Sam Shephard is an experienced German Shepherd owner and has learned throughout the years how to optimize the breed's health and wellness.
Your vet has told you your German Shepherd needs to eat a special kind of dog food. Now what? You’ll have to spend some time researching and trying out new brands, and then—the most challenging part—getting your dog used to their new food. The good news is a special diet can be a major help in addressing serious health conditions and may save you from expensive vet bills.
In this article, we go through everything you need to know about special care dog foods: why you might need it, how to buy it, and what to expect. Of course, as with all health-related advice, follow your veterinarian’s instructions. They know your dog best and can give you individualized care. With your vet’s instructions and your own research in hand, you’ll be prepared to do everything you can to protect your dog’s health.
In our case, one of our German Shepherds got urinary stones when he was older. He ate the same Royal Canin dog food that our other dogs ate, but they didn't have any problems. The problem with kibble is that dogs need to drink a lot to stay hydrated and many dogs are continually dehydrated on dog kibble. So we ended up buying Royal Canin urinary dog food (Non-Struvite) because our vet recommended it. It's more expensive than normal food, but it improved our aging German Shepherd's quality of life, and his urinary problems were gone. To be fair, we also bought a decent drinking fountain to promote more drinking since most pets prefer running water.
Why Do You Need Prescription Food?
There are a number of reasons why your dog might need to go on a special or prescription diet.
For German Shepherds, some of the most common problems are digestive issues and allergies. Other health issues, such as bladder stones or excess weight, may also require a special diet.
You should never switch your dog to a medical diet without your veterinarian’s recommendation. A vet will be able to tell you if a special diet is right to help your dog.
If your German Shepherd is not experiencing any health issues, you probably don’t need a special diet; just focus on choosing high-quality ingredients and feeding it in healthy amounts.
How to Get (and Use) a Prescription for Dog Food
If your veterinarian recommends a special diet, one of the first things you’ll need to know is whether it requires a prescription. Some foods, such as diets for sensitive stomachs, can be purchased without a prescription. Other dog foods, such as special urinary health diets, require a prescription, and some may even negatively impact the health of dogs that don’t need it.
In order to purchase prescription food, you’ll need to show your prescription. Simply ask your vet, and they’ll be able to print off a signed prescription for you. Sometimes, these prescriptions come as a small card you can easily fit in your wallet. You’ll need to show this at check-out at pet stores like Petco or Petsmart or upload a picture for online stores such as Chewy. Most of these prescriptions expire in a year. Keep an eye on the date so you can request a new form from your vet and avoid running out of food.
How Much Does Special Diet Dog Food Cost?
There’s no getting around it; specialized dog food can be expensive. This is in part because they are made from specialized formulas. But it’s also because there are a limited number of prescription foods, sold exclusively with veterinarian approval. This creates less competition, and both vets and food manufacturers can benefit from high mark-ups.
Prescription dog food prices, therefore, are partially a marketing scheme. For a small bag of prescription dog food, for example, you’re likely to pay over $30. Essentially, you’re paying the same price as you would for premium high-quality food (or more!), but often without those same high-quality ingredients.
However, depending on your dog’s health needs, you may have little choice, and a higher monthly bill for dog food will still be less than large vet bills down the line. If in doubt about whether you truly need prescription food, you can always get a second opinion. Or talk to your vet about whether homemade dog food might be an option.
What Ingredients to Look for and Avoid
The principles behind high-quality dog food are the same as human food. Look for high-quality, recognizable ingredients. When you check the ingredients label, avoid dog foods with corn listed as the top ingredient.
Most German Shepherds thrive on a protein-rich diet, according to veterinarians. Look for recognizable meats such as “chicken” or “beef” in the first few ingredients, rather than by-products with names like “poultry meal.” It’s okay to see bone or meat meal in the ingredients list but ideally not as a top ingredient.
There are also a few ingredients you should avoid: food dyes, sugar, and preservatives such as BHT, BHA, and propylene glycol. Other ingredient priorities will depend on your individual dog. If your dog is sensitive to grain, for example, you’ll need to avoid wheat.
Recommended for You
Anti-Allergy German Shepherd Dog Food
Just like humans, dogs can have allergies. In German Shepherds, allergies typically appear as skin issues: red splotches, itchiness, hair loss, flaky skin, inflamed areas, or hives.
Food allergies may also result in a runny nose, gas, diarrhea, or vomiting. If your dog is showing signs of allergies, it might be either from food or from something in their environment. Typically, you’ll need to do a trial by elimination, which means trying different foods until you find one that works for your dog.
Common food allergies include eggs, dairy, chicken, and wheat. If allergies are the problem, look for foods marketed as “Limited Ingredient.” These, as the name suggests, are made with fewer ingredients, which makes it easier to avoid allergens.
Depending on your dog, you may need a low-protein diet, a grain-free diet, or a single protein diet (for example, a food that only uses chicken rather than chicken and fish). Always consult with your veterinarian—they can help you track potential allergens and make sure that a new diet will be healthy for your dog.
Digestive Care Dog Food
German Shepherds are notorious for digestive issues, ranging from gas to serious gastrointestinal distress. If your dog suffers from long-term diarrhea, vomiting, weight loss, or fatigue, they might need a special digestive health diet. Many of these foods are made with a lower fat content in order to be easily digestible. They also contain extra antioxidants to help support your dog’s immune system. Changing their diet can make their sensitive tummy a lot happier.
Urinary Care Dog Food
Unfortunately, bladder infections and bladder stones are common problems for German Shepherds. Bladder stones form from minerals in your dog’s kidneys and bladder. They can make it painful for your dog to urinate and, in extreme cases, block the urinary tract.
Some dogs have recurring issues with bladder stones, which sometimes go hand-in-hand with bladder infections. In these cases, a prescription urinary health diet can prevent the stones from forming. Urinary care food works by altering the pH of your dog’s bladder; a higher acid content dissolves the stones, preventing blockages.
Food for Weight Loss
German Shepherds are typically active, athletic dogs, but sometimes they do become overweight, especially as seniors. Obesity in your dog should be taken seriously because it can lead to arthritis, ACL injuries, extra stress on the hips, and a shorter life span.
The first steps you might take to address your dog’s weight are giving them less food, ensuring they get sufficient exercise, and keeping human food to a minimum. You can also help by adjusting their diet. A diet with high-quality ingredients, especially protein, rather than fillers is essential. This will keep your dog feeling full and energetic without excess calories.
Weight management foods are specifically designed to safely cut calories while retaining key nutrients. These diets are typically high in fiber, to help your dog feel full for longer, and low in fat.
Best Brands for Prescription German Shepherd Food
If you want to choose the best prescription dog food brand, you have a few to choose from. Your options will depend on your dog’s individual needs, but typically you’ll only find a small group of brands that are veterinarian-approved.
- The Big Brands: Royal Canin and Hill’s Prescription Diet: These are the two largest dog food brands that sell prescription food. If you get a prescription from your veterinarian, it’s very likely to be one of these two brands. The plus side to these brands is that they’re very convenient to find: you can purchase them online or in chain pet stores with a prescription. And you can find a specialty diet for most health issues. However, the quality of these foods is not as high as the price tag might suggest.
- The Natural Options: Darwin’s Natural Pet Products and JustFoodForDogs: These two brands are dedicated to creating super high-quality foods made with real, raw ingredients. They both offer specialized medical formulas for targeted health concerns such as kidney issues, cancer, and joint support. Like the foods above, these require a prescription from your veterinarian. They cover a smaller range of health issues but are truly high-quality. They also come with a higher price tag, but they may be worth it for your dog’s wellbeing.
- Great Weight Management Choices: Merrick and Annamaet: If your issue is weight management, you have a little more flexibility. Weight loss dog foods don’t usually require a prescription, giving you more room to look for high quality. Annamaet is a brand that uses human-quality meat and other ingredients, and they have a whole line of grain-free dog food. Merrick has an established reputation for creating high-quality dog food as well. They have diets available for grain-free, weight loss, and limited ingredient for dogs with allergies. These are some great options if weight, allergies, or digestion is your dog’s challenge.
We hope that this guide will help you to understand your dog’s nutritional needs and choose a diet that fits their individual needs. Remember: when in doubt, ask your veterinarian.
- Whitwam L., The German Shepherd Handbook: The Essential Guide For New & Prospective German Shepherd Owners, 2020, 234p.
- Verlinden A., Janssens GPJ., Food allergy in dogs and cats: a review, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 2006;46(3):259-73.
- Kearl M., Cooking For Your Dog: Do’s & Don’ts of Homemade Dog Food, akc, 2019, https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/nutrition/cooking-for-your-dog-dos-and-donts/
- Burke A., Does Your Dog Have UTI Symptoms Or Something Worse?, American Kennel Club, 2019. https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/health/noticing-dog-uti-symptoms-could-be-something-more/
- Migala J., The best dog food, according to experts and veterinarians, nbcnews, 2020 https://www.nbcnews.com/shopping/home-and-kitchen/best-dog-food-n1189551
- PetMD, How to Stop Diarrhea in Dogs, 2016. https://www.petmd.com/dog/emergency/common-emergencies/e_dg_diarrhea
- Pitcairn R.M., Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats, Rodale Books, 2017, 450p.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2021 Sam Shepards