Prescription Pet Food: Why Is It So Expensive?

April 7, 2017

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.

14 Responses to “Prescription Pet Food: Why Is It So Expensive?”

  1. Ann

    I think the whole prescriptiondiet is a scam. If you compare ingredients, for example, on Purina’s regular urinary tract food to Purina’s prescription, you will find very few differences and it is unlikely that the difference in ingredients is enough to create any health benefits. There are those who believe the ingredients are lower quality than regular pet food but who can win a case against any major corporation, pet foods or any other.

  2. Phyllis Isenhour

    We should not need a RX if there is no drugs and why is the price so high

  3. Phyllis Isenhour

    We should not need a RX if there is no drugs and why is the price so high, what food can replace Hills W/D

    • Mark Klaiman

      Phyllis, there are some alternatives available depending on the issue. Diamond Care, Science Diet Sensitive Stomach are some examples.

  4. MS

    I was told by Royal Canin that the reason “Rx” pet food is expensive is not due to the ingredients themselves (they have actually struck me as less healthy fillers than in non-Rx pet food), but to the extensive testing and prep that must go into it to ensure that exact proportions and ratios are maintained. I personally don’t see why this should be any more difficult to do than for non-Rx foods. That said, I think the whole pet industry can be called a scam in that the profit mark up can easily be 300% (i.e., $.25/lb to manufacture, sold to retailer for $.50/lb, sold to consumer for $1.00/lb or more. And many of these “Rx” foods are just bandaids anyway as they treat the symptom but not the underlying cause.

  5. Cheryl Taylor

    This is bull ! Both my cats are on different prescription diets and it costs me over $300 a month ! I’m on social security and and really hurting to come up with these prices every month !


    I have a cat that according to the vet needs urinary tract prescription food and they recommended Hills which goes for $115 for a 17.6lb. bag or about two months of well-rationed portions compared to the normal off the shelf food that would run maybe around $24 for about that much, that’s almost a 500% increase……then I found this website

  7. Edgar Barbera

    $97.00 for Hill’s RX for cats yesterday. Our young adult neutered male has been thru 4 RX of Orbax @ $60.00+ each and now this! Smells like a scam to me!

  8. Sandy

    I was told by my vet that the foods sold off the shelf are contributing to an issue with my cat having crystal buildup issues. What I am curious about is that I fed my cat Hills science diet for years and now I’m paying a premium to have a prescription version of cat food from the same manufacturer that produced the food that could have contributed to the problem with crystal buildup. I’m literally appalled by the idea that I now have to pay $50 for an £8 bag of Specialized prescription food. Which by the way has no medication in it but just a balance of nutrients that cats require to prevent this health issue. Can anyone help me understand why if the regular cat food lacks the proper nutrients that it is even approved to sell to consumers? Why are companies allowed to sell if it is literally killing mostly male cats. I have to purchase the Hills Urinary c/d stress cat food for the rest of my cats life because he had such a severe problem with crystals. I am happy this ridiculously priced food is working but I can’t figure out why this type of food is not required as a standard product for cats at a reasonable price? No one can afford this price, this is such a scam and I am so outraged.

  9. Heather

    I cannot fathom a valid reason for this. To me it IS a scam. Literally, no one is ever going to purchase that food if they don’t need to, so why the need for a prescription? Is there oxy in the kibble? I don’t think so.

  10. Terrie

    I most certainly believe the whole “prescription” pet food claim is a scam. My family has been paying for Hills C/D Multicare Urinary Care for our cat for years. Granted, Timber hasn’t had anymore urinary tract issues and does not regurgitate his food when eating Hills over the other brands, but the price to pay for cat food that isn’t medicinal is ridiculous! It cost $37.99 per case of 24 (four cases monthly) to feed him. I’m keeping an eye on Holly and Dana who are taking action to bring this nonsense to a stop: (

  11. Cyndy

    My vet is saying I need Hills WD for my cats. One is diabetic & the other is over weight. I noticed there is stuff in the Hills I do not want them to eat. They eat Blue Buffleo. Tiki Cat or I & I love you. Can I use one of these for them?

    • Mark Klaiman

      We really can’t answer this for you. You and your veterinarian are the best people to have a full conversation about the pros, cons and your preferences.


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