Why is Prescription Dog Food More Expensive Than Regular Dog Food?

Ingredients are largely the same, so it seems like a rip-off. But pricing is not about ingredients - or even veterinarians' expertise.


veterinary pharmacy

Sometimes a dog has a condition for which a veterinarian will recommend a specific diet. Maybe the dog has a tendency to develop bladder stones, or suffers from kidney disease, or is allergic to certain ingredients commonly found in pet food and therefore needs special kibble, and the doctor advises that a particular food can mitigate symptoms or even help slow the course of the disease.

You’re all for keeping your dog healthier, or at least more comfortable, so you want to feed him that special food. The rub is that it’s available only at the doctor’s office by prescription — and is significantly more expensive than dog food available at the supermarket.

Have you ever felt suspicious about this? A lot of people have. In fact, a few months ago, a class-action lawsuit was filed in California claiming that some major pet food manufacturers and retailers have been conspiring in a price-fixing scheme by allowing some of their food products to be sold only by veterinarians and thereby raising their prices to levels above fair-market value. Have pet food companies and veterinarians been in profit-making collusion?

Just what does it mean to be a food sold only by prescription?

Foods sold only by veterinarians are by definition prescription diets, and that’s how they’re generally thought of by consumers. But they’re not allowed to be called that by most companies. They must be called therapeutic diets because the term “prescription diet” is trademarked by Hill’s for its own kibble that it makes available through veterinarians only.

Whatever term you use in your head to think of these foods, they are an anomaly in the regulatory world of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That agency specifically prohibits the sale of foods intended to “cure, mitigate, treat, or prevent disease.” Products that make such claims are considered drugs, not foods, and must undergo a costly, complex, multi-year process before being granted approval for sale to the public. The one big exception to this rule is therapeutic diets sold by veterinarians.

How does the FDA get around its own regulation and allow therapeutic diets to be sold as agents to help treat disease? Tufts veterinary nutritionist Cailin Heinze, VMD, DACVN, explains it as follows. Therapeutic diets do in general undergo extensive testing to prove their efficacy before reaching the marketplace, just not to the same degree that would be necessary for them to be sold as drugs. To close the gap in testing, the federal agency requires that therapeutic foods be purchased through, or with the permission of, veterinarians. “In this manner,” Dr. Heinze writes on the Tufts Petfoodology website (vetnutrition.tufts.edu/petfoodology), “they are allowing veterinarians to weigh the evidence and decide which foods to recommend for which pet and making them responsible for monitoring the pets that are eating these diets.”

Why does a veterinarian need to be involved? Consider that some therapeutic diets have nutrient levels that are appropriate for treating certain diseases but could be unsafe for healthy pets. A diet designed for a dog with kidney disease is a perfect example. Such a food will generally be lower in protein than the level recommended for healthy dogs, Dr. Heinze says, and may also have too little phosphorus for a dog whose kidneys are functioning at full throttle. The upshot: the veterinarian has to weigh the course of the disease against typical nutrient requirements and make a decision from there. It also falls to the vet to keep the diet out of the hands of people whose dogs do not have kidney disease so they won’t end up with nutrient deficiencies. That can’t be done from the supermarket or pet food store aisle.

Veterinarians also need to be involved because sometimes a therapeutic diet doesn’t do what it is meant to do, necessitating that the dog be monitored and treated accordingly. For example, diets to prevent recurrence of bladder stones are not always effective. When they don’t work, the stones can block urine flow and cause life-threatening disease. A doctor needs to assess the food’s efficacy in a dog — by periodically checking him for stones — to keep him safe.

Vet and Dog

But why are therapeutic diets so expensive?

So why are you paying so much more for therapeutic diets than for dog foods you can simply add to your grocery list? After all, while proportions of ingredients may differ, the ingredients themselves are largely the same as in typical food for healthy pets. Is it the professional expertise of veterinarians that drives up the cost? Is it the fact that people with sick dogs are “stuck” and need to choose therapeutic diets, thus making it all too easy for manufacturers to price gouge? Or some combination of the two, leading to a secret handshake between veterinarians and pet food companies that benefits both sides?

The answer is none of the above. It’s in the testing that eventually brings these foods to market. Granted, that testing is not as arduous as testing for drugs, as we explained above. But it is still extensive. Consider food for kidney disease. Explains Dr. Heinze, “examples of testing for kidney diets includes feeding the diets to pets with kidney disease for many months and monitoring how they do compared to pets fed more typical diets. This requires lots of bloodwork and other diagnostics. For diets for bladder stone prevention, the diets are fed to animals, their urine is collected and tested and the diet ingredients are then optimized to reduce risk of stone development.”

Extra work also goes into analyzing the fiber content of dog food meant for pets with certain gastrointestinal conditions. And therapeutic diets designed for dogs with food allergies have to contain bits of protein divided into small enough molecules so as to evade the immune system and thereby not trigger an allergic reaction.

“As you can probably imagine,” Dr. Heinze says, “all of this testing can get VERY expensive — costing hundreds of thousands of dollars per diet, and these tests often need to be repeated every time there are any changes made to the diet. These costs must then be incorporated into the cost of the diets.”

In other words, it’s not a get-rich scheme for pet food manufacturers or veterinarians. It’s that the science that goes into putting these diets together is expensive. Indeed, Dr. Heinze states emphatically, “vets are not getting rich selling pet food.” To the contrary, the mark-up on therapeutic diets is typically less than that of most regular pet diets because veterinarians do not look at them as revenue generators; they stock these diets rather as a convenience to their clients. If they want, pet owners can generally purchase these foods online or at pet food stores with a prescription, just as many veterinary drugs can be purchased from an outside pharmacy.

The FDA Guidelines on Therapeutic Pet Food Compliance

While therapeutic diets are supposed to be sold to dog owners by veterinarians only, a number of new companies have begun to market them directly to consumers, both in stores and online, running afoul of the regulation. “This shift toward direct marketing, without veterinary direction or involvement, concerns FDA,” the agency has said in a press release, “because these diets…may not be suitable for all pets.”

To clarify its position and put teeth into its ruling, the Food and Drug Administration has come out with a Compliance Policy Guide. The compliance guide explains the criteria FDA will consider when determining whether to take enforcement action regarding dog and cat food diets intended to treat a disease. The agency does intend “to exercise enforcement discretion over the labeling and marketing of these diets,” it states.

Implications of the Lawsuit

Because of the specifics of the FDA guidelines, it is doubtful that the plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit will prevail. And from the point of view of dogs’ health, that is all to the good. If the prices of therapeutic diets were forced down legally, pet food companies would no longer be able to afford the research required to develop them, and they would therefore discontinue bringing them to market.

If your veterinarian ever recommends a therapeutic diet for your dog, ask why the diet is necessary and how it will help your pet cope with the condition for which he has been diagnosed. Ask, too, what makes the diet different from a diet you would be able to purchase at the store. That way, you will feel good about your decision, knowing you’re doing what you can for your dog rather than following the doctor’s advice but potentially feeling distrustful as you do so.


  1. This article is bullshit. It’s all about charging more since they have you over a log. The article says it’s the testing. BS! Like they don’t test ALL dog food extensively. As for the vets charging more. They charge more for everything. It’s a ripoff and the dog food manufactures and vets should be ashamed of themselves.

  2. It is certainly a rip off. I am paying around the $50.00 mark for Hills kidney care.1st this`bins the` `best price you can get. Hills hide behind the guise of caring, with the vets blessing. This is my opinion only.

    • Couldn’t agree with you more! The fact that most dogs hate it is a major clue. With the crap ingredients in it your dog is very minimally nourished and they know it.
      Major con job.

  3. I am feeding my dog Natural Balance Limited Ingredient Chicken and Brown Rice. Can’t recommend it enough. I don’t believe in trying to extend a dog’s life by denying him adequate quality nutrition!

  4. I wouldn’t mind if any of the ingredients in a Hills can came close to approaching the healthy homemade meals I make my dogs, but it’s the same crap quality of other commercial dog foods.

    What I would prefer to buy is an add-in powder that doesn’t include refined sugar or soy or canola products to make creating complete homemade dog foods simpler.

    There are many such powders on the market but the ingredients in them are so diverse that researching which is appropriate for a pet’s health needs is difficult.

    Why can’t pet product manufacturers provide PubMed links so I can more easily verify the reasoning that went into creating their formulas?

    I don’t trust vet blogs. Recently, I ran across hundreds of virtually identical articles detailing all the disastrous toxicity of giving a dog limonene and when I finally tracked down the scientific papers they used as source material, I learned they’d misinterpreted the data.

    These sites are all using the same bogus articles written by non-experts from cheap content mills!

    I spend thousands every year on vet care for my aging dogs and yet I am still almost entirely on my own when it comes to their food and supplements because these doctors do not keep up with the latest data. (By latest I mean the most recent 20 years!).

    Do not tell me “everything he needs is in his can.” If that were true across the board, 50% of dogs over age 10 wouldn’t be stricken with cancer.

  5. I KNOW that research is costly. I get that. But what this does is guarantee that people on limited incomes (eg seniors on small fixed incomes) either can’t buy the food their dog or cat needs, OR they themselves go without so they can buy these diets. A client of mine was dumping weight. In a month she lost 25 pounds. I confronted her. Her dog is her whole family. She can’t buy the Rx dog food and her food. So she eats almost nothing to make sure her dog is covered.

    The first problem is that you can ONLY obtain this at Veterinary Clinics. Guess why? Ka-Ching! I called around to try to compare prices of the same food from various Vets. People should know that lots of practices won’t quote prices. The food can vary enormously in price from one Vet to the next. Why do I say Ka-Ching? Some of the support products the Vet sells are DOUBLE the price charged retail. Treats – just plain ol’ chew treats – $15.99 at Amazon. Same treats, same size, sold at the Vet for $25.99. Tell me that’s about research costs! 🙄 You CANNOT buy the food prescribed by the Vet from a non-veterinary vendor. That’s just not right.

    I am no dummy. I had school loans to repay, too. And I had to to furnish my shiny new office. I don’t have medical equipment to pay for, either. But Veterinary Services aren’t charities. No one expects to get this free; make it affordable!

    Is there some darned reason that NO ONE can sell low phosphorus pet food? Low phosphorus – not even prescription kidney care. They have you by the short hairs there, too. Put it in your cart and try to check out. They require a prescription from the Vet, which they don’t like to authorize bc they don’t like to lose the income. (I tried, believe me.)

    Ergo, the person on a minimal income simply cannot buy the food their pet (or support animal) requires in order to stay alive. That’s so completely unethical. And, as usual, it’s the most vulnerable who end up eating the consequences! That’s the American way! Profit over people or pets.

  6. The only reason vets recommend these overpriced, and actually poorly made products, is because they make a fortune on the prescription (sic) mark-up – pay the price and get whatever you what – prescription dog food is a scam. Ever look at the labels? Hills KD formula lists brown rice as the first ingredient. For Dogs with KD, brown rice, and all whole grains, have too much potassium, and who knows what other crap they hide in the ingredient list. I make my dogs’ food with reduced protein, and low potassium/phosphorus/sodium vegetables, and white rice, and add omega 3 fish oil. It’s bad enough that pet care is expensive, now they want us to spend 2x -> 3x the cost of questionable food for a medical condition. Nothing like pandering to pet owners’ emotions and care for their pets.


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