Why are pet medicines expensive?

As vets, we know caring for your pet can be expensive. But it can still come as a shock to people when they buy medicine for their pet that turns out to be very expensive. Sometimes these drugs are the same as in human medicine, so why are pet medicines expensive, and what can we do about it?

Let’s look at why these medications are (or seem) expensive compared to human equivalents:

1. They’re still new to the market

Designing and manufacturing a new drug costs a lot of time and money. Development is expensive – for every drug that makes it onto the market, hundreds fail. And then once a drug has reached testing phase, this can also be extremely expensive, involving long time periods and multiple tests to prove safety and efficacy. Pharmaceutical companies need to recoup that cost, so any new pet medicine on the market is patented. This means nobody can manufacture the same drug, usually for 10 years. While they’re in the patent phase there’s no competition, so manufacturers charge a lot to recoup their costs. After 10 years the cost tends to come down as other companies start producing the same drug. So new medicines cost more.

2. They aren’t subsidised by the NHS

Here in the UK, medicines your doctor prescribes are subsidised by the NHS. You’ll pay a prescription fee (unless you qualify for free prescriptions) but this is capped – even if the drug costs £100 per month, you won’t pay more than this prescription fee. This can make pet medicines seem a lot more expensive, since we aren’t used to seeing the real cost of drugs.

3. Vets have to follow the ‘cascade’ when prescribing

When prescribing a medication, vets have to follow something called the ‘prescribing cascade‘.

The prescribing cascade for vet drugs can explain why pet medications are expensive

The top of the cascade, that they should explore first, is drugs licensed in Great Britain for that condition in that animal. In other words, if you have a cat with diabetes, your vet needs to choose a medication that says ‘for cats with diabetes’ on the label, and authorised in GB.

If there is no such drug available or suitable, vets can use something for the same condition but a different species, or for a different condition in the same species. For example, if all medications for cat arthritis aren’t suitable, vets can choose whether to use a medication for dog arthritis, or whether to use a medication for cat acute pain.

If those aren’t available or suitable, a vet use a human drug or ship something from elsewhere in the world.

Lastly, vets can get a drug made up specially if there still isn’t a suitable option.

Unfortunately, cost is not something vets are allowed to take into account when using the cascade. This means that even though cats used human amlodipine broken into tiny bits for years, vet’s hands are tied and they have to prescribe the much more expensive Amodip.

Why are pet medicines cheaper from an online pharmacy?

You might have heard the current furore over vet pricing. The CMA has announced that they’re going to look more closely at vet fees in the UK. One of the main areas they’re looking at is whether pet parents are paying over the odds for ‘medicines or prescriptions’.

Many pet parents don’t know that they can get their pet’s medications from any pharmacy. This includes online pharmacies. But to do so, they need to get a prescription, which only a vet can legally provide. Vets are allowed to set a ‘reasonable fee’ for this prescription, to take into account the time they take over them. One thing the CMA is going to look into is whether the fees being charged by vets for prescriptions are fair. In my experience, these fees are £15-30, but I have heard stories of higher fees.

Despite paying this prescription charge, pet parents are often surprised to find online pharmacies are still cheaper than their vet, and they take this to mean that vets are marking up their drugs too much. Let’s look at this in more detail:

Vets have to mark up their drugs (more than online pharmacies)

Yes, vets mark up their drugs. They buy the drugs from the wholesaler, then charge a higher price to the pet parent. While this might seem unfair, it’s actually what every business, including every pharmacy, does. Vets have to make a profit on the drugs they sell in order to:

  • Take into account stock that is lost when it goes out of date
  • Pay for the staff that run the pharmacy, stock it, and make up the drugs to the vet’s prescription
  • Pay for the fridges and other special storage requirements for drugs they stock
  • Pay for inspections and other regulatory hoops they have to jump through
  • Help towards rent and other building costs

Vets might also mark up their drugs slightly more for the convenience factor. This is the same as water being free from a tap, 70p from a high street shop, and £3.50 in an airport shop. Being able to walk into a vet’s and get the diagnosis and medication in one go is very convenient, but it does come at a slightly higher price.

So here’s the thing – online pharmacies also mark up their drugs. But because they have lower overheads (they don’t need highly qualified staff, and the regulatory hoops are different, and their rents are normally lower as they have large, cheap warehouses), they don’t mark the drugs up as much.

Vets buy drugs at a higher price than pharmacies do

This is the bit that vets get really cross about when they’re accused of inflating prices. Laws mean that vets have to buy their drugs from a veterinary wholesaler – and there are only a couple of those in the country. They can’t barter, and – as small, independent businesses – they don’t have huge buying power. A small practice might only buy 30 bottles of Metacam at a time.

Contrast that with a large online pharmacy. They can go to their supplier and say “we’re going to buy 10,000 boxes, and we aren’t going to pay any more than X”. They get huge discounts this way, based on bulk buying, which vets aren’t able to do. Many vets find that the cost of a pack of medication from their wholesaler is more than the online companies are offering it at, so the prices start higher before they even add a mark-up. And because vets aren’t allowed to buy from anywhere except the wholesalers, they can’t just buy this cheap medication from the online pharmacy and then sell it on.

The perfect storm

So in summary, pet medicines are often more expensive than human ones. Or they just seem that way as we aren’t used to paying full price for our drugs. Then buying power means that online pharmacies buy drugs cheaper than your vet, and their set-up means they don’t have to mark it up as much to make a profit.

So yes, pet medicines are more expensive – but that isn’t necessarily your vet’s fault! Many vets would love to give up the hassle of stocking a pharmacy, but what would people do in emergencies, bank holidays, or when the drugs in the pot run out unexpectedly and your pet needs an emergency top-up?

Keeping the cost of pet medicines down

We vets recognise that medicines are expensive. With the cost of living so high, it can be difficult to afford your pet’s medications. Here are some ways you can keep costs down when your pet needs medication for a chronic condition.

  1. Ask your vet for the price of a written prescription and then look at costs online. Don’t forget to take postage into account.
  2. Ask your vet if there are other medicine options that are cheaper. Sometimes a brand switch reduces costs. You can research alternative options, and their costs, on our pet medicines database.
  3. Try to plan in advance and order your pet’s tablets in plenty of time to avoid paying a higher price when your options are limited.
  4. Try to understand your pet’s disease and manage their environment to reduce flare ups. There might even be a more permanent solution, rather than regular medicines. Our pet care courses can help you to understand your options.


Please don’t get upset at your vet – it’s likely that their hands are tied. Hopefully some of our tips for keeping medicine costs down will help you with the costs of pet medicines.