A vet can learn a lot from her clients. All she has to do is ask the right questions. In this case it’s about saving money—this time on your pharmacy bill. In this post my clients pony up on how they save big $ on their Rx’s. So if you spend any money on pet prescriptions you’ll definitely want to read this.

Most of what I have to say won’t make most vet hospitals happy (so you know, the following recommendations cut into my income, too) but everyone deserves to know what their economic options are, right?

Here’s some background on this:

Though it’s still not commonplace for veterinarians to accept the inevitable—i.e., the eventual loss of our in-house pharmacies—this protectionist veterinary worldview is changing. As I’ve explained on Dolittler before, at some point vets will have to realize that making money off drugs and products is not at the core of their business. Like your family doctor, they’ll send you elsewhere to have your scripts filled.

Pet owners, for their part, have spearheaded this veterinarian-circumventing movement by looking outside the vet hospital for savings on expensive medications and so-called, “vet-only” products. But the vet industry still has a long way to go before it meets your cost-saving needs. 

In the meantime, it seems the downturn in the economy is accelerating this trend (if our hospital is any guide). Owners need more for less. That’s why human pharmacies and online pet drug outlets are fighting each other tooth and nail for your pet-dedicated dollars.

With that news in mind, here are a few ways to save on your pet’s pharmacy bills:

1-Prescription programs

I don’t normally go out of my way to praise a place that makes me cringe when I walk inside, but here’s an exception: Walgreens Prescription Savings Club, for $20 a year per pet ($35 for the whole family, including all pets), offers 400 different generic drugs at $12 for a 90-day supply. And many others at a sizable discount.

Sure, each drug has limits on how many pills (or ounces) constitute such a stash, but if your pet’s on levothyroxine (Soloxine), methimazole (Tapazole) or fluoxetine (Prozac), for example, you should save BIG. The plan also offers discounts on other non-generics so check it out. (Thanks for Christie Keith over at PetConnection for bringing this plan’s personal benefits to my attention.)

2-Four-buck antibiotics (and other drugs)

Yes, it’s true. You can get antibiotics and other drugs for $4 at many pharmacies (Wal-Mart, Kroger, Publix, etc.). I know that it can be a tremendous bit of convenience to get your one-time-only drugs at the vet, but you might want to re-think that if the hospital’s markup means your big dog’s cephalexin comes to $60 at the vet’s. Lots of other drugs qualify, too, depending on the store.

In fact, here’s a find: Wal-Mart sells meloxicam (can you say Metacam?) at $4 for a 30-day supply of 7.5 mg tablets. Sure, the tablets aren’t scored, so for safety’s sake this only works if your arthritic dog weighs 150 pounds. But what a boon for the huge dog owners to know about this! The veterinary equivalent would be unthinkably expensive in this case except for the most price-insensitive pet owners among us.

(OK, I hate Wal-Mart and Wal-Martification but how can you say no to $4 generic Metacam when you’re spending $150 on Rimadyl every month?)

3-Online pharmacies

Online drugstores are another possibility for price-shoppers. If veterinary-specific drugs are what you seek, this is perhaps the best way to find them at the best prices (sorry, no animal-only drugs on the prescription plans mentioned above). But beware—some sites are NOT what you think they are. A big red flag? The “no prescription needed” websites. Please stay away from these. Stick to outlets with a reputation to protect.

4-Ask about alternative drugs and generics

Let’s say your pet takes Baytril (an expensive pet-only antibiotic) for seven consecutive days a month as prescribed by his dermatologist. Will ciprofloxacin do? In many cases, the answer will be “yes.” This drug is available on most of the plans I researched above.

How about the Reconcile she takes for her severe separation anxiety? It’s fluoxetine (in case you hadn’t ever read the side of the bottle), aka Prozac. And it’s on all the lists, too.

Don’t be shy. Though you know that in many cases your vet would rather you not ask, it’s my view that vets have a duty to provide “value” wherever they can. If doing so means they have to write you a prescription (as they are required to do by law if you ask for one) I think that only serves to strengthen your relationship to their practice, right?

5-“Vet-only” products

Here’s where things get murky—“gray,” to be exact. Many “vet-only” products like flea and tick meds are available elsewhere for less. “Elsewhere” may mean the local Petco or PetSmart or your corner pet store. It may also mean an online outlet or the local feed store. The problem is that way too many counterfeit versions of these products are making the rounds of these places (I know ‘cause I’ve seen them). That’s because only vets are supposed to carry them.

Whether you agree with the vet-only distribution of these products or not (and I don’t necessarily), the upshot is that the manufacturers won’t stand by a product sold by a non-vet establishment. But you can still save money if you shop around at different vet hospitals (I can’t believe I’m saying this) or buy them through your vet’s online VetCentric “VetStore” (yet another slightly murky issue).

6-Buying in “bulk”

I recently saved a client $360 a year when I asked the compounding pharmacy I use (RoadRunner) what the price differential was on a one-month vs. three-month supply of liquid cisapride for her cat. The answer? Zero. It’s the same price. Her $45 a month Rx is now $45 for a three-month supply. How’s that for savings?

The same kind of savings is typically possible with bulk versions of levothyroxine and other generics. Ask your vet how many pills/ounces she’ll authorize at one time and shop around.

7-Go ahead…ask your vet for a better price

OK, so your vet will almost surely look at you askance but it might just work—especially if you have a great relationship with your vet and he understands how much you’re struggling.

This works best if you buy in larger quantities and you’re a fabulous client in every other way. And wouldn’t you just LOVE your vet forever if he came right out and offered? This is a great loyalty-building trick I like to use: “I’m not supposed to do this but…” Works every time.

8-Split your pills

OK so this only works if tablets are scored. I would be very cautious otherwise. But if you ask your vet for a bigger scored pill or a stronger concentration this can really work out in your favor. For some drugs it’ll cut your costs smack in half.

Much more cautiously, I’ll submit one other HUGE cost savings option. When I do TNR work I apply Revolution (a flea and parasite medication) to my patients. I love Revolution for cats. It’s among my favorite products ever. But it’s really pricey, so I buy the dog size and break up the vial, carefully measuring out multiple doses for my ferals.

For owned and adored cats? I’d never risk messing up on the dose (the concentrations are different in the cat and dog versions so it’s tricky). But for my ferals? Gotta save wherever I can.

9-Consider large animal versions

This is a rural trick that works nicely for me in some select cases. For example, ivermectin for generalized demodex cases (red mange) when my clients can’t afford the more expensive milbemycin (Interceptor) tablets. I’ll also recommend equine glucosamine for bigger dogs. The Cosequin brand works well sprinkled on the food—and it’s MUCH cheaper. (Just keep the excess stored in the fridge, please.)

10-Your suggestions…?

OK so that’s all I’ve got. Now it's your turn to pony up your finds...

PS: Here’s a big disclaimer offered to me by my very cautious vet surgeon consultant: Though every vet is required by law to provide you with a prescription for a drug should you wish to purchase it elsewhere, there’s a catch when it comes to substitutes for veterinary-only preparations of drugs which may be deemed “off label.”

If there is an FDA approved veterinary drug available for your pet’s condition, veterinarians receive greater protections when prescribing labeled versions—because they have received FDA approval and have been deemed safe and effective for this specific condition in your pet’s specific species.

In other words, if a vet chooses not to write you a script for fluoxetine (Prozac) but rather one for Reconcile (the vet version), it may be because he/she is concerned about the liability of prescribing a technically “off label” version.

Do I think that’s all about marketing and not really a substantive argument? I do in the case of fluoxetine. But that’s not always true for some other drugs (Atopica and cyclosporine generics, for example). Keep it in mind.