Yesterday’s telephone call from a major online pet pharmacy was totally unexpected. When I heard it was on the phone, I figured I’d get treated to a sales pitch. The last thing I expected was a contentious phone call over a request for “language clarification.”

It was the pet pharmacy’s in-house legal peeps, calling over last week’s USA Today column. Here’s the “objectionable” language:

“...[H]ere's something you may not know: Pet pharmacies are not regulated the same way human pharmacies are. If the FDA and the DEA have trouble keeping human pharmacies on the level, what do you think veterinary pharmacies get treated to?”

The “implication,” claimed the pharmacy’s pitbull (whose legal department status I had to extract), is that pet pharmacies are not licensed and not regulated.

“Hmmm...that’s a stretch,” I said. To be honest, I don’t believe anything I wrote could be misconstrued in that way except by those who work hard to identify “implications” and bully “clarifications” out of quivering columnists. “And why are you calling me and not my employer, anyway?”

After all, that’s the professional way to handle this kind of dispute. Contacting an inconsequential, “special to USA Today” columnist like me when they should be talking to my behemoth employer is a blatantly unethical, big-stick scare tactic.

I should know. This isn’t the first time I’ve been harassed by corporations looking for a quick, belly-up response.

That was my stressful end to a busy day.

But here’s the good news: As for all infuriating, corporate bully calls that come my way, there’s always a silver lining. Though I always have to suffer a prickly interaction I’d normally rather avoid, I do get to see some naked underbellies as I invoke the universal truism that a good offense is always the best defense. (Pushing buttons is always fun, right?)

In this case, here’s where I learned that this company (presumably like many others in its category) is nervous about its inability to receive a new certification for veterinary pharmacies called Vet-VIPPS. That’s when I did some digging.

Though I’d heard of Vet-VIPPS, I hadn’t fully explored it, thinking it just another one of the online pet pharmacy industry’s ineffectual tactics aimed at legitimizing itself in the eyes of consumers. However, it turns out that this kind of certification really does have some merit.

Pharmacies who apply have to prove they meet all the criteria for legitimate operation in accordance with the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (the foremost consumer-protection organization in the pharmacy industry). And it’s a long list. From the NABP website:

“In 2009, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy launched the Vet-VIPPS program to address a growing sector of Internet pharmacy; Vet-VIPPS will incorporate new criteria specific to veterinary pharmacies. The Vet-VIPPS program is an expansion of the Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites program, which was established in 1999 after a coalition of state and federal regulatory associations, professional associations, and consumer advocacy groups provided their expertise to develop criteria for accredited Internet pharmacies to follow.

Pharmacies displaying the Vet-VIPPS seal have demonstrated to NABP compliance with Vet-VIPPS criteria including patient rights to privacy, authentication and security of prescription orders, adherence to a recognized quality assurance policy, and provision of meaningful consultation between clients and pharmacists.”

According to one industry insider, at least a half dozen companies (presumably the big players licensed in all 50 states) have forked over the $8,000 required for certification since January of 2009 when certification became available. Yet when I scoured the internet last night I could only find one company listed as Vet-VIPPS certified. And it’s been accredited since April.

VetRxDirect.com is the lucky recipient of this rarefied classification. The 75 or so others in this category (mostly mom-and-pop players, but this includes the big guys, too) have either not yet made the grade, not had the funds to apply or not cared enough to seek certification.

Despite the poor showing among pet pharmacies, Vet-VIPPS certification is likely the wave of the future if some states have their way. In response to consumer complaints and the exhortations of veterinary safety advocates, the states of Virginia and Indiana are currently considering excluding all but Vet-VIPPS certified pharmacies from playing in their backyard.

The writing’s on the wall: Those who do not receive Vet-VIPPS certification may not be eligible for a pharmacy license in states that require it. So if you live in Virginia, you may no longer be able to get the best deal on the internet. But then, do you want it if the pharmacy offering you the best deal online can’t promise not to buy dugs from overseas, won’t disclose the names of their distributors or lapses in its responsibility to require a prescription from your veterinarian?

For the record, online pharmacies that work through veterinarians (like VetCentric and VetStreet) don’t fall under the NABP’s Vet-VIPPS program. They don’t require this kind of certification due to the veterinarian’s direct involvement (the distribution chain is well established and the veterinarian’s direct involvement basically makes this an extension of their own hospital’s pharmacy). For better or for worse, you might say.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that the days of widespread counterfeiting, gray markets, distribution obfuscation and diverted products are numbered. Sure, there will always be rogue pharmacies on the human and animal side, but here’s where a little regulation goes a long way towards weeding out the vast majority of the bad apples.

Because selling drugs without a license is something every consumer and every regulator understands.

So regulate them to the tune of the human pharmacies on the federal level, I say. And if you can’t, then force them to comply with states’ requirements for higher standards through a system like Vet-VIPPS.

Will it mean you pay more for your vet drugs? Maybe in the short term. Maybe not at all. Either way, I promise you that haggles over written scripts and other uncomfortable veterinarian/client interactions on the subject of drugs and products will fall by the wayside when online veterinary pharmacies rise to a standard we can all comfortably live with.

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Over on DailyVet, an impassioned reprisal of a post on the five lies pet shops tell.