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ASK THE VETS: Good pet food, not medication, is the key
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ASK THE VETS: Good pet food, not medication, is the key

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Most weeks, I answer your questions in this column. This week, I have a question for you: Would you spend $100 for a bag of pet food? I find that most people instinctively answer this question in the negative. However, let me ask a few related questions before you make your final decision.

If your pet has a medical condition that could be successfully treated, would you give her pills that would cost $60 each month? My experience in practice is that many people indeed spend at least that much in monthly medications for their pets. In recent years, innovative new drugs have come to the market that easily cost double that for many dogs. People are willing to spend money when they see an improvement in their pet’s health—at least when that money is going toward pills.

Given the choice between two equally expensive medications, would you want your pet to be prescribed the one with fewer potential side effects or the one with more risks? Might you even be willing to pay a little extra for an equally effective medicine that was more natural and had nearly no chance of adverse effects? Would you prefer to give your dog or cat pills twice a day, once a day, or zero times a day?

Medicating pets can reduce the joy of the human-animal bond that is the reason we have pets in the first place. Why would we medicate more than we need to?

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I am willing to bet that nearly every reader would select the more natural alternative with lower side effects and the least possible frequency of administration. With that understanding, let’s revisit that $100 bag of therapeutic diet.

Since your pet needs to eat, let’s deduct the cost of food that you would feed whether or not I prescribe a medication or therapeutic diet. Perhaps $40 of the $100 bag is money that you would be spending anyway. If you would spend $60 a month for an effective pill, doesn’t it make sense to spend it on an equally effective diet that is more natural, has less risk of side effects, and doesn’t require any medication administration?

I encourage my clients to consider therapeutic diets as “medicine” and to look at only the incremental cost of the food over the amount they would need to spend on a high-quality maintenance ration. Usually, the therapeutic diet is the least expensive way to treat—and in some cases, it’s also the most effective.

Kidney diets remove renal failure as a cause of death from 70% of patients (if the kidney disease is caught early enough). Some joint diets have performed as well as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs in double-blinded placebo-controlled clinical trials. There are therapeutic diets that reduce seizures, eliminate the need for insulin in diabetics, treat colitis, dissolve bladder stones, treat hyperthyroidism, and more. The advanced science available in modern veterinary therapeutic diets is nothing short of remarkable. That $100 bag contains so much more than just dog food.

Yet, something about delivering the “medicine” through food is still one of the most challenging areas to convince owners to continue over time. They resist buying the first bag and frequently never return for a second. They try to find “something similar” at the pet store to save $30 a bag. The reality is that there is usually nothing available over the counter that has the careful formulation and proven clinical trials behind it that a veterinarian-prescribed diet would have.

There’s absolutely no point in spending $70 a bag on a diet that won’t help your pet. You might as well go back to the $40 bag. I’ll go ahead and prescribe the $60 pills for you to give twice a day. I hope your pet won’t be one that experiences side effects. As for me and my dogs, I will choose a therapeutic diet option over medication any day.

Dr. Michael J. Watts, a veterinarian, operates Clevengers Corner Veterinary Care in Amissville.

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