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Why Do Pet Drugs and Medicine Cost So Much?


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Having a pet involves so much joy and fun, but as one of the characters on the popular TV show Clifford, the Big Red Dog said, having a pet is a big responsibility. One of those responsibilities involves paying for all of your pet’s expenses, such as healthy food, grooming supplies, veterinary care, and drugs or medicine when needed. These medicines can be surprisingly expensive, and you may wonder why. Numerous factors contribute to the costs being so high.

Off-Label Prescribing Requirements’ Effect on Price

Off-label prescribing, also known as extra-label prescribing, occurs when a veterinarian prescribes a medication for your pet although that drug was not manufactured for that specific symptom or disease, and the FDA hasn’t approved that drug to be prescribed for that health issue. It also happens when a veterinarian prescribes a medication for a species that is not mentioned on the drug’s label, such as when the label specifies that the drug is for humans and it is instead prescribed for a dog or cat.

Some drugs are intended to be prescribed for one symptom or disease, at a specific dose, and according to a certain timetable. If the veterinarian prescribes it for anything other than that, that would also be off-label prescribing.

Veterinarians sometimes decide to practice off-label prescribing for a pet’s medication that would be less expensive than another medication may be. Some of these medications were actually manufactured and intended for human use but can be safe and effective to prescribe and give to pets. Meanwhile other types of medications designed specifically for pets are often much more expensive.

Here are a few examples of off-label prescribing:

  • A veterinarian prescribes a medication that is intended to prevent parasites to instead treat parasites in a pet’s ears.
  • A veterinarian prescribes a generic medication that’s intended to treat depression in humans for a dog that is experiencing anxiety because he’s at home alone or hearing thunderstorms and fireworks.
  • There’s a medication that’s designed to treat a particular symptom in dogs, and a veterinarian prescribes it for the same or a similar symptom in a cat.

Under FDA requirements, it’s only acceptable to prescribe a medication off-label when there is no other medication available that can accomplish the same result and when using that medication complies with the standard of care policies. These requirements can cause a veterinarian to have no choice but to prescribe a more expensive medication.

Medicine Designed and Sold Specifically for Pets

There are medicines that are manufactured and sold specifically for certain species of animals, but they may be quite a bit higher in price than their human counterparts. For example, there may be a prescription drug that was created for use in humans and that over the years became available in a generic form that’s much cheaper. A drug manufacturer could create a similar drug specifically intended for dogs. The end result is a medication that is significantly more expensive than, for example, using a generic medication that’s designed for humans or an off-label prescription that accomplishes the same effect in the pet.

But once that medication is available in a product that’s specifically designed for a species of animal, a veterinarian is no longer allowed to prescribe the human generic drug or the off-label drug, because those two options are only permitted when there’s no other drug available for that species of animal. These circumstances contribute to rising prices for pet medications.

Example Scenario: Lower vs. Higher Price

For example, a dog may have anxiety, and the veterinarian had been prescribing the generic form of an antidepressant medication that’s manufactured for humans. If a drug manufacturer introduces to the market a medication that’s specifically designed to be prescribed for anxiety in dogs, the veterinarian is no longer permitted to prescribe the generic form of the drug that was originally intended for human use.

The human generic drug and the new dog drug may be identical to one another or just as effective and safe as each other, but the veterinarian would not be permitted to prescribe the generic one anymore. Meanwhile, the human generic drug may have been significantly less expensive than the new dog drug. This is an example of a scenario that causes pet drugs and medications to be expensive.

Drug Development Process

It’s very expensive for a drug manufacturer to go through the process of getting a drug approved and available to sell for animal species. The manufacturer may speculate that they won’t make much money from a drug, and perhaps not enough to justify going through the expensive and complex drug approval process. If they do think they’ll make enough money, they may go ahead and develop the drug. But once they’ve gone through the expense of developing a new drug, they want to recoup those costs. The price of a medication may factor that in. That can contribute to drug costs being quite high.

Tips for Saving Money on Pet Medications

Although pet drugs and medicine can be expensive, you can take certain steps to avoid those high prices. By working to prevent illnesses and conditions from occurring in the first place, your pet may not need some medications at all or perhaps will do fine on a lower dosage of a medication. A healthy lifestyle, which includes quality nutrition and exercise, can go a long way toward helping with prevention.

Another way to save money, or, at least, be better able to come up with the money to afford pet medications, is to get a credit line for pet health expenses. Also, make sure you are maximizing any discounts and pet insurance benefits that might be available to you. Some retail stores and online pharmacies may offer better prices than what you might have to pay at the veterinarian’s office. Just make sure you only purchase your pet’s medications from reputable sellers.

If you’re having a challenging time affording your pet’s medication as a result of elevated drug prices, speak with your veterinarian or someone else who works in their office. They may be able to work something out so you can make it possible to afford what your pet needs. Despite rising medication prices, there are still ways to work around these challenges and keep your beloved pet healthy and strong. That’s definitely worth all the effort you put into it.

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