Online, 3rd party, pet pharmacies such as 1-800-Petmeds, Allivet, and many others, have become very popular over the recent years, and with good reason. They often are able to offer lower prices on many of the medications commonly prescribed by veterinarians, with the convenience of having it shipped directly to your home. It seems like a no-brainer that this would be a win-win >> after all, in most cases we fill our own prescription medications at pharmacies rather than our doctors’ offices, so why should it be any different for our pets?
It turns out the situation is not quite as straight-forward as it may seem. Most of the major pharmaceutical companies claim to not sell their products directly to these online pharmacy sources and that they cannot track their product. As such, they do not guarantee the product for its efficacy, expiration date or validity. They will guarantee safety, so long as it is not a counterfeit product. This does beg several questions:
Where are these drugs coming from, if not from the manufacturer? In some cases, they are coming from unscrupulous veterinarians who purchase a large quantity at cost and then sell it to an online pharmacy for resale to the customer. In other cases, counterfeit product is sold.
What happens if my pet experiences an adverse reaction, or the product is ineffective? When many brand-name prescription medications are purchased directly from your veterinarian the manufacturer stands behind the product, guaranteeing both its safety and its efficacy for the labeled indications. As such, if there is a product failure, or an adverse reaction, the veterinarian can contact the manufacturer to report the incident and often obtain some financial compensation for the client for necessary treatments or even diagnostic tests. However, when the product is purchased through a 3rd party online pharmacy avenue, the manufacturer does not support the product because they cannot guarantee that it the product has been labeled or handled correctly, or that it actually is their product.
Lets use heartworm prevention as an example. Heartworm disease can be very serious medically for the pet, but also very expensive to treat. If a pet has been on heartworm preventative diligently, and the veterinarian has records to indicate appropriate purchase intervals, the company will help to cover the cost of treatment. In our area of northern Virginia, heartworm disease is not especially endemic, but the intestinal parasites roundworms and hookworms both are, and both are on the label for treatment and prevention for many heartworm preventatives. We have, on more than one occasion, been able to report a treatment failure to the appropriate manufacturer and obtain compensation for treatment costs and follow-up testing for the client. Testing and follow up that may otherwise cost hundreds (sometimes thousands in the case of heartworm disease) of dollars.
Issues and complaints with online pet pharmacies have become frequent enough over recent years that the FDA has created a program called AWARE to educate pet owners about what to be on the look-out for when it comes to online pet pharmacies.
A - ASK your veterinarian
W - WATCH for red flags
A - Always check for site ACCREDITATION (the National Association of Board of Pharmacists has created a program to accredit veterinary pharmacies, called Veterinary-Verified Internet Pharmacy Practices Sites (Vet-VIPPS))
R - REPORT problems and suspicious pharmacies
E - EDUCATE yourself about online pet pharmacies - for more information visit http://www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary
Many veterinary clinics will not work with these 3rd party online pharmacies directly because of concerns regarding product safety & efficacy. That said, veterinarians are obligated to provide written prescriptions upon request so it is still possible to purchase a medication through a 3rd party online pharmacy using a written prescription, even if your pet’s veterinarian does not deal directly with them. In these instances, it is up to the owner to provide the pharmacy with the provided written prescription.
One final note: More and more veterinary hospitals are introducing their own online pharmacies that are associated with their hospital. These differ from many of the larger outside/3rd party online pharmacies in that there is the guarantee that the products are coming directly from the manufacturer or trusted distributor, and that applicable/brand name products will be backed by the manufacturer in the event of a treatment failure or efficacy issues. If you prefer the convenience of having your pet’s medications delivered directly to your door (and who doesn’t?!), we recommend asking your veterinarian if their hospital has an partnered online pharmacy.
For additional information regarding prescriptions and pharmacies in general - you can also visit the American Veterinary Medical Association’s information page on prescriptions and pharmacies by clicking here.
Image c/o Bullcitydogs on Flickr