Don't automatically get pet medicines from the vet

Last reviewed: August 2011

If your pet is taking a medication that's also prescribed to humans, as is often the case, you might be able to have the prescription filled inexpensively at a chain drugstore, supermarket pharmacy, or big-box retailer. Walgreens, for example, allows customers to enroll their pets as family members in its Prescription Savings Club. Giant/Eagle, Kroger, and Target also have discount programs that are open to pets. At 35 of its pharmacies in Georgia, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Tennessee, Target is trying out a program called PetRx to fill prescriptions for veterinary medicines.

Drugstore discount programs usually offer generic medications for as little as $4 for 30 doses or $9 to $16 for 90 doses. Be sure to ask the pharmacist whether you need to split the pills or do anything else to achieve the right dosage for your pet.

About two-thirds of the pet owners we surveyed for this report said they buy their pet medicines from the vet who prescribes them. That's often a mistake because vets' markups over wholesale start at 100 percent and frequently hit 160 percent, plus a $5 to $15 dispensing fee, according to the American Animal Hospital Association's latest Veterinary Fee Reference.

For some medicines, the markups are even higher, according to a survey of wholesale prices compared with retail prices charged by 1,728 veterinarians, conducted in 2009 by LHK Partners, a market research firm. Examples include a 567 percent markup for the anti-inflammatory steroid prednisone, 800 percent for the pain reliever tramadol, and 1,019 percent for the antibiotic amoxicillin.

For one-time prescriptions, you might be willing to pay extra for the convenience of getting the drugs at your vet's office. You might not have a choice in an emergency. But especially for medications that you'll be buying repeatedly for a pet's chronic conditions, you should consider going elsewhere. Ask your vet to quote a price and give you a written prescription, then call around.

Another option is to shop at one of the Veterinary-Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites accredited by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. Eleven such sites currently exist, including 1-800-PetMeds, Drs. Foster & Smith, KV Vet Supply, and PetCareRX.

Think twice before you buy pet health insurance

If you're the kind of person who would do almost anything for your pets, insurance can seem like an attractive option. For monthly premiums of less than $10 to more than $90, the insurers promise to pay a portion of your pet's bills for medical and surgical treatment, and depending on the policy, some other types of care. You pay the vet up front, file a claim, and wait for reimbursement.

Pet insurers' websites feature customer testimonials and examples such as $8,200 reimbursements for a dog's leg surgery after a fall and $2,300 for a cat's liver ailment. But the small-print caveats often make those policies less generous than they appear. For example, the coverage won't pay for an animal's pre-existing conditions. And unlike many health-insurance policies for humans, a basic pet plan won't cover checkups.

We analyzed policies marketed by insurers representing roughly 90 percent of the pet-insurance market. None would have reimbursed more than the premiums they charged for a basically healthy dog over a 10-year life span. When we added several hypothetical chronic conditions, some of the policies had positive payouts. (See Pet insurance: Rarely worth the price, in our analysis.) Only when we looked at extreme and uncommon situations involving two very sick cats did all the policies pay out more than we would have paid in.

For most people we think it makes more sense simply to budget for routine care and put a few hundred dollars each year for more serious health problems into your household emergency fund. That way, you—not the insurer—get to keep that money in the years you don't use it.