Online Pharmacies - Fraud or Fantastic Deal?

When your pet gets sick, or has a common concern such as fleas, naturally you want to get whatever medication your vet recommends.  But when your vet’s Frontline costs $50 and you find it on an online drug seller site for $24.99 . . .  it’s too good to pass up, right?

Think again.  There are numerous pitfalls with ordering online, some of which may not be obvious.  If medicine isn’t shipped properly (for instance, if allowed to get too hot or too cold) it may be rendered ineffective.  You might get lucky, and the Sentinel you receive will be the real thing, but what happens if the medicine you get is a fake?  You’re taking your chances in giving it to your pet.  Imposters may be primarily water or other non-harmful ingredients, but can also be something toxic you don’t want anywhere near your pet.

Remember the deaths in 2007 from contaminated pet foods?  The culprit in those deaths was melamine contamination, which caused kidney failure.  While some medications may not obviously be fake (marked by differences or irregularities in packaging), it may be apparent they were made in or shipped from an unregulated foreign country — which means you just can’t be sure what you’re getting.  Even drugs from our friendly neighbor to the north, Canada, are not approved for use in the U.S.  In fact, it’s illegal to get drugs for humans or animals from Canada.

One of the most respected online retailers of pet meds is Doctors Foster and Smith, and there’s a reason for that.  Gordon Magee, head of the company’s Internet marketing and media, says it’s important that people question who they are buying from and what they are getting.

“The No. 1 thing to look for is have they gone through an accreditation process,” he says.  Drs. Foster and Smith is accredited through the Vet-VIPPS program, or Veterinary-Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites.  The program was developed in response to this very concern, and accredited sites meet stringent requirements, including having a licensed pharmacist on staff and passing an on-site inspection.

Despite the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of websites selling pet prescription and non-prescription meds, only EIGHT are accredited by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, which administers the Vet-VIPPS program. 

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Magee says that seeing that oval Vet-VIPPS shield on a site is “the gold standard” assuring the site is trustworthy.  Drs. Foster and Smith is also an accredited compounding pharmacy, certified by the Pharmacy Compounding Accreditation Board.  A compounding pharmacy can formulate a veterinarian’s prescription for a special dosage of medicine or flavor that may not be commercially available. 

“If the certification seals don’t exist then you shouldn’t order from them,” says Magee.  “Everything else — good customer service, price — will be somewhat irrelevant.  They may be in the process of getting certified, but without that accreditation you don’t know for sure.  It’s the only way you can know they’ve jumped through all the hoops.”

Stephanie Land has used the website to purchase medicine for her horses, but the site sells dog and cat meds too.  She uses the site to save money, and likes their customer service and flat-rate shipping, and she trusts the products she receives.  “The website has an ingredient comparison chart,” Land notes, “so if they sell a generic version of a certain medication, you can compare its ingredients in an easy-to-read chart.”  Land discovered the site as a sponsor of equine events; as it happens, is one of the eight Vet-VIPPS-accredited sites, so Land can order with confidence.

Jim Thrift is vice president of regulatory policy and corporate relations for the Agricultural Retailers Association in Washington, D.C.  His field is crop science and biotechnology, but much of what lobbyists do crosses industry barriers.  Thrift says that when a vet prescribes $20 heartworm pills, it’s not really a problem when you have just one cow.  But when you have a feedlot with 40,000 cows, owners are frantic for the cheapest option.  “There are no laws that push you to purchase your meds through the vet,” says Thrift.  “He or she has to write a prescription but you can shop for it anywhere you want to.  But, you are now diminishing the income of the actual vet, whether it’s small or large animals.  If you’re doing that, you have to ask yourself, does it adjust the thinking of the vet?  In other words, does it cause a ripple effect of unintended consequences?  Does it raise vet bills? Does it change what the vet will recommend next time?”

Thrift sees the phenomenon of online pharmacies as moving pet health care away from a relationship based on professional guidance to one based on price.  “In the long term, yes, you may be saving money; and some things might be simple like a flea collar,” he says.  “But with heartworm applications, maybe you need a lot more professional advice about how to use it.  How many people are going to read the label?  You may be becoming your own vet.”

Whenever there’s a cost savings there will also typically be less information or professional assistance, Thrift asserts.  Online pharmacies are often cheaper because they buy medication in much larger quantities than most neighborhood vets can, but, “Is it worth giving up what you’re giving up to get the lower price?” Thrift asks.

Not all vet practices are created equally.  Some do have relationships with drug manufacturers, and they have a vested interest in pushing a certain brand or setting a certain price.  You can fight back against expensive medications by calling around and price checking with other vets’ offices.  Also, ask your vet if they trust a particular online pharmacy.

The more you know, the better for you and your pets.  The American Veterinary Medical Association’s website lists resources on drugs and medications, including FAQs about prescriptions and pharmacies, the use of alternatives (generics), and its policy on Internet pharmacies.

Just like when dealing with matters of human health and wellness:  knowledge is power, so do your homework.


American Veterinary Medical Association

Prescription and Pharmacy FAQs

Doctors Foster and Smith


National Association of Boards of Pharmacy

Vet-VIPPS accredited sites


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Vanessa Salvia lives with her two kids, one very sweet, fluffy cat (named Fluffy), and a husband (also very sweet), in Eugene, Oregon. When not clickety-clacking on a computer, you can find her browsing the farmers markets or feeding ducks from her patio. A freelance writer for more than 10 years, Vanessa has written extensively about music and entertainment in the Northwest. As mom, wife and companion to countless animals over the years, she has vacuumed more than her share of pet fur.