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Keeping your pet healthy and your wallet full

Does expanding where you can buy pet prescriptions compromise pet safety?

Created date

May 21st, 2013
Dog dish of pet medication

Many Americans grapple with the high cost of prescription medications. When a family member needs an expensive medication, most people do whatever they can to make sure their loved one gets that drug. But what if that family member is a pet? While human medicine is frequently supported by insurance, that is frequently not the case for our four-legged family members, and even relatively routine or preventative animal medications can be prohibitively expensive. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), two-thirds of all American households had at least one pet in 2011. They spent about $50 billion on those pets; $7 billion of which was spent on prescription and over-the-counter medications. Where people purchased those pet medications impacted the price they paid and some veterinary experts believe that where people obtain pet prescriptions impacts pet safety as well. How to balance the low prices that come from a competitive marketplace with health and safety issues prompted the FTC to hold a workshop this year about pet prescription medicines. American consumers spend a tremendous amount of money on medications for their pets every year. High prices on these medications mean that consumers have less money for necessities. It s important that these medications are safe and effective, and that pet owners get the benefits of a fair and robust marketplace, said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz.

The only shop in town?

Not so long ago, pet medications were available exclusively from veterinarians. Today, many animal medications can be purchased virtually anywhere, from big box stores like Target or PetSmart, to online retailers, to regular pharmacies that stock prescription pet medicines. However, because of long-standing agreements between vets and pharmaceutical companies, some pet medications can still only be obtained from a vet. While there is no denying that vets make a profit from having a virtual lock on certain drugs, the American Veterinary Medical Association warns that wider and easier access to pet medications poses a health and safety risk because veterinary pharmacology is specialized and different from human pharmacology. Appearing at the FTC workshop, Dr. Paul Pion, president and co-founder of Veterinary Information Network, pointed out that many pets take the same drugs that humans do, but there are differences, including the indications, the safety, the dosing, and the drug interactions, he said. A dog is not a little person and a cat is not a little dog. Dispensing for pets is like dispensing for an infant. The client, like a parent, needs the person providing the medication to be able to advise them and caution them about drug interactions and possible side effects. Pion went on to say that getting a pet to take a medication can be a challenge for pet owners. That s classically been a lot of why a veterinary practice has been the best place for administration, he said. At least when getting the first dosing because the pet owner needs a lot of help.

Free marketplace

Retailers, who also stand to profit from greater access to pet medications, maintain that any accredited pharmacy could safely and effectively distribute any and all prescription pet meds. John Powers, executive vice president for Drs. Foster & Smith, an online pet pharmacy, posed the question, Why should the distribution of pet pharmaceuticals differ from the human model? Speaking at the FTC workshop, Powers said that the current system of limiting the distribution of certain drugs to veterinarians doesn t help anyone, especially the consumer who ends up paying more. Nate Smith, president of NuSkin Enterprises, put it this way, The distribution practices for pet medications cost consumers money. These practices inflate prices for pet medications and limit competition. They discourage the prescribing of generics, which would save consumers money. Many pet owners don t even realize that they have a choice about where to purchase pet medications. Vets often include the medications on the bill, and in some states such as Texas, vets are not required to give pet owners written prescriptions. If you have any doubts, the thing to do is ask questions. Under the current system, certain drugs can only be distributed by your vet, but you won t necessarily know that unless you ask. When my dog became ill, I needed to fill his prescription at a formulary pharmacy where they custom-made his medication. The first time I filled the prescription it was for 30 pills which cost $60. He needed three pills a day, so at $2 per pill, his medicine cost me $6 a day. Once it was clear that the medication was effective for him, I refilled it with a larger order of 90 pills. This time, I paid $90 or $1 per pill. I cut my cost in half simply by purchasing more pills at a time. Again, the lesson here is to ask questions and especially ask what your options are. We all want to do the best we can for our pets, but doing your best doesn t have to mean spending the most