Pill bottles

One important trick of the trade for a veterinarian like me who’s always in the media is knowing when something other vets take for granted will raise an eyebrow among pet lovers. That was the case years ago when I wrote about prescribing Viagra — for neutered male dogs.

Why would a vet prescribe a medication best known as a solution for erectile dysfunction in humans? Because in canines of both sexes, Viagra (sildenafil citrate) can be used to treat pulmonary hypertension, or high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs. Increased blood flow has its uses in other areas of the body as well, you see.

But the Viagra story is more than just interesting veterinary trivia. It’s also helpful in explaining the many kinds of medications used in veterinary medicine, and how a basic knowledge of those medications can help you better care for your pet.

It’s All About the Crossovers

Viagra is not the only human medication veterinarians can — and do — prescribe. Most pet owners don’t realize this, but aside from flea-and-tick-control products, almost all of the medications their pets receive are crossovers from human medicine. My colleague Dr. Duncan Ferguson at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine once told me that 80 to 90 percent of the drugs used in veterinary medicine come from human medicine, and the percentage gets even higher in more specialized areas of veterinary medicine, such as oncology.

This so-called "off-label" use of human drugs allows veterinarians to treat conditions (and species) that might not be priorities for big drug companies. If a veterinarian believes that a particular human medication can help a pet, she’ll prescribe it.

Knowing how and why certain drugs are prescribed or recommended can help pet owners understand health care options — including some that save money. A good vet will discuss the medications she’s prescribing, tell you what side effects to look for, and encourage you to call her with questions or concerns, but it’s also important for you to educate yourself about the basic types of drugs available for your pet.

Prescription vs. OTC Medications

As in human medicine, the medications your veterinarian works with fall into two basic categories: prescription and nonprescription, or OTC (for "over the counter"). Prescription drugs break down additionally into those that address conditions in animals only, and human medications routinely prescribed for animals. Both categories of medication are often available in brand-name and generic forms.Google+

Prescription: As in human medicines, prescription medications are not available for purchase without a doctor’s order. Medications in this category are generally not considered safe for use without a doctor’s oversight, sometimes because of other problems, such as the possibility of abuse or addiction. Antibiotics and pain medications are probably the most commonly known medications in this category in both human and animal medicine. In pets, various parasite-control drugs are often commonly available by prescription only as well.

Nonprescription: These include not only over-the-counter medications such as Benadryl that your veterinarian may recommend for treating an acute condition in your pet, but also supplements known as “nutraceuticals” that may have a proven benefit against chronic illness, such as the use of glucosamine and Omega 3 oils for treating osteoarthritis.

Brand-name and generic: Many prescription and OTC medications come in brand-name and generic options. Generic drugs are the bioequivalent versions of brand-name medications. They are popular in large part because they can offer significant cost savings to patients and insurers. In certain cases, your veterinarian may prefer a brand-name, but she will be able to tell you why as part of your discussion.

What to Buy and Where to Buy It

All these medications, both brand-name and generic, prescription and non, may be available through your veterinary hospital. For years that was pretty much the only place pet owners bought these products, but that’s no longer the case.

Veterinarians have always been glad to provide in-house pharmaceutical services; pharmacists have also usually been willing to fill prescriptions written by vets. But recently, online pharmacists and big-box retailers have sought pet owners’ business. This means even more discussion about the value of generics, and even more ways to price-shop.

When online and big-box pharmacies first got into the veterinary medicine business, veterinarians were unhappy, to say the least (and honestly, some still are). Many had relied on their in-house pharmacies to help keep other costs low. These days, however, I think most veterinarians no longer feel that writing a prescription for you to fill elsewhere is a big deal, which gives you a wider variety of options when you’re purchasing medication for your pet.

Don’t fill any prescription without doing your homework, though. I believe very strongly that you should give your veterinarian the opportunity to price-match the competition, and I believe that no matter what medicine your veterinarian suggests or prescribes, you need to discuss it with her to be sure you understand what it’s for, what problems may come up and why this particular medication is being used. (You also need to give it to your pet as prescribed, which is the biggest problem most people have with medications for their animals.)

Being well-informed about your options and engaging in respectful discussion with your veterinarian will make you better able to care for your pet, and to be fully involved in choices regarding your pet’s medical care.