dog Food vs. Prescription Drugs

Prescription dog food is just what it sounds like– dog food that requires a prescription. Given that the person writing the prescription is logically a veterinarian, prescription dog food is sometimes called “veterinarian dog food”. Additional names include “veterinary diet” or “therapeutic diet”. As all of these titles indicate, prescription dog food is veterinarian-approved and clinically tested. Each option is made with a blend of key ingredients, which are uniquely formulated to maximize your dog’s ability to cope with a specific illnesses or health concern. Whether it’s your veterinarian, local pet store, or online retailer, prescription dog food differs from over-the-counter (OTC) alternatives, in that it can only be purchased after a trip to the veterinarian, which ends with a signed prescription.

Prescription dog food holds a unique position in the market. Its high-grade formula is considered superior to over-the-counter alternatives, yet it cannot be sold or labeled like a prescription drug. This is due to the fact that prescription dog food does not go through the same, costly and time-intensive testing necessitated by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) to be labeled as such. For this same reason, prescription dog food cannot be sold, marketed, or described using any of the following “drug” related words: cure, mitigate, treat, prevent

In place of drug testing, prescription food is subject to clinical testing. Once these trials are approved, the responsibility falls in the lap of the individual veterinarian. Each veterinarian follows normal patient intake protocols and discretionary testing in order to properly diagnosis a dog. Prior to a post-evaluative consultation, the veterinarian must determine whether or not to authorize a prescription dog food as part of the recommended treatment plan. If so, the veterinarian must decide which brand offers the most effective nutritional formula, taking into account the dog’s age, symptoms, diagnosis, and comprehensive treatment plan. 

After selecting a brand and specific formula, the veterinarian then reviews the recommended dosage and makes customized adjustments as needed. Once prescribed, the veterinarian assumes responsibility for each dog’s subsequent reaction. It is up to the veterinarian to schedule follow up testing to monitor not only the progression of the diagnosis, but any nutritional imbalances that may result from the addition of a prescription dog food. In order to continue renewing the prescription, the individual veterinarian must assess whether or not the particular dog food is still a relevant dietary component of the dog’s treatment plan.

Unlike over-the-counter options, prescription dog foods can be harmful to the health of a dog if prescribed incorrectly. So, while legally, prescription dog food cannot be defined as a drug, chemically, it can result in nutritional health imbalances, and especially when given to an otherwise healthy dog. For this reason, pet owners are barred from feeding their dog prescription foods without authorized consent from a board-certified veterinarian.

Why Is Prescription Dog Food Prescribed?

There are a number of health conditions that can be addressed with prescription dog food. Regardless of the issue or severity, all prescription dog foods are made with ingredients to improve and promote a healthy immune system. As with most health issues, an improved diet is almost always recommended. In addition to healthier eating habits, prescription dog food may be a good option for canines suffering from health conditions that are specifically associated with vital canine nutritional deficiencies. Prescription dog foods may be a recommended dietary addition for canines suffering from an illness in one or more of the following regions.


  • Symptoms: The most apparent symptom experienced by dogs suffering from joint pain is impaired mobility. This means increased difficulty with basic actions, such as running, walking, and jumping.
  • Benefits: A joint-specific prescription dog food is designed and clinically tested to help dogs gain more mobility by reducing inflammation and preserving cartilage. Additional benefits include a healthier immune system and better weight control.
  • Ingredients: These lifestyle changes can result from a blend of various antioxidants, in addition to the following four key ingredients: Chondroitin sulfate, Glucosamine, L-carnitine, and Omega-3 fatty acids.


  • Symptoms: Dogs suffering from canine kidney disease or decreased kidney function also tend to have a reduced appetite, often resulting in low muscle mass.
  • Benefits: Prescription dog foods for the kidneys are designed with the muscles in mind. Nutrients are specifically increased or decreased based on the ability to achieve the end goal – maximizing a dog’s ability to build and maintain muscle mass. This means increasing the appetite and supporting the metabolism.
  • Ingredients: This is best accomplished through reduced levels of sodium and phosphorous, along with increased level of antioxidants, carbohydrates, and essential amino acids. In addition, L-Carnitine and Omega-3 fatty acids are common ingredients.


  • Symptoms: Canine heart disease and other problems are most commonly associated with lethargic dog behaviors, such as reduced exercising, limited mobility, and excess sleeping. In more advanced cases, this could result in fainting or collapsing. Other symptoms include appetite loss, abdominal swelling, and recurrent dog coughing.
  • Benefits: Prescription dog food helps to increase blood pressure to a normal state, which reduces symptoms associated with overt lethargy. Further, it works to promote fluid drainage and replenish nutrients that were either lost or not properly circulated.
  • Ingredients: Prescription dog foods that promote heart care often have decreased sodium, along with increased levels of B vitamins, Omega-3 Fatty Acids, Taurine, L-carnitine, and Magnesium.

Digestive Tract

  • Symptoms: Logically, the most common symptoms of dogs with digestive issues include those that deal with food processing – consumption and excretion. Symptoms may include dog vomiting, regurgitation, constipation, gas, diarrhea, and overall weakness.
  • Benefits: The key ingredients within this kind of prescription dog food are predominantly focused on improving digestion. This includes supporting regular bowel movements, refining stool quality, growing beneficial gut bacteria, and replacing nutrients that promote easy absorption. 
  • Ingredients: Digestive care ingredients typically include probiotic (yeast or bacteria), electrolytes, B vitamins, and essential fatty acids (Omega-3 and -6). Overall, the blend is characterized by an optimal, healthy balance of both soluble and insoluble fibers. 

Prescription dog food can also be effective in helping with less serious medical issues. For example, prescription dog food may be a great option for dogs that are susceptible to weight gain or easily irritated by certain foods and chemicals.

Weight Management

  • Symptoms: Dogs that struggle with weight management have difficulty either gaining or losing weight. Most prescription foods, however, are focused on controlling weight gain. Seek advice from a veterinarian in order to develop a healthy weight management plan for your dog.
  • Benefits: This kind of prescription dog food aids fat metabolization, supports lean muscle preservation, and promotes meal satisfaction. 
  • Ingredients: As with prescription foods for digestive care, weight management diets also include a healthy balance of soluble and insoluble fibers. Additional ingredients include a blend of antioxidants and L-carnatine, which facilitates the transformation of fat cells into energy.

Food Sensitivities

  • Symptoms: Sensitivities to foods may be diagnosed as a result of a canine skin irritation or change in pigmentation. Visible clues include spots that are scaly, oily, or itchy. Allergies may also manifest as rashes with texture or color changes. Typical behaviors resulting from food sensitivities include excessive itching or sneezing. 
  • Benefits: Key ingredients are specifically chosen to support digestion, reduce skin irritation, and promote fur health. 
  • Ingredients: Because the most common dog food allergens are linked with different types of protein (beef, chicken, soy etc.), prescription dog foods are limited in their ingredients. Specifically, prescription dog foods typically only have one intact animal protein. Nutritional blends are often grain free and gluten free, with high levels of fatty acids (Omega-3 and 6).

How to Know if your Dog Needs Prescription Dog Food

If your dog suffers from one of the discussed illnesses, ask your veterinarian if a prescription dog food should be considered. Of course, the above list is not exhaustive! Prescription dog foods can also help with many additional health issues, such as canine diabetes and dermatitis. Ultimately, your veterinarian must be the one to address any symptoms and discuss all of your dog’s dietary options.

How Much Does It Cost?

According to a food analysis by Woof Whiskers, the average price of dog food is $2.19 per lb. Selected prescription dog foods, however, ranged from $7.56-12.80 per lb. Although this study did not include every dog food on the market, it did consider over 1,000 variations. It serves as a good starting point for understanding the average cost differences between prescription and non-prescription options. As expected, it supports the trend that prescription dog food variations are considerably more expensive than those that you can easily buy at a grocery store. 

Why Is Prescription Dog Food More Money?

The higher cost of prescription dog food is attributed to mandated clinical testing. By definition, clinical testing requires that the effects of the food were studied on real animals, and not just tested for certain chemicals in a laboratory. Although this testing is not as extreme as the FDA’s drug requirements, it nonetheless necessitates a clinical evaluation process that is lengthy, tedious, and of course, costly.

Just to be clear, this does not mean that over-the-counter dog food can get away with anything. Legally, all animal food products must pass basic safety protocols in order to be sold. Such legal regulations are clearly spelled out within the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). This legislation states that all animal foods must be held to the same ethical principles of human food. So, if it’s not safe for humans to eat, it’s probably not safe for animals either! Specifically, prescription dog food must be manufactured in a sanitary environment, designed for safe consumption, and labeled honestly. 

Since prescription dog food is not a drug, the labelling requirements are identical with over-the-counter alternatives. As an important distinction, however, prescription dog food is required to conduct clinical testing, which provides actual data to prove that it can provide therapeutic results for the particular condition. Conversely, over-the-counter options may make similar claims, but are not required to provide supporting evidence as proof. 

How and Where to Buy it?

Prescription dog food can be purchased directly through your veterinarian, or at physical and/or online retailers. Regardless of location, a prescription is required to purchase.

Prescription Dog Food Alternatives

  • Raw Diet: A raw diet includes raw eggs, meat, and fruit. Stated benefits include increased energy, healthier skin, and cleaner teeth. Although some veterinarians may recommend this kind of non-traditional diet, it is important to note that this dietary extreme is not supported by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Primarily, this is due to the fact that raw or undercooked meats have a higher chance of containing harmful bacteria.
  • Over-the-Counter Options: Given the high price tag of prescription dog foods, not to mention a trip to the veterinarian, over-the-counter dog foods that are said to support a certain condition can certainly be a worthwhile alternative. As stated above, the main difference is that non-prescription foods are not required to prove this claim. So, don’t just trust what you read on the bag, take the extra step to compare ingredients or research customer reviews.
  • Limited Diet: A limited diet simply refers to foods with only one protein and one carbohydrate. As an example, this could be lamb and sweet potatoes. But don’t worry – you don’t have to cook an elaborate meal for your dog every night. These limited ingredient mixtures are already pre-cooked and blended for your convenience. As an additional note, this dietary method was created as a type of elimination diet for determining what may be causing a dog’s allergies. 

While prescription dog foods cannot be used to cure the underlying issue, and should certainly not be used to replace a drug, they can provide a greater degree of verifiable symptom relief when compared to non-prescription alternatives. Work with your veterinarian by reading the ingredients of all the food you feed your pet. Use a journal to record your dog’s reactions and behavior to various dietary modifications. At the very least, a prescription dog food can help your dog live a happier, healthier life.


Everything You Need To Know About Prescription Dog Food. (2017, January 12). Retrieved from https://www.dogfoodinsider.com/everything-need-know-prescription-dog-food/

Why Are Foods Sold By Prescription So Much More Expensive Than Dog Food in Stores? (2017, March 27). Retrieved from https://news.vet.tufts.edu/2017/03/why-are-foods-sold-by-prescription-so-much-more-expensive-than-dog-food-in-stores/

Veterinarian-Prescribed Dog Foods. (2019, April 26). Retrieved from https://www.whole-dog-journal.com/food/veterinarian-prescribed-dog-foods/

Wondra, S. (2014, February 18). Prescription Diets For Dogs With Kidney Disease. Retrieved from https://www.petcarerx.com/article/prescription-diets-for-dogs-with-kidney-disease/1666


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