Animals & Money: Online pet pharmacies cut into vet mark-up

This year Americans will spend $43 billion on their pets, including $10 billion on over the counter supplies and drugs and another $10 billion on vet care (which usually includes prescription drugs).

Every year we spend more and more on dogs and cats, but there's one area we can save some money: prescription drugs. Right now you probably just get your pet's drugs from your vet. You may be surprised to see how they are marking up the drug prices and how much you can save by going to a legitimate online pet pharmacy.

I found this out when my vet said my dog Jolly needed an iron supplement he would order. I waited days for him to get the $40 bottle in. Then I found it online for $10, no prescription needed.

Some old-fashioned vets don't have a huge mark-up on prescriptions or even prefer writing prescriptions to stocking medicines. But for many cash-strapped vets it's a big way to make money. That may seem like a conflict of interest -- and it's why people doctors can't sell prescriptions.

Just last month the vet business journal Veterinary Economics had a story "Six Tips to Rev Up Refills and Revenues." They've consistently advised vets to have a big markup on prescriptions and to charge a dispensing fee. They advise a minimum dispensing fee of about $20 and then at least doubling the actual cost of the drug. Vet consultants generally recommend that the rarer the drug, the bigger the markup.

In vets' defense, many use the high price on medications to make up for the low prices they offer on other services, which can run the gamut from low-cost spay and neuter to free nail clippings to discounts for people treating strays.

"My vet told me not to trust the online places because you can never guarantee what it's supposed to be," says my friend Christina.

The worst I've heard about these companies is that they re-import the drugs sold in Australia or Europe. Pet drug makers have a tight relationship with vets, so some won't sell to the online stores.

The biggest player is 1800PetMeds, which I've used and had no problem with. I've also used KV Vet Supply, which has a huge selection of supplements. My favorite is the largest online pet catalog in the United States, Doctors Foster and Smith. They're becoming a major player in online pet drugs. Two Wisconsin veterinarians, Dr. Rory Foster and Dr. Marty Smith, founded the company in 1983. I talked to them and they explained that a human pharmacist dispenses drugs and follows all the rules that human pharmacies do: he accepts calls or faxes from the vet or an original prescription, but no copies or faxes from the owner.

For vets, online pharmacies are bad news: not necessarily because they're dangerous but because they threaten what used to be a safe revenue stream. For pet owners, they offer cheaper prices. And even if a pet owner doesn't use them, they put pressure on prices everywhere.

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