Should You Feed Your Pet Prescription Dog Food? Here's When It's a Good Idea

Published Dec. 20, 2022
dog lying in front of bowl

The line dividing food and medicine can be fuzzy. When you eat a handful of raspberries, you’re providing your body with important nutrients and antioxidants. A piece of salmon contains a lot of protein, but it’s also high in omega-3 fatty acids that can reduce inflammation.

Pet food manufacturers have taken the idea of food as medicine a step further—by designing products to help manage a wide variety of diseases. These foods are available only with a veterinarian’s prescription because they can do harm when used under the wrong circumstances.

Here’s what you need to know about prescription dog food.

What Is Prescription Dog Food?  

Prescription dog foods (also called therapeutic dog foods or veterinary diets) are made with ingredients and nutritional supplements combined in just the right proportions to support the health of dogs who have a particular disease or illness.

For example, a veterinarian might prescribe prescription dog food for a dog with arthritis that contains high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants to reduce inflammation, glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate to protect joint cartilage, and added L-carnitine (an amino acid) to keep muscles strong.

Before a prescription dog food can be sold, the manufacturer must put it through extensive testing to show that it’s safe and effective for dogs with specific diseases. Manufacturers also adhere to rigorous safety and quality control standards when making these special diets. All of this helps ensure that prescription dog foods are worth the extra money.

When to Start a Prescription Dog Food Diet 

Many health problems in dogs can be managed, at least in part, through their diet. A veterinarian familiar with the specifics of a dog’s case is in the best position to determine if a prescription dog food is appropriate. Talk to your veterinarian about prescription dog food if any of the following apply to your dog.

1. Your Dog Needs to Lose Weight

Extra body fat makes life shorter and less enjoyable for overweight dogs. It can cause or make many health problems worse, too, including:

If your dog is only a little overweight, an over-the-counter diet dog food, such as Hill's Science Diet Adult Perfect Weight, may help. But dogs who need to lose a lot of weight tend to do better on a prescription weight loss food.

Different diets seem to work better for different dogs, but most vet-recommended prescription dog foods combine increased fiber to help dogs feel full without adding calories, moderate or high protein to maintain muscle, and low levels of carbohydrates and fats. Good options include

Your veterinarian can design a weight loss plan tailored to your dog’s individual needs, help you monitor how it’s working, and make necessary changes as your dog’s body condition changes.

2. Your Dog Has Bladder Stones

Symptoms of bladder stones in dogs include bloody urine, straining to urinate, and discomfort. Some types of bladder stones can be dissolved with prescription dog foods or medicine, while others need to be physically removed via surgery or other treatments. But an appropriate diet can almost always reduce the chances that bladder stones will return.

For dogs who are prone to bladder stones, wet foods are usually preferable to dry because they help keep the dog’s urine dilute, which reduces the chances that stones will form. Royal Canin® Veterinary Diet Adult Urinary SO and Hill®'s Prescription Diet c/d Multicare dissolve struvite stones and help reduce the formation of struvite and calcium oxalate stones. Hill®'s Prescription Diet u/d Urinary Care helps dissolve and prevent the recurrence of urate and cystine stones.

Your veterinarian can determine what type of bladder stones your dog has and how they should be treated.

3. Your Dog Has Kidney Disease 

Dogs with chronic kidney disease can live for many months (or even years!) with appropriate treatment. Prescription dog foods for kidney disease can be an important part of therapy.

These diets usually contain a moderate amount of high-quality protein and are low in phosphorous and sodium to reduce the workload on the kidneys. Omega-3 fatty acids, essential amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants may all be supplemented to promote kidney function and overall health and wellness. Whenever possible, dogs with kidney disease should eat wet dog food to help prevent dehydration.

Because dogs with kidney disease often have a reduced appetite, it’s important to find a kidney diet that your dog enjoys eating. You might need to try several options before finding the one that works best for your dog. Some go-to's include:

4. Your Dog Has Food Sensitivities or GI Problems

Dogs with food allergies typically have chronically itchy skin and, sometimes, gastrointestinal (GI) problems. Food intolerances and sensitivities, on the other hand, are usually associated with diarrhea, vomiting, a poor appetite, or excessive gassiness.

Two types of veterinary diets are available for dogs with food allergies.

Other types of GI health problems can also be treated with prescription dog foods. For example, some types of dog diarrhea respond to highly digestible prescription dog foods like Purina® Pro Plan® Veterinary Diets EN Gastroenteric and Royal Canin® Veterinary Diet Adult Gastrointestinal. In other cases, high-fiber dog foods like Royal Canin® Veterinary Diet Adult Gastrointestinal High Fiber or Hill®'s Prescription Diet w/d work better. Talk to your veterinarian to determine what type of food would be best for your dog.

5. Your Dog Has Arthritis 

Arthritis is very common in dogs, particularly as they get older. Combining different forms of treatment, including diet, can decrease a dog’s discomfort and increase their mobility.

Therapeutic dog foods that veterinarians prescribe to dogs with arthritis are usually enriched with omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, and antioxidants to reduce inflammation and promote joint health. These foods are also often slightly calorie-restricted to help dogs stay slim and supplemented with L-carnitine, an amino acid that helps dogs build and maintain muscle. Hil®l's Prescription Diet j/d and Purina® Pro Plan® Veterinary Diets JM Joint Mobility are both excellent prescription foods for dogs with arthritis.

And these aren’t the only conditions that can be managed with prescription dog food! For example:

If you think your pet could benefit from prescription dog food, talk with your vet.

How to Transition Your Dog to Prescription Food  

If your veterinarian has recommended prescription dog food, your next question is probably how to switch to the new diet. In most cases, it’s best to make the transition slowly.

Gradually mix increasing amounts of the new food in with decreasing amounts of your dog’s old diet over a week or two. This gives your dog a chance to get used to the taste of the new food and gives their GI tract time to adapt. Go even more slowly if your dog is finicky or initially turns up their nose at the new food.

But there are times (when you’re dealing with a food allergy or intolerance, for example) when your veterinarian may recommend making a quick transition to a new food, so always follow your vet’s instructions. If you can’t get your dog to eat their new prescription diet, talk to your veterinarian about other options that may be available.

Prescription dog foods can reduce and sometimes even eliminate the need for a dog to be on medications or receive other forms of treatment. Ask your vet how diet can play a role in your dog’s healthcare.

Featured Image: iStock/Chalabala

Jennifer Coates, DVM


Jennifer Coates, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...

Help us make PetMD better

Was this article helpful?

Get Instant Vet Help Via Chat or Video. Connect with a Vet. Chewy Health