A few weeks ago, I blogged about going into sticker shock at the drugstore after my pharmacist told me that my foot-pain medicine would run me $322.95. I’ve also had another type of medication sticker shock — at the veterinarian’s office: $43 for an 8-ounce ear-cleaning solution for my labradoodle, Bailey, plus $5 per pill to fight a stomach infection.
At least half my vet bill often goes for Bailey’s drugs — to treat his chronic ear infections, recurring stomach issues and now, his fluid-filled lungs. I invariably leave the vet’s office shaking my head, wondering whether I should own pet insurance — the subject of another one of my blogs — and why pet medications are so expensive. (I have some tips, below, on how to lower your costs.)
Government Is Studying Pet Medications
Turns out, the government has been wondering, too.
The Federal Trade Commission is holding a daylong workshop today to explore how pet medications are sold in the United States — to the tune of $7 billion — and whether there are ways to bring costs down for pet owners.
FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz’s interest was piqued by his experience caring for Tank, a 3-year-old half miniature poodle, half Portugese water dog. “Occasionally, the dog requires medicines that seem extraordinarily expensive in relation to the same medicines for humans,” Leibovitz said in an interview before the workshop.
The cost of pet medications has been rising lately for several reasons.
For one thing, there are more new and improved diagnostic and therapeutic treatments. For another, there’s an increased emphasis on preventative care, especially to control ticks, fleas and heartworm in dogs and cats. (Sales of prescription and over-the-counter flea, tick and heartworm products make up more than half of all pet med expenditures.)
Buying at the Vet
Then there’s the vet-heavy distribution system of these drugs. Although many popular pet medications are available at retail outlets, including drugstores, online pharmacies and chains like Costco and Target, two-thirds of pet owners still purchase them at their vets, according to Consumer Reports.
“That’s a mistake,” the magazine wrote in its August 2011 issue, “because vets’ markups over wholesale start at 100 percent and frequently hit 160 percent, plus a $5 to $15 dispensing fee.”
Indeed, the FTC says some evidence suggests that retailers "may offer substantial pro-consumer benefits, such as increased convenience and lower prices.”
The chief reason so many people don’t buy the medications for less elsewhere, experts say, is convenience, especially if a pet is sick and needs medicine quickly. I’m one of those people. Had I not been in a rush to buy Bailey’s ear-cleaning solution, I could have saved about $30 by buying it online at the 1-800-PetMeds site.
But many pet owners are simply unaware that they don’t have to buy the medications from the vet who prescribed them.
Is Federal Legislation Needed?
The FTC is looking into whether there’s a need for federal legislation requiring veterinarians to tell pet owners that they have the right to ask for written prescriptions and fill them at the pharmacy of their choice. Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) has introduced such legislation, called the Fairness to Pet Owners Act, supported by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Not surprisingly, vets have mounted a full-court offensive against a federal mandate, calling it unwarranted. “We are not aware of consumers widely being denied their requests for prescriptions,” the American Veterinary Medical Association said in its filing to the FTC. “A veterinarian who denies such a request risks alienating clients and harming his or her practice.”
The vets’ group also argues that its doctors are the most appropriate dispensers of medication. Treatment can begin without delays that could jeopardize a pet’s health, the association says, and retail pharmacists could provide incorrect counseling, wrong dosages or unauthorized drug substitutions because they’re not required to be trained in animal pharmacology.
5 Ways to Save on Pet Medications
If you’d like to save money on your pet’s medications, try these five tips:
1. Be sure your vet is willing to write a prescription that will let you buy medication elsewhere, if you want. If not, consider finding another vet.
2. If your pet needs a medication for preventive care or for a long-term chronic condition, ask the vet for a prescription you can fill at a less expensive outlet. The vet may even suggest where to go for lower prices.
3. Ask the vet whether there’s a less-expensive, human drug equivalent. That’s what journalist Maryann Mott did after her vet prescribed a pricey animal-only antibiotic. “When I balked at the cost, she wrote a script for Cephalexin, a human generic, that I purchased elsewhere," Mott wrote on petside.com. "The savings? $52.”
4. If the drug is also used to treat humans, shop around. Call local drugstores or visit their websites to compare prices. Also check the cost at online pet pharmacies, such as 1-800-PetMeds, Drs. Foster & Smith and PetCareRX. Don’t overlook the discount drug card programs offered by many retailers, as well as such sites as Needymeds.org, AAA and AARP. Many of these programs cover veterinary drugs as well as human medications.
5. If you buy online, order from one of the 18 sites that belong to Vet-VIPPS accredited pharmacies. Vet-VIPPS stands for Veterinary-Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites, a program run by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. These sites comply with federal and state licensing requirements and quality assurance.
By the way, if you want to make your voice heard on pet medications, email your views and concerns to the FTC by Nov. 1. You just might help yourself, and other pet owners, save a few bucks.