(Dr. Iulia Mihai, DVM) The pet food sector has exploded in recent years. There are hundreds of food brands on the shelves, offering natural or special products for puppies and kittens, adult dogs and cats with special needs. But what do you do when your pet is sick or has a chronic condition? In this case, the veterinarian may recommend a special diet (therapeutic/veterinary diet) for your dog or cat.
The therapeutic diet is mainly created to support medication treatment in pets diagnosed with various diseases or deficiencies. For example, there are diets to prevent kidney stones, diets to help with kidney or liver failure, diets to help lose weight in overweight pets, etc.
Therapeutic diets can help in diseases such as:
- Food allergies
- Heart problems
- Liver problems
- Skin problems
- Dental problems
- Urinary tract problems
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Neurological problems
Some diets are specially designed for sterilized animals to keep them at an optimal weight (i.e. not to gain weight). Others can be recommended by the veterinarian for pets that are recovering after a chronic disease or surgery
Ideally, special diets are prescribed and administered by veterinarians. Catering for pets with special needs can be quite complicated because it is sometimes difficult to find a diet that fits the needs but also has nutritional value.
Why Should the Specialized Diet Be Recommended and Supervised by a Veterinarian?
It is recommended to have a vet supervise your pet's specialized diet because it is suffering from a medical condition that needs to be cured or kept under control.
Some of these diets are high in nutrients suitable for certain diseases, but feeding your pet a veterinary diet it doesn't need can lead to health problems.
Depending on the medical condition, pets have certain nutritional needs. For example, obese pets need a low-caloric diet with lots of fiber, which makes them feel full quickly. Those with food allergies or sensitive stomachs need a hypoallergenic diet. And so on.
In general, specialized diets are richer in one or more ingredients and poorer in others, depending on the pet's needs. Standard diets for healthy pets are balanced in all nutrients. If a healthy pet consumes a veterinary diet for a long time, there is a risk that it will develop certain nutritional deficiencies and become ill.
When you go to the vet, talk to them about the specific needs of your dog or cat and decide what type of food is right for them.
If your pet has health problems that require a therapeutic diet, it should be closely monitored, even if the food in question has a safe level of nutrients.
Types of Special Diets for Dogs
Here are some medical conditions that can be improved with veterinary diets.
1. Your dog needs to lose weight
Overweight pets need, in addition to other helpful methods, a change in diet. They can also lose weight by increasing physical activity. But if pets have difficulty losing weight with exercises, vets can prescribe a veterinary diet for weight loss. This diet is low in calories and high in fiber, to give pets a feeling of satiety. The diet is specially formulated to maintain the right caloric intake, even if it is offered in small amounts.
Sometimes, these diets can also have added joint supplements, since obesity often leads to joint pain. Therapeutic diets can also have a higher amount of protein to maintain pets' muscle mass during the weight-loss period.
These diets should be monitored by your veterinarian to ensure your pet's weight loss is gradual and safe.
2. Your pet suffers from food allergies
Pets with food allergies are usually sensitive to the proteins found in regular diets, but they can be virtually sensitive to any ingredient. Dogs are more commonly affected than cats.
They may develop itching, skin infections, or gastrointestinal symptoms (vomiting, diarrhea, or weight loss). In severe cases, breathing difficulties and anaphylactic shock can occur, but these cases are extremely rare.
Certain therapeutic diets, such as hypoallergenic diets, contain hydrolyzed proteins (proteins broken down into tiny fragments). These proteins will not cause an inadequate immunological response.
These diets are also recommended for environmental allergies or dermatitis in dogs. They have added omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, which support skin health.
Dogs with gluten or grain allergies should be fed special diets that do not contain these ingredients. If your dog has no medical problems and you want to feed it with such a diet, there is no health risk.
3. Your pet has kidney disease
Chronic kidney disease is irreversible and can lead to a tragic end. Veterinary diets represent an essential part of your pet's treatment.
Although a kidney diet will not cure this disease, it can still slow kidney damage.
The main role of the kidneys is to excrete toxins from the body that are a result of the metabolism. One of these residues is urea, a toxic substance formed by the breakdown of proteins.
When kidney function declines to a certain point, the level of urea in the blood begins to increase - a disease called azotemia or uremia (which can make the pet feel very sick).
You can influence how much urea your pet produces by controlling the amount of protein in your pet's diet. If your pet produces less urea, it will eliminate less. Even though kidney function remains the same, less urea is formed in the blood, and your pet should feel better.
Kidney diets cannot be too low in protein. These diets have a goal – to meet the needs of the body but not to overload the kidneys. The proteins included in the kidney diet should be of good quality to be used well by the body and not just broken down and eliminated.
Not only proteins have an important role, kidney diets also have other characteristics (low phosphorus and sodium) that can improve kidney function and help pets feel better and live longer.
In the case of mild or moderate kidney disease, feeding a therapeutic diet may be all that is needed to keep your beloved pet healthy. However, in some cases, kidney conditions can get worse, and pets will need fluid therapy and medication in addition to a special diet to maintain their quality of life.
These diets are generally lower in protein and phosphorus than those for healthy animals. They also contain fatty acids to reduce inflammation and antioxidants to help slow cell damage.
Numerous studies have shown that such a therapeutic diet can prolong pets' lives. But this diet can lead to nutritional deficiencies and health problems if fed to pets with normal kidneys.
4. Your pet has a heart condition
Special heart diets can improve heart health by being low in sodium and high in L-carnitine and taurine. The low salt content helps reduce the strain on the heart, and the fatty acids help reduce inflammation.
These diets are not recommended very often by veterinarians because they do not work for all types of heart disease. A veterinary cardiologist is the one who can determine whether a cardiac diet could help your pet or not.
5. Your pet is prone to developing bladder stones.
Pets can form bladder or urinary tract stones when minerals in their urine are concentrated and crystallize. Depending on the type of crystals that form, the veterinarian will prescribe an appropriate treatment and a special diet.
The role of these diets is to change the acidity of the urine and prevent certain nutrients from forming stones. Diets are not 100% effective, and pets should be monitored because stones can block the urinary tract and lead to complications and even death.
Stones are not only formed because of the acidity of the urine, but they can also have other causes: liver diseases or urinary tract infections. Special diets alone cannot treat these diseases, and treatment is mandatory.
6. Your pet has a gastrointestinal disorder
Veterinarians usually prescribe gastrointestinal diets when pets are vomiting or have diarrhea. The causes of chronic vomiting and diarrhea can be many, so it is essential to talk with your veterinarian to determine which diet is best for your pet.
Things to Consider When Choosing a Specialized Diet for Your Pet
If you are feeding your pet a special diet, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Avoid mixing it with other diets. Most of these diets are made to be the sole source of nutrition for maximum effectiveness. They usually achieve their goal if offered as an exclusive food. Otherwise, you can reduce their effectiveness if you combine them.
- Not every pet is guaranteed to like every diet. If your pet is picky or has eaten the same diet for years, it can be a little tricky to make it consume the new diet, but not impossible.
- Sometimes drug treatment is also needed. If a dog refuses to eat the new special diet, it can also be because of the disease it is suffering from, which can cause it to lose its appetite.
Dr. Iuliana Mihai, DVM, Masters In Small Animals And Equines Pathology
Iuliana graduated from the University of Agronomical Sciences and Veterinary Medicine in 2012, Romania. She has a Master’s degree in Small Animal and Equines Pathology and a strong affinity for Veterinary Parasitology and Laboratory. In 2013 she started her Ph.D. in epithelial cancer in dogs and cats. She volunteered at the faculty’s clinic in her 3rd year of study, and continued her career in small animal pathology and laboratory. She has one cat and eleven rats. Her interests outside of work include traveling, writing, and crafting.