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Can Dogs Benefit From Special Foods For Medical Conditions?

The dog food industry has exploded in recent years, with more options on the shelf than ever before.

In addition to the countless various standard formulas that cater to most dogs (including puppy, adult, and senior recipes), there are also a number of specialized foods formulated to address specific medical and dietary issues in dogs.

There is now a food formula targeted at just about every health condition out there.

If your dog has a chronic health issue, changing its diet may help.

But be sure to check with your vet before choosing a dog food specifically aimed at your dog’s condition.

Non-Prescription vs. Prescription Dog Foods

These dog foods targeted at various health conditions can be either non-prescription or require a prescription from your vet.

Keep in mind that prescription foods don’t necessarily have to be purchased directly from your vet.

It can be easier that way, but it also is likelier to be more expensive.

Some vets are reluctant to writing a prescription to use elsewhere, while others are happy to do so.

But most will do so if you insist.

If you’re ordering the dog food from an online source, many pet vendors will contact your vet directly (via email or fax) to get prescription approval.

This is the easiest and usually the cheapest way to buy prescription dog food from a source other than your vet.

Health Conditions That May Benefit from Special Dog Foods

Kidney Disease

Dogs with kidney disease (renal failure) are often given dog foods low in phosphorus.

Phosphorus is an electrolyte found in dogs, but when their kidneys are not functioning properly, the phosphorus is not processed properly and can build up, creating a toxic and dangerous situation.

Dog foods low in phosphorus are also usually low in protein.

Dogs need a certain amount of phosphorus, so don’t eliminate protein altogether in an attempt to limit phosphorus.

Some vets recommend foods low in protein but not restricted in phosphorus for certain patients.

Kidney and Bladder Stones

If your dog is prone to urinary tract infections and/or kidney and bladder stones, you may want to consider a urinary tract dog food formula.

Stones are composed of minerals, usually struvite or calcium oxalate.

The foods cause higher acidification of the urine with the objective of dissolving these minerals that have built up into stones (or preventing buildup).

The recipe may also be low in oxalate content foods in order to avoid buildup in the first place.

Again, your vet can guide you as to the formula best suited for your dog’s specific issue, based on a urinalysis and other factors.


Obese dogs may benefit from low fat and/or low caloric foods.

Just like humans, eating foods with reduced calories can help them lose weight.

Most dogs, particularly senior dogs, are more likely to be healthy at normal weights.

Rather than just feeding a dog less food, a reduced calorie diet allows the dog to feel satiated by a normal sized meal while still deriving the benefits of lower calorie intake.

Hip Dysplasia and Joint Problems

Glucosamine, chrondrotin, and omega-3 fatty acids are all believed to help with joint issues, and particularly hip dysplasia, which is very common in larger breeds like retrievers and German shepherds.

While it’s nice to know that these ingredients are included in certain dog foods, it’s important to note that the quantity does not need to be specified (nor is it ever) in the ingredient list.

Without knowing the exact amount of these ingredients, it is difficult to know if they will actually be effective as opposed to buying additional supplements that can be quantified.

To put your dog in the best position to benefit from these supplements, it is recommended that you buy them separately so you can be sure you are providing a proper dosage of a quality supplement.

Cardiac Issues

For dogs with chronic heart issues, some vets may recommend a low sodium diet with added taurine, carnitine, and omega-3 fatty acids.

There is some debate as to whether low sodium is beneficial to dog heart patients, so be sure to consult with your vet.

Also, note that fish oil is a much better than plants as a source of omega-3 fats.

Allergies and Digestive Issues

Whether it is food intolerances, food allergies, skin allergies, GI issues, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, pancreatitis, or any number of other issues that fall under this categories, food manufacturers have attempted to formulate recipes to treat them.

Since all of these issues can be tied together in various ways, many of the recipes are similar.

Often, it is a matter of finding the formula that works for your dog’s specific set of issues.

Many of these recipes feature moderate levels of soluble fiber, low levels of fat, and easy digestibility.

For dogs with chronic diarrhea or constipation, higher fiber is often the answer.

Fast Growth

For dogs that have been sick or have lost a lot of weight because of neglect, there are formulations designed to help them gain weight quickly.

These are high calorie, high fat recipes, and usually come as canned wet food.

They are often smooth in texture to make ingestion as easy as possible for dogs either unable to chew or reluctant to eat.

Do Specialized Dog Foods for Medical Conditions Work?

If your dog has a chronic health issue, it is important that you talk to your vet about finding the optimal diet for them.

While it may not cure them of the ailment, being able to manage their condition with diet can go a long ways towards keeping them functional and happy.

You should also be aware, however, that a specialized diet may not necessarily benefit your dog.

There is plenty of marketing going on with dog food manufacturers, and the slightly modified recipes may not provide the results you are looking for.

When feeding your dog a new diet, observe them carefully and document any changes so you can share them with your vet.

If the new food works, great! But if it doesn’t, there’s no reason to keep spending extra money on food with no positive results.

Don’t feel pressured to continue buying prescription dog food from a vet if you are not seeing any benefits.

Final Thoughts

The food you choose for your dog is usually its complete source of nutrients, so it is important to feed your dog a diet that is balanced and addresses any special health conditions.

Unlike humans, they don’t have great variety in their diet or supplement on their own.

Just as we modify our diets for diseases like diabetes and heart disease, a responsible pet owner will try to do the same for their dog with health issues.

And if a new food doesn’t provide the results you are looking for, don’t be afraid to move on and try something else.

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National Canine Research Association of America