Sometimes Good Medicine is Simply Good Nutrition

For pets with chronic health issues, veterinarians might recommend specific therapeutic diets.  Designed to provide the right type of nutrition for the pet’s unique problems, these diets are often used for the lifetime of the pet.   But, when finances are tight, are these “prescription diets” really worth the cost?


Feeding your dog or cat seems like an easy chore, but if your pet is suffering from kidney disease, allergies or even cancer, his nutritional needs require special attention.   Most veterinarians keep an inventory of therapeutic or “prescription” diets on hand to help manage chronically sick pets.   In spite of the benefits provided by these diets, the weak economy and rising prices have many owners thinking twice about staying on the more expensive diets.

In 1940, Dr. Mark Morris, a veterinarian in New Jersey, was treating one of his patients, “Buddy”, for kidney failure.   “Buddy” was one of the first “seeing eye” guide dogs in the United States.  Dr. Morris found that he could improve Buddy’s quality of life by providing him with a diet that helped ease the work of his kidneys.  He named this new diet “k/d” for kidney diet and he quickly became inundated with requests from veterinarians for his special food.

Dr. Morris continued to study how the right foods can benefit patients suffering from a variety of diseases.  His visionary work sparked a multi-million dollar industry dedicated to providing optimal nutrition for chronically ill pets.  Today, companies such as Hill’s Pet Foods, Purina Veterinary Diets, Iams, and Royal Canin all commit extensive resources towards research and production of therapeutic diets.

These special diets differ from routine pet foods by the reduction, addition, or manipulation of key nutrients.  For example, k/d has much lower phosphorus and protein levels than normal pet diets.  This balance helps reduce the workload of the kidneys and actually slows the progression of the disease.  For pet stricken with cancer, high levels of quality fat and protein with lower carbohydrate levels can help starve cancer cells and prolong the pet’s life.

Special therapeutic diets are also available for pets with allergies, urinary bladder stones, digestive issues, heart conditions, liver problems and even arthritic pets.

But, all of this scientific research and expertise does come with a cost.   Therapeutic diets often appear to be unusually expensive when compared to regular diets.   As an example, a 30 lb bag of a prescription diet for dogs suffering from allergies can cost more than $90.  For a typical 60 lb dog, this bag of food should last around 45 days, meaning that the daily food cost is $2 per day.

Some owners are tempted to take matters into their own hands and create homemade diets for their pets.  According to the Small Animal Clinical Nutrition text, homemade recipes are often available for a variety of pet illnesses.  However, once the cost of ingredients is added, along with time spent in preparation and extra trips to the grocery, these homemade diets are often just as pricey as the commercially prepared food.

And, without veterinary guidance, these attempts at cost savings often end up hurting the pet.  Owners take short cuts and buy cheaper meats and/or grains due to personal preference or availability of the ingredients.  These lower quality or different ingredients can adversely affect the pet and even worsen his or her underlying disease.  One study also estimated that more than 90% of homemade diets for sick pets are not nutritionally adequate.

So, how can owners keep their pet’s diets from emptying their wallets?  First, talk with your veterinarian about your pet’s overall health condition.  Some pets are put on certain therapeutic diets for a limited time only.   If your pet is overweight, battling bladder stones, or even suffering from digestive upset, it is likely that you only need to feed the special diet for a limited time.

Next, if your pet does need his prescription food for a longer time, order in larger size bags.   The initial cost is certainly higher, but you will save money on a per feeding basis since large bags cost less per pound.

Many veterinarians stock only one brand of therapeutic diet due to lack of storage space and high inventory costs.   Ask your veterinarian if a competing food manufacturer has a diet similar to the one your pet needs and if a cost difference exists.  If the food is indicated for your pet’s illness, it’s possible to save a few dollars with a different brand.

Finally, consider having the diet shipped directly to your home.   Several of the pet food manufacturers offer home delivery of the foods.  This option could save you time and gas money.

These therapeutic diets have enabled millions of dogs and cats to live longer, happier lives despite their illnesses.   On-going research will continue to discover how we can provide the highest level of nutrition to our pets, no matter what illness or condition they might encounter.  Veterinarians will continue to rely on these diets because of their proven track record.  

Feeding Your Cat

feeding you catAs in human nutrition, the goal of good nutrition in animals is to maximize the length and quality of life. It is very important to feed our companions a healthy and well balanced diet that meets their specific needs. Lets begin by taking a look at the nutritional needs of cats.

It is first important to remember that not all cats are the same, just like no two people are the same. Because of this, their nutritional needs can be very different. One thing all cats have in common, however, is their need for a complete and balanced diet. A complete and balanced diet means that your pet is receiving the proper amount of vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, fiber and other key nutrients.

Lets examine cat foods a little closer. Complete and balanced diets, those without excesses and deficiencies, help to avoid health problems. Giving your cat the right food throughout its life helps to avoid diseases like diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, and of course obesity. Lets look at choosing the right food for every stage of your cats life. There are many high quality premium cat foods available, such as Hills Science Diet, Iams, Eukanuba and many more. It is important to avoid generic diets that have too many fillers and too little nutritional value. Your veterinarian will recommend a diet that is ideal for your cat and he or she will also have special prescription diets available if the need arises.

We will begin with kittens. A kitten requires a great deal of nutrition to get through her first year healthy and happy. In order to get the correct nutrients for growth, such as calcium and phosphorous, it is important to feed a diet specifically for kittens until they have stopped growing. This usually occurs by twelve months of age. As a kitten becomes an adult cat, her nutritional and energy needs change. As responsible pet owners, we will want to shift to a diet to meet the nutritional requirements of the adult cat. These high quality diets contain carefully balanced ingredients, such as vitamins and antioxidants that are vital for preventing disease. Feeding the right diet at the right life stage can have a significant impact on increasing the life span of our pets.

By age seven, we should be transitioning our nutritional focus to our pets golden years. As our pets slow down, so do their nutritional needs. Premium diets targeted to the needs of older cats contain fewer calories, yet just the right balance of essential nutrients. Obesity at any age will likely shorten your pets life span; however, feeding the correct diet will help to prevent obesity. Your veterinarian can help you determine if your pet is overweight. You should be able to feel his or her ribs, but not see them. If you can not feel your cats ribs, your cat is probably overweight. If you can easily see the ribs, your cat is probably too thin.

Genetic factors, as well as overfeeding, greatly influence weight gain. Some animals overeat because they have access to too much tasty food. Cats in multiple pet households may be influenced to overeat due to competition by housemates. Cats require nutrients in their diet that differ from dogs. They require more fat and certain nutrients in higher levels, such as Taurine. For this reason, a cat should not be getting the majority of its food from the dogs dish. Human foods should also be avoided. Cats can quickly become acclimated to many of the foods that we enjoy. Offering commercially prepared treats in moderation is a much better alternative.

The amount of food needed changes rapidly during a kittens first year. Most kittens should be fed 3 times a day until they are 6-8 weeks of age. After this age, most cats are fed one to two times daily. The quantity of food can be determined by reading the suggested feeding volumes listed on the food bag. Regularly scheduled meal times may be better than free feeding throughout the day if your cat is prone to becoming obese.

Your pets nutritional needs are paramount to a long and healthy life. With the help of your veterinarian, you can develop a well balanced nutritional program that will help to ensure a happy and healthy cat!

Debra Garrison, DVM