Last September, I thought we were at the end of life for my 15-year-old dog Otto. His arthritis pain is severe, and his daily NSAID and gabapentin was not keeping his discomfort at bay. Thinking he had not long to live, I made an appointment with a housecall veterinarian who specializes in hospice care and at-home euthanasia, who suggested that we increase his dose of gabapentin and add tramadol, an opiate pain-reliever, to his medication regimen.
The tramadol definitely improved Otto’s comfort and mobility. He doesn’t look fantastic – walking behind him as his back legs wobble and partially buckle sometimes is alarming – but he’s happy, still demanding to go for (short) walks with the other dogs, and climbing laboriously onto and jumping off of our couches at night. The medication is definitely worth the hassle of obtaining it.
And yes, it’s a hassle. Because it’s a Schedule IV drug, the veterinary hospital that prescribed it cannot dispense it for at-home use (though they keep it in stock and administer it to hospitalized patients); the vets are concerned that humans may take the drug that’s meant for their pets. Instead, the vet calls one month’s worth of the prescription (no more) into a human pharmacy, where I have to show my identification to pick it up. And I can’t call ahead too soon, because the pharmacy will only allow me to have so much on hand. This got a little dicey a couple months ago when I had to pick up the medication the day I left for a six-day vacation to make sure Otto did not have to go without the medication toward the end of my trip.
At the six-month anniversary of Otto being put on this drug, I had to make an appointment with his vet in order to continue receiving it. A dog can’t go more than six months without a veterinary examination in order to receive it. This was fine, though; it gave both me and the vet an opportunity to marvel at Otto’s stubborn refusal to throw in the towel on this painful but still apparently enjoyable life.
Recently, though, we ran into a bigger problem: the challenge of getting the drug at all.
When I called the vet clinic to ask them to call in Otto’s prescription this month, I got a call back from the veterinary pharmacist. He told me that he tried to call in the prescription to the pharmacy at Costco, like he does every month, but was told by the Costco pharmacist that there is a national shortage of the drug. The Costco pharmacist said the store is prioritizing human patients until they can get more, hopefully in a few weeks. The veterinary pharmacist called me to ask which alternative pharmacy he should call the prescription in to.
Here’s the thing: The first month that Otto was prescribed the drug, and the veterinary pharmacist asked me where I wanted to pick up the prescription, I just named the first pharmacy whose name popped into my head: CVS. When I went to pick up the medication, the CVS pharmacist warned me that it was expensive, $120; did I still want it? I was surprised; I hadn’t been aware it was that costly, but I wanted to obtain the medication and see if it really helped Otto, so I paid that amount. When it clearly reduced his pain and increased his mobility, I started calling other pharmacies to see if I could find a better price elsewhere.
Were you aware that drugs cost wildly different amounts, depending on where you buy them? My next call was to Costco, where the same prescription that costs $120 at CVS costs $10. TEN DOLLARS! Unreal.
But now Costco won’t fill the prescription – temporarily, I hope. So I called all five other pharmacies in my town (already knowing CVS charges $120). The supermarket pharmacy quoted me $77. Walgreens charges $90. Neither Walmart nor Rite-Aid would tell me what they charge for that drug; they don’t give out prices for any controlled substances! The pharmacist at Rite Aid also told me that they, too, are prioritizing human patients, and won’t fill a prescription for a pet right now – but the nice person did recommend the little family-owned pharmacy in town that I forgot even existed. When I called that pharmacy, I was quoted $59, and that they would fill a prescription for a dog, at least this one time. (They also mentioned the shortage of the drug.) Whew! I gave the pharmacy information to the veterinarian’s pharmacist and was able to pick up Otto’s prescription later that day.
I’m happy to learn that tiny, independent pharmacies can (apparently) earn a living charging less than the giant chain pharmacies for life-improving or life-saving medications. But I hope that the shortage of this effective medication ends quickly, and that I can buy the drug for Otto at Costco again next month. And I hope that my story of price-shopping Otto’s daily medication inspires you to check the prices for your dog’s daily medications.