Shop Smart Online! It's Cheaper and Easier... But Not Always Safer

Dr. Patty Khuly

If you’re a typical US pet owner, chances are good that you’ve made one or more online purchases on behalf of your pets. Which only makes sense. It’s not only cheaper, easier, and more convenient, it’s kind of fun to shop for stuff on the internet.

Unfortunately, chances are also pretty good that your veterinarian isn’t too happy about your online antics.

Let me explain: Ever since animal-only pharmacies took the web by storm a decade or two ago, the majority of small animal veterinarians have been up in arms over the expanding role of Dr. Google, online pharmacies, and pet supply outfits in general. Here’s why:

  • As anyone who’s ever researched anything online surely knows, Dr. Google isn’t always so reliable. As for everything else, there’s a smattering of great information mixed into a whole slew of downright wrongheaded advice.
  • Counterfeit and diverted (“gray market”) drugs and products make a mockery of things like expiration dates and other FDA regulations. Though they’re the exception, these items are common enough to give us pause.
    Indeed, human-oriented Internet pharmacies have long been regarded by the FDA as a major source of concern. The free flow of drugs may mean better prices for consumers, but they also mean more opportunities for scoundrels, scumbags, and bottom feeders running unlicensed shops peddling fake drugs and homemade compounds.
  • Online pharmacies can’t offer the kind of personalized attention to detail your veterinary hospital typically does when you buy your drugs and products directly from them. And because animal drugs and their dosages require a more specialized brand of knowledge than most pharmacies offer, buying meds online can have a real impact on pet safety.
  • Further, it stands to reason that veterinarians might complain about online pharmacies given that these outlets almost always out-compete us on prices. This means our hospitals inevitably lose out on drug and product sales we’d formerly relied on to boost our bottom lines.

It would be easy to downplay my profession’s protectionist role in condemning some online pharmacy practices were it not for the reality that the internet’s undeniably awash with scumbags, charlatans, thieves, and snake oil salesmen.

Are online pharmacies a good choice for your pet?

So what’s a smart consumer to do?

While it’ll almost always be safer to buy your drugs through your veterinarian, savvy pet owners do have choices. You just have to exercise some basic common sense and follow a few simple recommendations.

For starters, you should look to the US Food and Drug Administration. The FDA has issued a five-point bulletin describing the approach we should all take when buying anything as important as a drug or product online. Using the AWARE acronym, it's working hard to ensure you don't fall prey to the all-too-common scams even the biggest online pharmacy players are wont to perpetrate:

A – Ask Your Veterinarian
W – Watch for Red Flags (e.g., "No prescription needed!")
A – Always Check for Site Accreditation (i.e., VIPPS)
R – Report Problems and Suspicious Online Pharmacies (contact this FDA page)
E – Educate Yourself about Online Pharmacies (here's the FDA's basic veterinary page)

This is helpful, to be sure. Most of us, however, have already internalized those simple, commonsensical recommendations. Which is why I’ve added an additional four-step list of tips for safe online shopping:

  1. Buy only from online entities with a reputation to protect
    For most of us that means buying only from big names (you know who they are). But you should be advised that not all those big box retailers are reliable when it comes to selling drugs and products.

    That’s because many animal drug and product manufacturers won’t sell to anyone but veterinarians or veterinary-only pharmacies. Which means they have to resort to buying products through third-party sources, a practice that makes it easy for couterfeiters and gray marketeers to flourish.
  2. Look for the VIPPS seal of approval
    For those among us who are unwilling to take a risk when it comes to our pet meds and products, there’s still a safe, reliable way to shop online. It’s called VIPPS (Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites).

    This brand of certification, administrated by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, means the pharmacy has met a strict set of guidelines that not only certifies the outlet as reliable and responsible, but makes sure there’s a direct path between the manufacturers and the retailer so no shenanigans ensue.
  3. Too good to be true? (then it probably is)
    Is the price on one site WAY lower than that on many others? That’s a red flag very much akin to “no prescription needed.”
  4. Check your purchases before using them!
    Does the packaging look legit? Does it have an expiration date? Does it otherwise meet the standards you’ve come to expect from your veterinarian’s office? If you’re at all unsure, ask your veterinarian!

That’s all I’ve got. But I’m sure you have some more tips on how you handle your online purchases. Or do you forego them altogether?

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