In just one week I’ve seen two separate incidents in which common veterinary products purchased online don't seem to be what they say they are. Both were ordered from large, well-established outlets and neither has yet been evaluated for its true contents. But they don’t look like the real thing.

What gave it away?

One box of Frontline. One box of Heartgard. On the outside, both looked identical to the stuff on my shelf. On the inside, however, the Heartgard’s characteristic chews were the wrong size. (The owner noticed immediately and brought it in for us to check before she administered any.)

The Frontline was another matter. The flea and tick-killing ampules looked the same, but the printed material adhered to the back of them was missing (that’s where a description of the weight and dose goes). This owner was simply distressed that the product wasn’t doing anything and asked if we might offer anything better.

In the other couple of instances of possible counterfeiting I’ve been directly on hand to verify, both also involved Frontline. One was purchased from a local feed store and another at a nearby, big-box pet retailer. The feed store situation was especially stressful given that the patient had suffered a reaction (this geriatric dog was depressed for a few days after the application).

Despite the possibility of a bad outcome and the opportunity to save other pets from the same, consumer reluctance has interfered with my ability to “work up” these cases. In fact, all my counterfeit Frontline clients have declined to do anything more than return the product and get their bucks back (even the one whose pet suffered a reaction!).

So it is that I can’t know whether these particular Frontline ampules really contained what they said they did...or did not. Nonetheless, you should know that instances of Frontline (and Advantage) counterfeiting have been numerous enough to warrant this EPA alert on counterfeit flea and tick products intended for sale through veterinarians. It’s clearly a big problem in the cutthroat pet product marketplace––more so as the products get pricier.

The Heartgard case is another matter altogether but I can’t comment on its specifics yet since we’re still investigating. In any case, it may turn out that this online-sourced Heartgard simply came from another manufacturing plant in another country. It may well contain the appropriate amount of ivermectin (the active ingredient). It’s probably perfectly safe. But would YOU chance it if you noticed a significant difference in the size of the chew? I don’t think so. And Heartgard’s manufacturer doesn’t want you to either...not until it gets a chance to check on it first. Good on them.

But now back to the Frontline and other flea and tick stuff...because that’s where the counterfeiting really ramps up and where corporate responsibility goes all murky on me.

Luckily, there IS one safer way to source your flea and tick supplies: buy it from me. OK, I don’t mean ME. But your best bet––safety-wise––is always to buy veterinarian-only products from reputable veterinarians. In fact, veterinarians are the only ones supposed to carry the stuff anyway. Did you know that?

By way of protecting our exclusive-distributor status (in return for our recommendation of their products), veterinarians are the only retail outlet many manufacturers will officially sell to.

So now you might ask, “How’s it that I can’t Google the word “dog” without getting 400 ads for Frontline? How do all these places get the stuff? Is it all counterfeit?”

Um...no. Let’s just say Frontline’s manufacturer has crafty ways of getting its products the wider distribution it believes the product deserves. (Other manufacturers do the same thing.) Some of their product is sold through third-party countries where distribution rules are more lax. Some is bought by US veterinarians in bulk then sold to your local PetCo (for example). And some, it’s alleged, is sold directly by the manufacturer through semi-veterinary intermediaries. Never mind that all these modes of circumvention (known as “diversion”) violate their own veterinary-exclusive policy and creates what we call a “gray” market for flea and tick products not intended for sale except by a veterinarian.

Whether you like the exclusive veterinary distribution idea or not (that’s another post’s topic)––and most of you won’t––some argue that this very system is what has created a market for counterfeit products.

By way of illustration, compare the vet-only distribution of non-prescription flea and tick products to how we more safely distribute most veterinary drugs. By virtue of individual veterinary provider, pharmacy regulations and FDA oversight, counterfeiting is not a commonplace occurrence for online-sourced Baytril and Comfortis, for example.

Because flea products are expensive at your veterinarian’s office, and because––according to the manufacturer at least––you can only buy them through vets, unregulated access to these flea and tick products has become a popular solution. In this scenario, the manufacturer doesn’t have to back up its product (because it’s not sold through a vet as they say it should be) and the oversight is especially lax.

Therefore, its argued, veterinarians have effectively created the counterfeiting mess we’re in with our high prices and demands on exclusive distribution of certain flea and tick products. Without our veterinarian-protecting free market interventions, we might all be safer, they say.

Though you won't catch me arguing me right to remain the exclusive distributor of these products, I will step up and defend veterinarians on this point: The veterinarian is not as responsible for the high price as you might think (why else are you only saving about 10%-20% online?). The veterinarian wasn't  the one who set up these exclusive distribution policies to begin with. Nor is the veterinarian their only [dubious] beneficiary.

Though these products are a counterfeiter’s easy target any way you slice it, I‘d argue that most of the problem was created––and is now perpetuated––by the manufacturers who market them.

Manufacturers CAN label traceable, counterfeit-thwarting packaging (they have the technology)...and they mostly don’t. Manufacturers CAN help prevent diversion...and they mostly don’t. Manufacturers CAN aggressively investigate/prosecute those outlets responsible for carrying counterfeit products...and they mostly don’t. Manufacturers CAN back up the products sold outside a veterinarian’s office...and they mostly don’t.

Why? Because as long as they pay simple lip-service to the problem of counterfeiting (which they can pointedly claim is being perpetrated by evildoers outside their control), continue to play-act under the umbrella-like sham that is their so-called veterinarian-only distribution, shirk responsibility for their diverted products, and vociferously cry foul when product safety-related problems hit the news...they’re off the hook.

More importantly, not only are they in the clear when the proverbial dog doo hits the fan...they’re in the black, too. Because they stand to make far more on these products when they’re available everywhere...in direct contradiction to their own policies.

Should you happen not to like their distribution policy? Blame the veterinarians for their protectionism. And when the EPA claims Frontline Plus’s high reaction rates are worthy of an advisory to help safeguard the public? Blame your wide distribution (yes, they did) and the presence of possibly unsafe counterfeits on the gray markets.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Frontline’s a great product. But plenty of veterinarians who happen to agree with me on this point refuse to stock it, nonetheless. After all, if you’re recommending a product with a high counterfeit potential, does it not stand to reason that your patients are at an increased risk should their owners buy it elsewhere? How can you recommend a product like that, they argue? And I can’t completely disagree.

So where do we go from here if, like me, you're not willing to discontinue the use of these products? If you're not always able to convince your client base that they might be better off buying from me or some other veterinarian?

Do we ban non-vet sales? Ain’t happening. Many manufacturers would rather cut off their veterinarians than cut off their non-vet gravy train at this point––and I don’t blame them.

To my mind, the solution is simple: Take out the exclusivity clause for the veterinary middleman and give the product its widest possible distribution. Force manufacturers to take responsibility for the safe distribution of their products in all channels. Give them an incentive to disarm counterfeiters. And to help me make sure my patients’ owners don’t have to choose between what’s safe and effective...and the cheapest they can get.