Vets have been one stop shops in the UK for many years. Your pet is examined and your medication dispensed immediately. In acute illness or emergency situations this is ideal as you can start treatment immediately. When your pet needs long term or less urgent medication you can buy it from your veterinary practice or you can request a written prescription and buy the medication elsewhere – which often works out cheaper.

Why do you need a prescription?

The Veterinary Medicines Regulations (2013) classify some veterinary drugs as POM-V. This stands for ‘Prescription Only Medications – Veterinary’. This medication can only be prescribed by a veterinary surgeon and supplied under their direction. Many veterinary drugs are POM-V including effective flea and worm treatments, antibiotics, pain relief and specific treatments for medical conditions. 

If you request a written prescription your vet has to provide one. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons dictate that the vet must charge a reasonable fee. Prescribing fees per drug or a prescription charge may be applied.

Why choose a written prescription?

There are many veterinary pharmacies on the internet. They can supply your prescription only medication more cheaply than your local vet for the reasons below:

Internet pharmacies enjoy large discounts from suppliers due to bulk purchasing. It is illegal for vets to buy from any retailers other than veterinary wholesalers so vets cannot access these discounted prices themselves. 

These bulk buying discounts make a large difference to the price of veterinary medicines. As the veterinary market is quite small, veterinary drugs are often expensive. Drug research and development often costs millions and manufacturers need to recoup this cost. The veterinary market is an eighth of the size of the human medicine market, so prices are set relatively high to make a profit. The cost of human drugs is also lower as nationwide health services such as the NHS have vast buying power. Vets have to pay the full recommended retail price for any human medication used. As we will see later there is strict legislation around drug choice. 

Veterinary practices have large overheads including expensive equipment, boarding facilities, overnight care, staff salaries and buildings. Internet pharmacies have few overheads. The disparity is similar to buying a book at a local bookshop or from Amazon where bulk buying drives down cost.     

Prescribing a veterinary medicine was deemed an act of veterinary surgery by the 1966 Veterinary Surgeons Act. Therefore, a vet must clinically assess your animal to diagnose a condition and prescribe any medication required. 

A veterinary prescription is a legal document, your vet will be aware of the legal requirements. Some are relevant to us as owners’:

  • Prescription fraud is illegal. It is a criminal offence to alter a prescription. Internet pharmacies are obliged to monitor for all forms of prescription fraud such as presenting a script to multiple pharmacies or script alteration. If errant ordering is suspected they will contact the prescribing vet and other pharmacies.
  • A valid prescription must be signed and dated by a vet registered with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) practising in the UK.
  • The prescription must include your name and address and the pet’s name and species. The type of medication, the strength and amount requested are also necessary on a valid prescription. The instructions for the use of the medication are essential. Finally, prescriptions state information about repeat medication, if repeats are allowed, how many and how often. 
  • A veterinary prescription for most medicines is valid for 6 months. Medication can only be supplied within that period – but only up to the maximum quantity listed on the prescription. 
  • The Misuse of Drugs Regulations (2001) cover controlled drugs. These are drugs that can be abused by humans, they include some pain medication, anaesthesia drugs and anti-epileptics. Prescriptions for Schedule 2, 3 and 4 controlled drugs can only be valid for 28 days and repeats are not allowed. 

What animals can a vet prescribe for?

  • A vet can only prescribe for ‘an animal under his or her care’. The RCVS guidelines interpret this phrase in the following way. 

In order to prescribe a prescription only medication a vet must:

– be given responsibility for the animal’s health by the owner.

– carry out a clinical assessment, either immediately before prescribing or recently enough or often enough to have personal knowledge of the animal’s condition. 

–  prescribe responsibly. The medication should be appropriate and prescribed with due regard for the health and welfare of the animals. 

The law also states that the prescription should be for the minimum amount required for immediate treatment. 

Can a vet prescribe me a cheaper generic medicine?

Vets in the UK must adhere to a strict prescribing protocol called the cascade. This stipulates the drugs that vets must use to treat animals. In the first instance vets must use a product that is licensed for use in that species for that condition. If such a product does not exist, they are allowed to use another product licensed in that species or a product licensed for that condition in a different species. Alternatively, a human medicine may be used or they may apply to use a medical product from another country. If none of the above are possible then a product can be prepared by a vet or pharmacist. 

Vets have to comply with these guidelines or be either disciplined or face action by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate. There must be a very good reason for prescribing without applying the cascade. A good reason may be a pet having a severe allergic reaction or an animal being too small or too large to dose accurately. Cost is unfortunately not deemed a good reason. 

It is also an offence for a pharmacy to supply a human drug or generic product when a veterinary licensed product is requested

Other considerations

It is wise to use a veterinary internet pharmacy recommended by your vet or accredited by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate AIRS scheme. This means that you avoid fake sites and fake medicines. 

You can upload or scan the script to most pharmacies. However, if your prescription is for a controlled drug the original must be sent in the post.

If you order a drug with specific storage needs such as insulin, ensure that someone is home to receive the order. Most insulin products remain active when stored between 2-8 0 C and will be ineffective if exposed to lower or higher temperatures. 

Although prescriptions can be valid for 6 months, prescribing medication for that length of time is not always responsible for all conditions. Pets with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, epilepsy, Cushing’s disease or thyroid disease often need to be seen to be clinically monitored more frequently. 

The frequency of reassessment is at your vet’s discretion. Your animal may need to be seen weekly, monthly or 3 monthly for their health and welfare and management of their condition. 

However, by ordering online the medicines cost can often be dramatically reduced!

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