Prescription Pet Food: Why Is It So Expensive?

Sadly, almost every pet parent has been to the veterinarian for some reason and ended up having to purchase prescription pet food.  After picking yourself up off the floor when you realized the pet food costs more than your monthly home food budget, you purchase the food and while still cussing under your breath head home with the equivalent of gold nuggets in the form of kibble or canned food thinking, “what a scam!”  Well, you’re not alone in feeling that way and price might only be one of the reasons.

First, according to a recent article in Your Dog, the Cumming School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University monthly newsletter, the only company that can sell “prescription” kibble is Hill’s.  They actually trademarked the term!  Other pet food manufacturers that sell pet food only available at a veterinary office and after getting a “prescription” must be referred to as “therapeutic” pet food (which is why the other brands are referred to as “veterinarian” rather than “prescription”).  Frankly, that sounds like a scam no matter what the food costs.
Second, what makes these foods “prescription” or “therapeutic?”  That’s easy, you say, they are designed to treat an ailment.  But things designed to treat something are drugs and not food you add.  That would generally be correct, but the Food and Drug Administration has made an exception for therapeutic pet food.  According to the FDA’s Compliance Policy Guidance:

“At the time of this CPG issuance, most dog and cat food products that claim on their labels or in their labeling or other manufacturer communications to treat or prevent disease are not approved new animal drugs, and do not comply with drug registration and listing requirements, or with current good manufacturing practices applicable to drugs even though the products are drugs under the FD&C Act. Nevertheless, in the past, FDA generally exercised enforcement discretion with regard to these requirements for dog and cat food diets that claim to treat or prevent disease when 1) those products provided all or most of the nutrients in support of the animal’s total required daily nutrient needs, 2) product labels and labeling and other manufacturer communications that were available to the general public (i.e., non-veterinary professionals) did not contain claims to treat or prevent disease, and 3) those products were distributed only through licensed veterinarians.”

So, in other words, therapeutic pet food, even though it is being sold as something to treat or prevent a disease (like a drug), is not required to be treated like a drug for 3 reasons: (1) the food meets all or most of the general nutritional needs of the pet; (2) marketing to the public didn’t make the therapeutic claims; and (3) the food was sold only through veterinarians.  Some argue that even though these foods are not regulated as medicines and not subject to the full rigors of FDA requirements and testing that medicines undergo, the testing required for foods to be marketed as therapeutic is more extensive than “regular” pet food and thus the food needs to cost more.  According to Dr. Heinze, in the same Your Dog newsletter, veterinarians are not getting rich by selling therapeutic foods, the markup on such products is less than on traditional pet foods, AND that “veterinarians stock these diets …as a convenience to their clients.”

Not everyone agrees with Dr, Heinze’s assessment of the pricing of therapeutic foods.  In fact,  in December 2016, a class action law suit was filed in the United States District Court  for the Northern District of California (right here in San Francisco for you federal court junkies) against Mars, Nestle Purina, Hill’s, Petsmart, and Medical Management International asserting that the ability of these companies to sell therapeutic food available only with a prescription allows these companies to sell pet food at inflated prices and, that since these foods do not contain drugs or ingredients not found in other pet foods, there is no reason to require a prescription and thus the inflated prices to buy these products.  The plaintiffs argue that if these foods are being marketed and priced as therapeutic then the FDA should treat them as drug; but since the FDA is not treating these products as a drug there is no reason to have them marketed and priced like one.  Making the issue perhaps even more complicated is the current trend of some pet food companies to sell therapeutic foods directly to consumers upsetting potentially other sellers and the FDA.
So, what do you think?  Is the prescription pet food industry a scam, playing on our deference to veterinarians and our love for our pets just to make an extra buck for the manufactures and maybe the veterinarians?  Or do you think the food significantly different enough to justify both the restrictions on how and where you can purchase them and of course the increase price?

Thanks for reading.