The Difference Between a Therapeutic and Functional Diet for Pets

By Danielle Conway, DVM 

Pets are like people in that nutritional needs are different based on genetics, age, body type and more. Many pets thrive on a functional diet, which includes the over-the-counter pet foods sold at grocery stores and pet retail shops, however, some pets need specific levels of nutrients in their food to treat a disease – and that is where a therapeutic diet comes into play. In veterinary medicine, these conditions are called nutrient responsive diseases because diet plays a critical role in disease prevention, or management.  

A Functional Diet vs a Therapeutic Diet 

For dogs and cats, a functional diet encompasses the complete and balanced pet foods that are commonly sold at retail stores. These pet food recipes contain the vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, and proteins and amino acids considered essential to the well-being of cats and dogs. 

Pet food makers perform clinical tests for palatability, digestibility and nutritional value on all functional diet pet foods, and each recipe is developed with care and precision to support the maintenance of healthy, growing pets. 

While most dogs’ and cats’ needs are met by following a functional diet, some pets need extra support. A therapeutic diet, also known as a prescription diet, is formulated to meet the specific needs of your pet, usually designed to help mitigate, treat, or prevent diseases common to cats and dogs. 

Therapeutic pet foods are clinically studied to weigh certain vitamins, minerals, protein, fats, carbohydrates, and other nutritional components to determine their effect on certain diseases. Although these pet food formulas can be effective in supporting a dog or cat’s health condition, and require a prescription from a veterinarian, these pet foods do not contain pharmaceuticals. 

Therapeutic diets are typically more expensive because in some cases the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers the food to be a drug and requires a long, expensive development process with stringent ingredient formulations and manufacturing conditions. Since therapeutic diets are developed and tested like a drug, the same compliance and strict adherence to the feeding instruction provided by your veterinarian is important to achieve optimal management of their underlying condition.  

How are Therapeutic Diets Beneficial? 

Due to the nutrient profiles of therapeutic diets differing from over-the-counter pet foods, these formulations play an important role in the treatment of medical conditions. Some conditions and diseases that can be helped through therapeutic diets include: 

  • Kidney disease 
  • Orthopedic conditions 
  • Endocrine diseases, such as diabetes and hyperthyroidism 
  • Skin and coat health 
  • Gastrointestinal conditions 
  • Lower urinary tract diseases 
  • Weight control 
  • Liver disease 
  • Dental care 
  • Cardiovascular disease 

In addition to treating medical diseases, therapeutic diets contain targeted nutrients (such as added vitamins and anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids) are more easily digested, and can be beneficial in helping pets achieve a healthy weight. In certain cases, these pet foods are recommended for healthy pets to provide better nutrition and aid in the prevention of common diseases.  

It’s critical that pet lovers consult with their veterinarian before switching their dog’s or cat’s food to a therapeutic diet. There are multiple ways to ensure your dog or cat is in optimal health and working with your veterinarian to explore customized nutritional options is the recommended first step.  

Learn more on our Vet Talks Video Series!

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