Exactly why is Vet food so much more money? And why would I spend that when I can get the same food at the grocery store? Am I getting ripped off?! At $60+ a bag, yes, you would think that you might be getting taken to the cleaners on dog or cat food. Let me de-mystify the cost versus quality question.
What you might not realize is that there are some very key differences between the food you buy at your veterinarians vs the foods you buy at the grocery or pet stores. We don’t sell theirs, and they CAN’T sell ours for some key reasons.
Veterinary food is formulated to treat a specific condition; think of it as medicine. Typically, a veterinarian would need to prescribe this nutrition for the treatment of a specific disease or condition. Hence the brand “Prescription Diet”. Store-bought brands are for wellness and prevention, NOT treatment – this is a very important distinction!
So, now we’ve established that veterinary food is to aid a specific condition and that it’s prescribed by a Veterinary Doctor, I can tell you more about what makes prescription diets unique.
Why are prescription diets different?
Let’s take a look at urinary health foods. I’ll use Hills C/D vs Hills Science Diet urinary for example. C/D you can only purchase at your veterinarian’s office, while Science Diet Urinary is available at pet stores. Both are Hills ( a name and brand we trust ). Let me start by saying that they both have similar properties in terms of ingredients, but here’s the difference – Hill’s Science Diet Urinary is for wellness and prevention of calcium oxalate and struvite crystals. Keywords are wellness and prevention. It doesn’t claim anything more than that. Hills C/D, however, treats crystals and also treats cystitis (inflammation of the urinary system). It does this by being more tailored with pH, and minerals, as well as controlling the minimum amounts of all ingredients more.
How would you use this information? Well, let’s say you have a kitty that’s male and getting up in years, and also might be a few pounds overweight. We know that many male cats develop some type of urinary issues, especially if they carry some excess pounds. In this case, by using a urinary diet that is formulated for prevention and wellness, you can get ahead of the game. Once Fluffy is in the realm of blockage or crystals are diagnosed, this food is no longer useful. Here is a great example of where C/D is prescribed for treatment.
Another difference between veterinary vs store-bought brands is that unless it’s veterinary food, there are NO STUDIES done that show treatment results (ie no studies prove that Science Diet Urinary dissolves crystals. Same goes for Perfect Weight vs Metabolic.) There aren’t any studies that show that Perfect Weight food actually causes Fluffy to lose weight. Sure, it’s a more controlled calorie diet, but it’s not for obesity. That’s where a prescription diet is recommended. It is, however, great for preventing obesity or for slightly overweight pets with no other health issues.
The difference in AAFCO Statement – why does it matter?
An AAFCO statement should be on every bag of pet food. It stands for The Association of American Feed Control Officials. All foods that are made in the USA but sold here in Canada must have this statement. The statement shows that a particular food has nutrients that fall “within the range” for a certain life stage be it adult, growth, pregnancy, and lactating. This range can be quite large, and your bag will show the MINIMUM amount.
Now going back to veterinary vs store-bought food, one thing that your Veterinary diet will always have is an AAFCO statement. With that statement it will also say “Formulated and Trialled”; pet store food will likely only say “Formulated”. That means that not only are veterinary foods formulated to maintain a minimum amount of nutrients for specific life stages, but it also states that that diet has been trialled on a group of pets to prove that the diet maintains optimum health for that particular life stage. These trials would include things like weight, urine samples and blood samples, to be sure that there is optimal health achieved or maintained. If your pet store food only says “Formulated”, that means no actual trials on real dogs/cats have been conducted.
Guaranteed Analysis – Why minimums and maximums matter
The guaranteed analysis is a confusing one. What I can tell you is to always look at the nutrient on a dry matter basis; this is the best way to actually compare foods. It will tell you the minimums and maximums, but not the absolute values. Why do you care? Because Prescription diets will follow a specific recipe with NO deviations from it. *Side note: that is why sometimes diets go on backorder. The companies that make veterinary food are extremely specific to their ingredients and will not stray just to make a diet.
Store food brands also use minimums and maximums, however, the actual recipe will change from batch to batch. For example, if the protein minimum is 36% on one bag of food and the protein comes from chicken, the next batch could be 47% protein and the source may be from a different “bird”. The issue arises when Fluffy has renal issues caused by excess protein, however, your bag only tells you a minimum value. You would never know if the last 4 bags were made with a larger protein content. I’ve seen this issue with dogs with allergies. They do well on a “salmon” based food for a month, and then the next month break out in an itchy rash. After a little digging, we find it ends up being that the bag of food ran out and the owners have started the next one. This is the reality when feeding brands that are not regulated by recipes.
Always consult your veterinarian about any diet-related concerns
That is a lot of information! It’s always best to consult your veterinarian for any food changes or diet-related concerns. Veterinary food is meant for a specific purpose – for the treatment of a health concern. Store-bought food is made for wellness and prevention. There are very key differences between the two, and one cannot be exchanged for the other. Besides looking at the type of food, remember to look at the labels. Check to see if it is AAFCO regulated, check whether it’s been “Formulated” or “Formulated and Trialled”, and always compare using dry matter. Remember that the minimums are important as is the use of an actual repeated recipe. If in doubt, call! Every bag should have a contact number to reach the company with concerns and questions.
Tania Admans, RVT, Nutritional Advisor and Advocate