Have you ever heard this term before? As in, not black, not white … but gray. Somewhere between the legal and illicit markets lies this amorphous zone of unease we call the "gray market."

Vets have become all-too familiar with this term since online pharmacies began taking "vet-only" product sales out of our hands. These are the "gray" products — the supposedly "vet-only" items that have somehow managed to end up in the hands of these online retailers.

Merial, Novartis and Pfizer won’t sell their Heartgard, Frontline and Revolution directly to the likes of 1-800-PetMeds. They don’t want to be seen by vets as the bad guys who help others take the retail business out of veterinary hands. So where are online pharmacies getting these products if the manufacturers claim they aren’t selling them to non-vets?

The gray market for these products exists when some vets sell their surplus products back to online pharmacies or when third-party companies in other countries (less regulated than we are here) do the same. It’s technically not illegal, since the vet-only pharmaceuticals don’t have the same regulations as human meds and products.

The Merials and Pfizers of this world decry the gray market that allows these products to get re-routed to a third party retailer like PetMeds. And to show us how much they dislike this practice they stand up for their vets by refusing to stand by their products when sold through third parties.

But think about it: Isn’t it convenient for Pfizer to sell Revolution in a wider marketplace while shirking any legal responsibility for its safety or efficacy once it hits the gray market? It’s more profitable. It keeps vets happy. And so it’s brilliant!

Just because I’m critical of some of the industry's machinations doesn’t mean I wouldn’t buy from companies like this. In fact, I’ve ordered from PetMeds and I respect the science behind Pfizer’s products. What I object to is the marketing strategy shell-game that goes on behind the products that keep our pets healthy. The hypocrisy is not just odious on principle, its opacity hurts everyone but the big guys who know how to play the Goldilocks game — that is, they’ve got their moves down ... just right.

In the course of my four-year blogging career, I've had ample opportunity to research this. I started on this path of investigation when I heard that some veterinarians won't write prescriptions for pet-only drugs if the retailers and manufacturers won’t stand by them. They claim (although there’s no precedent for this) that this scenario makes them liable for any issues a client might have with these pharmaceuticals. So they won’t write scripts. Period.

Under these conditions I can understand a vet who says "no" to vet-only drugs — but antibiotics? Thyroid meds? Vitamins?? There’s no excuse for denying a non vet-only script according to Federal law. That seems pretty clear.

But now that I’ve heard the argument against gray market scripts I’ve got to wonder: Am I liable for my indiscriminate scripting of vet-only meds? Do I need to inform my clients before scripting? Should I include a caveat on all these scripts? What’s my legal position here? Does the Federal law protect us if we script out gray market vet-only meds? Are we breaking the law if we don’t?

I wouldn’t be so concerned for my own scripting except I’ve heard confirmed reports of PetMeds and others sourcing their products from overseas. I’ve heard tell of expiration date counterfeiting and expired product sales. It’s enough to make any legally nervous vet a nervous wreck. What if I’m hurting my patients with these drugs? What if some of the "flea and tick resistance" I’m seeing is because my clients are using expired or counterfeit drugs? How would I know?

I know that sounds alarmist but this is a relatively new concept for me. I don’t know what the answer is but I do know that vets are between a rock and a hard place on this one, convenient though that may seem to the yellow-eyed among us.

 Dr. Patty Khuly