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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

My Lesson in the High Cost of Drugs for Pets


Recently, my husband and I caved to relentless pressure from our children and adopted a dog from the local animal shelter. A probable schnauzer cross, she is a delightful pet - cute, loyal and not too rambunctious - most of the time, anyway.

What she isn't, though, is cheap.

Yes, we saved money by adopting a shelter mutt instead of a pedigreed dog. But pet health care has evolved since my childhood, when I last owned a dog. I recently learned that drugs for dogs can cost as much as drugs for people. In 2011, about two-thirds of American households owned a pet, and Americans spent nearly $7 billion for prescription and over-the-counter pet medications, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

I've now added my bit to the total for this year. When our adopted pet's regular flea medication wasn't doing the trick, our veterinarian recommended a new combination drug, called Trifexis, that dogs can take once a month both to kill fleas and prevent heartworms, a deadly canine scourge.

I happily took home a single dose to try. She seemed to tolerate it - that is, she didn't barf it up immediately after she gobbled it down. So I went to a local pet store to buy a longer-term supply. I was told the store didn't carry it. Nor did a local veterinary supply outlet. So I returned to the vet to buy it, and was taken aback when I learned a six-month supply was $115, or $19 per pill. (A long-acting collar to ward off ticks was another $45.) I paid the bill, shaking my head about the surprisingly high cost of dog ownership while wondering how a drug for a pet could rival the cost of prescriptions for people.

That's just the question being co nsidered by the Federal Trade Commission, which last week held a workshop on pet medications and is soliciting comments from veterinarians, consumers and others about the state of the animal drug industry. Unlike human drugs that are primarily sold through pharmacies, many pet medications are sold by the veterinarians who prescribe them. And some drug manufacturers allow their wares to be distributed only by vets.

This has led to concern that consumers are paying unnecessarily high prices for some medications. There is a bill pending in Congress (H.R. 1406, the Fairness to Pet Owners Act) that would require veterinarians to write prescriptions for all pet drugs, so owners can take them elsewhere and shop around for better prices if they want.

Numerous veterinary groups submitted testimony arguing that the proposed House bill is unnecessary and adds extra cost to veterinarians' practices. They say most states require veterinarians to write prescriptions upon reque st anyway, and most do regardless of the law, based on the profession's ethics. If the drug is needed right away, buying it from the veterinarian - who knows the animal and can safeguard the quality of the drug - is the best option, they say. (It appears unlikely the bill will be acted on this year, but it may be reintroduced next year, according to a spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Association, which opposes the measure as “redundant.”)

The F.T.C. has already received reams of comments on the issue, and is accepting consumer submissions until Nov. 1.

I could have paid a bit less, it appears, by buying my drugs online from 1-800-PetMeds, which sold a six-month supply of Trifexis for $99.74 and offered free shipping. A prescription from the veterinarian is required. (My dog's pills did come with a $20 mail-in rebate. And the drug is quite effective, at least - no fleas to be seen.)

Do you buy medication for your pets? How do you save money?