Vet Talk

Internet Pharmacies: Reaping What They Have Sown

Internet pharmacies have a downside as well as potential for saving money

January 21, 2013 (published)

Internet pharmacies and veterinarians have long been strange (some would say tortured) bedfellows. On the surface, it would seem like any outlet for medications would be welcome in these money- and convenience-conscious times. Internet pharmacies allow pet owners to shop around for the best price for their pet’s medications and potentially save big money on either routine maintenance medications, such as flea products or heartworm medication, or prescription items ranging from antibiotics to chemotherapy medications. But it’s not all amber waves of grain; Internet pharmacies have a downside as well as a potential for saving money.

In some cases, Internet pharmacies have come under fire for illegally supplying the public with medications without a valid prescription, or under other false pretenses. In other cases, the product sold was not the same as the one prescribed or was counterfeit.  I am not saying they are all imbued with malicious intent, but enough of them have shown a tendency towards questionable ethics that the emptor should definitely do some caveat-ing.

Recent proposed legislation, the Fairness to Pet Owners Act of 2011, which would require veterinarians to write a prescription so clients can buy it anywhere they want to – even though veterinarians will write a script for you if you ask for it. They might even have to write a script for clients who use the usual route of buying the meds during the office visit. The bill, which is still in committee, has added fuel to this fire. The rift between practicing veterinarians and Internet pharmacies grows deeper, a situation made more ironic because some of them are run by veterinarians. Some have been doing Internet and catalog-based business for many years; some veterinarians who have had their business undercut by this to such a degree are gun-shy about sending their clients and patients online for anything other than the most basic of items.

A little over a year ago another development in this controversy upped the dialog volume a few notches: the American Veterinary Medical Association, the trade group meant to encourage collegiality and conversation among veterinarians, ran a full-page ad for Drs. Foster & Smith in their scientific journal. For some veterinarians, this was like Michael Vick getting a full-page spread in the Humane Society’s flagship periodical.

It seems like now the Internet pharmacies are trying to make nice to the veterinary profession after years of chipping away at their livelihood, and, in some cases, harming their patients. Could it be that they sense a change in the prevailing winds and want to offer up a place for these same veterinarians to send clients when they are asking where to get their online prescriptions filled? It’s just my opinion, but working together all these years may have ensured a better response than the one they are getting right now.

So, what’s all the ruckus about? Why does one side care what the other is doing? And why should pet owners sit up and take note, especially when veterinarians will write a prescription for you if you ask?

For a lot of online purchases, where the product comes from matters not at all – if you get your dog a collar online, you are not likely to beat the quality, safety or price if you get the same item from the veterinarian you have been visiting for years. But medications are different. Picking up medications from the veterinarian who just prescribed them for your pet is different from getting them from an online source who knows nothing about your pet, and (in some cases) could be doing business illegally.

Veterinarians do potentially have more than one dog in this fight, it is true – not only do they want to make sure that your pet gets the right medication, they see a potential revenue stream being lost to online retailers and pharmacies like Wal-Mart that are positioning for a piece of the action too.

Additionally, revenue lost through decreased sales may show up in the form of higher fees for some other goods or services to keep the books in the black. But good veterinarians have always known the real source of revenue is between their ears, not packaged in wee bottles. Veterinarians have the knowledge and expertise to know which medication is right, when to give it, and the right dose. Veterinarians have the knowledge and expertise to know which medication is right, when is the right time to give it and the right dose. The online pharmacy is an informational dead-end. Every medication any veterinarian ever prescribes could be filled at an online or human pharmacy from now until the sky turns brown, and no one would ever be able to match the skill set of the veterinarian when it comes to protecting animal health (and through extension, the health of their human companions).

So look online or at retail outlets for things that don’t have a serious impact on your pet’s health, but if you trust your veterinarian and they mention that you should get certain medications from them, it’s time to listen. And if you do go online for drugs or pet products, get your veterinarian’s input on the best sources, to lessen the chance that you’ll do business with a shady operation. It is time to vet your pharmacy, and make sure that what you are getting is right for your pet as well as your budget.


Dr. Tony 
February 21, 2013

Thanks very much for the response - I didn't mean to imply that you need to check them all out. Vets are waaaaay to busy for that! I think you have done the legwork - you are giving them a pharmacy you trust and, in essence, saying 'this one is OK'. I think the onus should be on the pet owner, not the doctor, to make sure that they are not dealing with a shady operation, and by giving them an option that you approve of, you have saved them a lot of the trouble of looking.

Loretta Ehrlund, DVM
February 21, 2013

Well written article, but I take exception to the very last line. I simply do not have time to check out and know all of these various on line pharmacies to tell some one that this one is safe and this one is not. So instead, we stock some medications and we also use a single on-line store that our clients can shop. It is competive with the other on-lines. But for all the reasons given in the article, I will not fax a prescription into an online pharmacy. Instead, I will give the prescription to the client so they can do with it what they like. There is some risk, as pointed out, let the client take that or go with what we know to be true and can keep up with.

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