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Billions of dollars at stake as pet medication controversy reaches FTC

On Oct. 5, the Federal Trade Commission held a daylong workshop to examine the ways pet medications are distributed in the U.S. and how the current practices affect consumer choice and price competition.

At particular issue was a bill currently before Congress known as H.R. 1406, Fairness to Pet Owners Act. If passed, the legislation will require veterinarians to provide a written prescription for all medications prescribed to the animals in their care.

Advocates for the mandate say it will increase consumer choice because it will allow pet owners to buy the medications wherever they want. Opponents raise safety concerns about having medications filled by someone other than the vet who knows the animal.

At the center of the debate sits a pile of money. Pet meds are big bucks, according to the FTC, which reports that American consumers spend roughly $7 billion per year on medications for their animals. Veterinarians are fighting to hold on to the lion’s share of that income, while pharmacists want to get at their piece of the pie by filling prescriptions for off-label human medications commonly given to pets. Pharmacists cannot dispense drugs without a written prescription.

Doug Aspros, DVM, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association, believes the new legislation is unnecessary because the majority of veterinarians already give a written prescription upon request.

“The AVMA asserts that 1406 will not achieve the intended goal of increasing competition and lowering the cost of pet medications,” he said.

“The AVMA’s Principles of Veterinary Medical Ethics encourages a veterinarian to honor a client’s request for the written prescription in lieu of dispensing when the decision is made to treat a patient with a particular prescription drug,” he added. “That is why the AVMA and its members are opposed to this bill and (are) sending the message to Congress that a federal prescription writing mandate is unnecessary.”

Although Aspros said the AVMA is supportive of a client’s right to choose where they have their prescriptions filled, he noted safety concerns.

“It should be noted that there would be no product information sheets/package inserts for human drugs being used in an extra-label fashion for animals,” he said. “And even with package inserts, pharmacists would not be able to speak to the idiosyncrasies of different animal species.”

Gordon Magee, Internet marketing and media manager for online pet supply and pharmacy company Drs. Foster & Smith, does not think the safety argument holds water.

Drs. Foster & Smith is one of 18 online pet pharmacies in the country with Vet-VIPPS (Veterinary-Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites) accreditation, said Magee, and it is owned and operated by veterinarians.

Magee also notes that Drs. Foster & Smith does provide product information sheets that are written by veterinarians. "More than that, we have dozens of information sheets, that we wrote, that are narrated on video by our veterinarians," he said.

“While we understand the vets’ position and we are supportive of that – the primary concern of vets is income,” said Magee. “But how does that help the consumer?”

“There is a huge demand that is already there for people who want to see prices come down,” he added. “We are very supportive of consumer choice and convenience.”

According to Magee, Drs. Foster & Smith does not believe the mandate is necessary. "What we do think is that it would be much better for vets to simply offer a prescription," he said. "That solves the mandate issue and also solves the issue of putting the client in an awkward situation of asking their vet for 'permission' to buy elsewhere..."

Darshan Kulkarni, a Pennsylvania-based pharmacist and attorney, thinks the high profit margins associated with pet meds are driving the responses from both sides.

“When you talk about pet meds, in most situations you don’t have insurance companies associated with them, which means you don’t have caps on the amount of money you can get paid, so pharmacies would want to get into that business,” he said. “On the other hand, this is obviously lucrative for a lot of veterinarians, so I can completely understand why veterinarians would not want to give up a revenue source.“

For his part, Kulkarni supports the mandate because he says the prescription constitutes a written record.

“I would be in favor of (requiring a written prescription) because it shows what was intended to happen and what actually happened,” he said. “If I were a pet owner, I would want a written record of what my vet believes is necessary.”

The FTC will accept comments on the proposed legislation until Nov. 1.

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