Therapeutic Diets: Improving Pets’ Quality Of Life

Therapeutic diets today are created specifically to prevent or delay onset of many medical conditions and help control existing diseases.

Mabel the 67-pound Beagle Mabel’s weight-loss journey began just before Christmas when she was relinquished to the Young-Williams Animal Center near the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tenn.

Even before people labeled themselves pet owners, they provided scraps of food for dogs and cats. But it wasn’t until pet food manufacturing for U.S. dogs started in 1890 and for cats in the 1930s that the initiative for improving animal health through nutrition began.

Pet food has since evolved in ways that amaze even veterinarians. Therapeutic diets today are created specifically to prevent or delay onset of many medical conditions and help control existing diseases.

“Most medical conditions benefit from the right nutritional support,” says Grace Long, director of veterinary technical marketing at Nestle Purina PetCare. “Therapeutic diets complement other therapies, provide excellent nutrition and at the same time address the special nutritional needs of the pet.”

Manufacturers of therapeutic lines conduct research on the efficacy of their products, and provide information for veterinary and pet owner education.

“Pet food companies devote significant resources researching and developing therapeutic products,” says Kurt Gallagher, director of communications and export development at the Pet Food Institute in Washington, DC. 

“Given the positive impact that therapeutic products can have on pets, companies engage in significant outreach to the veterinary community so veterinarians are aware of products that are available and the benefits they can provide.”

Nutrition Talk

Veterinarians say they typically discuss nutrition at changes in the pet’s life stage—such as from puppy to adult, or adult to senior–or when the pet has a medical condition.

However, as nutrition is increasingly becoming a focus for preventive care, the number of nutritionists in vet schools expands and as more emphasis is placed on the American Animal Hospital Association’s nutritional assessment guidelines, veterinarians may choose to discuss diet as part of patients’ routine health exams.

“Most veterinarians have always been very good at discussing nutrition when it relates to the disease process in a sick pet,” says Brent Mayabb, manager of education and development at Royal Canin in St. Charles, Mo.

“In the future, I think there’s going to be more and more discussion of nutrition for healthy pets because vets realize the important role nutrition plays in overall pet health. Royal Canin is launching a new line of formulas sold exclusively by veterinarians called Veterinary Care Nutrition that are designed to help keep healthy pets healthy.”

Diet is such an integral part of an animal’s health that it is often considered the starting point for overall welfare.

“There are a lot of important factors in keeping a pet healthy, and many are interdependent,” says Richard Hill, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, professor of small animal internal medicine at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

“Nutrition is very important in this respect, as it affects other aspects of overall health. For example, vaccinations are important to help prevent certain infectious diseases in pets. In order for vaccinations to be most effective, the pet needs to have a healthy immune system. Certain nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin E, lutein and taurine act as antioxidants and help reduce damage to the cells of the immune system, improving function. Thus, nutrition plays a role in disease prevention.”

pet obesity

Photos courtesy of Greg Hirshoren, UT CVM

The beagle-mix’s previous owners said the then 67-pound dog had become too much for them to manage. The shelter veterinarian brought Mabel to UT’s doggy “fat camp,” where she met her new owner, Angela Witzel Lusby, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVN, assistant clinical professor of nutrition at UT’s College of Veterinary Medicine, Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences.

“She is currently eating Hill's r/d and I offer her 1.5 cups per day,” Witzel Lusby says. “She rarely finishes all her food and probably eats closer to 1 cup per day.

“She also attends physical therapy three days a week where she walks in the underwater treadmill for about 30 minutes,” Witzel Lusby continues. Otherwise her exercise is still just potty breaks. She has a lot of trouble walking, but hopefully this will improve greatly as the weight comes off. “

Witzel Lusby hopes that Mabel can lose 40 pounds in about 9 months and be able to jog 5 miles through a therapeutic diet and exercise. Currently Mabel is recovering from a torn ligament in her right knee–an injury caused directly by her obesity.

Follow Mabel’s progress on Facebook.

While veterinary nutritionists say it is possible to misuse therapeutic nutrition, most believe special diets are underused.

“Therapeutic diets provide a means to non-pharmacologically managing certain diseases that are responsive to nutrition,” says Joe Bartges, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, Dipl. ACVN, professor of medicine and nutrition of the College of Veterinary Medicine at The University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “There are reasons to use and not use therapeutic diets–probably the biggest misuse is not having a diagnosis and arbitrarily choosing a diet.”

While veterinarians know what to expect from a diet based on data supplied by the manufacturer and scientific studies, sometimes pets have multiple ailments to consider. In addition to the medical logistics, veterinarians also need to factor owner compliance when prescribing a therapeutic diet.

“Some therapeutic diets have a nutritional profile that would not be ideal for a healthy pet, but since they are only used under the supervision of veterinarian, misuse is not common, in my opinion,” Dr. Mayabb says. “As far as being overused, I think it’s the opposite. While vets are good about recommending diets, pet owners don’t always understand the benefits and as a result, don’t take the recommendation. Sometimes they take the recommendation initially, but don’t continue on the food, causing a compliance issue.”


The research behind and ingredients in therapeutic diets typically make them cost more than any grocery store maintenance diet. Cost and accessibility can deter some pet owners from keeping to the vet’s protocol.

“Compliance is one of the biggest issues that veterinarians deal with,” Dr. Bartges says. “A lot of it comes down to good communication and follow-up, and follow-through.  Also, some owners feel that once the problem is controlled, it doesn’t require additional treatment, which often isn’t true.”

Amy Dicke, technical services veterinarian at P&G Pet Care Iams, Eukanuba and Iams Veterinary Formula, says the old adage “seeing is believing” applies to all of us at some point in our lives.

“For some pet owners the power of nutrition becomes believable only after they have experienced positive, tangible results in their pet,” Dr. Dicke says. “Even owners of healthy pets who believe their pet has a full, desirable hair coat can be amazed by the coat changes witnessed when moving to a premium diet formulated to provide those benefits.”

Realizing the scope of dietary needs is often a point that is difficult to convey to pet owners, veterinarians say.

“Most owners do not appreciate that the ideal body condition involves an animal having a waist and it is OK to just be able to see an animal’s ribs,” UF’s Dr. Hill says. “Modifications in diet can reduce joint inflammation for these animals and others.”

Pet Food Sales in 2010
Dry dog food: $8.0397 billion
Wet dog food: $1.8312 billion
Dry cat food: $3.7072 billion
Wet cat food: $2.2758 billion
*Source: The Pet Food Institute


Therapeutic diets can play a key role in preventing an overweight dog or cat from gaining more weight and also minimize caloric intake, which is frequently the predominant cause of obesity. However, owners have to respect the serious health risks associated with extra weight in order to become dedicated to a new food for their pet.

“I wish I could say ‘yes,’ that pet obesity is being looked at a serious issue,” Bartges says. “More and more people are recognizing obesity and being overweight, but more people need to do so. Obesity is the largest epidemic in humans and pets in the U.S. Pet obesity is likely a multi-factored issue. Eating ‘bad’ foods alone doesn’t cause obesity–it is the combination of genetics, certain diseases, environment, food and exercise at least.

“Obesity and its related problems in humans is called metabolic syndrome” Bartges added. “Not recognizing or at least accepting being overweight and obese in combination with the other things results in obesity. If we can’t recognize it in ourselves, we don’t recognize it in our pets.”

Obesity in dogs and cats has been linked to numerous diseases–and it’s usually after a diagnosis is made that owners realize the error in their feeding habits.

“The incidence of obesity in pets is high in the U.S.,” Mayabb says. “I’m not sure owners always recognize the health concerns associated with obesity. The incidence and severity of many conditions–joint disease and diabetes, as examples–increase with obesity. But I believe some owners only view obesity as a cosmetic issue, instead of the serious health issue it is.”

Feeding Phenomenon

Mayabb says sometimes owners don’t understand how to feed the correct amount of food and many owners keep food in the bowl all the time, called ”free feeding,” which for most pets is too much caloric intake. Treats and human food are sources of extra calories that frequently contribute to obesity.

Dicke says owners often express surprise when told their pet is overweight during a veterinary exam.

“The rounded rather than angular look unfortunately equates to a healthy pet for many,” Dicke says. “The condition of being overweight or obese is a result of taking in too many calories for the number of calories being expended–it may not be a matter of choosing bad foods, but just simply supplying too much of a good thing.”

Pet owners know diet is important in their own lives, but sometimes the facts aren’t enough for them to take action for their pets without veterinary encouragement.

“Veterinarians are becoming more aware of program options and diets to help with obesity,” Dr. Long says. “Purina has a new program, Project Pet Slim Down, and provides support materials for the clinic to set up a weight loss program and coupons for our OM Overweight Management diets to help pet owners get started. We are also partnering with Jenny Craig to encourage pets and their owners to go on a weight loss journey together.”


Leave a Comment