When Your Dog Depends on Human Medicines

Access to controlled substances for veterinary use can be complicated – and expensive.


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.

dog walking outside
I can’t take Otto on long walks, because he gets fatigued within a half mile or so; his spirit is more than willing, but the old legs are weak!. When we have just a sliver of time before the sun sets to get out and hit a trail, he’s thrilled to be invited into the car to come along with the young dogs. ©Nancy Kerns

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.


  1. I have had this issue for over a year with my arthritic dog. The Vet has to hand write each script and I have to sign in to get it each month at the pharmacy. However, the good news is Walgreens has a Pet insurance which allows you to sign up and get the medicine at a reduced rate. My dogs 120 dollar script runs about 25 dollars a month. You have to ask for it they do not volunteer the info. I knew about this as a friendly pharmacist told me about it years ago with another dog I needed to use them for. Not that I want to promote one company over another but whatever we can do to help our furry friends and our costs is helpful. There may be other companies that do this and it never hurts to ask. I live in a rural area without too many options.

  2. I have several dogs who take human medications, mostly for behavioral reasons, but one for seizures. I have found that using GoodRx saves me a lot of money when I pick up their prescriptions. It is free through GoodRx.com.

  3. I have to echo the mention of GoodRx. I just checked out of curiosity after reading the article and at the pharmacy I mostly use 60 tablets of 50mg Tramadol would be $9. Availability would be another issue, I’ve seen several generic medications not be available. Most pharmacies are having to juggle suppliers to provide stock.

  4. I’ve had a couple of dogs in the past that depended on Tramadol for pain relief. It was easy to get and relatively cheap. Sad to say as with everything these days, the American people are being gouged even for their pet’s medication. I pray it helps Otto keep going for as long as possible. I’m sure you know, but be sure to give with food as continued use can cause stomach upset given alone.

  5. I have a senior Lab with severe arthritis pain. I have no medical background, but I’ve learned that pain management is complex, and I understand that different medications focus on different pathways of pain. When I realized the NSAID, powerful as that is, wasn’t enough, I discussed with my vet and slowly began adding back things we had discontinued after moving to the NSAID (Carprofen). Keeping an eye on stools to be sure there isn’t too much to cause stomach issues, daily she takes a prescribed homeopathic remedy, DGP, Wobenzym (5 tablets twice daily), her NSAID, fish oil, Vetriscience Glycoflex, and monthly acupuncture/ laser treatments. She’s still the first dog to come out to greet me when I return from errands. She has cancer now and is too tired to go on a walk of any length, but she enjoys puttering around the yard and exploring the edges of the bordering woods. We always go out through the garage because there are fewer steps there, and they have a lower rise than those out the front door. I also have rugs and mats all over the place so she can easily get traction to stand. A cataract is starting to cloud vision in her one remaining eye, so there are automatic timers to brightly light the path she takes through the garage (more mats here for traction) to go out the dog doors to relieve herself or when she just wants to lie in the grass to enjoy the cool night air.
    And I try to encourage regular movement, even if they’re just short trips to get up and go outside for a few minutes. The rehabilitation vet that performs the acupuncture & laser treatments recommended I try to get her on her feet an accumulated total of at least 20 minutes a day to prevent more loss of muscle mass. My Great Dane mix lived to be almost 16. In my experience, it often takes a combination of medication, supplements, and treatments for some dogs. Oddly, my oldest dog, a Lab mix 97

    • Finishing the above comment because cat stepped on phone and accidentally submitted comment. My oldest dog, who will be 14 this fall, isn’t even on an NSAID yet. She is the most mobile and takes only DGP, homeopathy (look up Dr. Charles Loops DVM, Pittsboro, NC – he does phone consultations), Glycoflex, and fish oil.

  6. Our Quincey has been on Tramadol for his arthritic hips for several months. In our state, the vet can dispense it directly, which is a blessing. He’s also on a blood pressure med that our vet doesn’t stock, and occasionally they call it in to Walgreen’s if they have trouble sourcing it timely.

    The stuff definitely improved his mobility, but I’d prefer to use an NSAID, which addresses the inflammation. Unfortunately, Quince is afflicted with ITP, and NSAIDs are contra-indicated for those suffering from that autoimmune disorder.

    He’s also responding to a course of cold laser therapy, and we’ve just bought a device to use ourselves, saving the trips to and from the clinic.

    We do the best we can to make the time we have to enjoy his company, as comfortable and rewarding as possible, as you are for Otto. Good luck!

    • Who would have thought 30,20 even 10 yrs. ago that we’d be using acupuncture, laser therapy and other healing options that humans have been using for decades. Whatever it takes to keep our dogs comfortable and enjoying life.

  7. I have a 14 year old who is experiencing arthritis and muscle loss. Her back end droops when she stands for any length of time and she was struggling on walks. Our holistic vet suggested Fortetropin to help build muscle, along with doing “doggie squats” (basically asking her to sit and then get up for a treat, 5-7 times). Along with this, she gets all the usual joint supplements, and I read about ozone treatments being a possible help for this. So we started ozone with laser treatments every two weeks and the results have been remarkable. It’s not consistent but some days on our walks now I actually have to tell her to slow down because our other younger dog (who is also getting ozone for her cancer) can’t keep up. It’s not a cure-all but it’s definitely making a difference.

  8. I’m glad you found your medication and the local independent was there for you, but I have to tell you I am saddened that you immediately decided that you would go back to Costco as soon as it was available to you there. I am hoping you will find other ways to patronize that wonderful local pharmacy so they will be there for you ALWAYS, not just when a big box or national chain turned its back on you and left you hanging out to dry. It is important to support all our small independent local businesses as much as possible so they remain in business. Granted I understand the price issue but as I already stated, perhaps there are other ways you can support this little business that helped you out in a real pinch.

  9. When Ramses was losing weight due in part to a lack of appetite, my vet put him on a medication that I found out was for patients on chemotherapy. CVS wanted $400. I said no, I’m going to call my vet. I did and she gave me a coupon. She’s a member of something. So I showed the coupon via text to the pharmacist and the price was suddenly…$40.

    You know they do this to people too.

    Imagine having cancer and being charged $400 for a drug you need because they know you’ll pay.

    I call it extortion.

    And I only know this because I was getting it for my dog. If I were a human, I might never have discovered this. I would either pay up or suffer. Perhaps I wouldn’t be paying my water bill and my gas and electric bill just to afford my cancer drug. Or maybe I would be eating mac and cheese every day for the month to be able to buy it. This is a decision some people have to make.

    When Ramses was on Tramadol I got his at CostCo for the same reasons you did. They were cheaper and they would fill pet prescriptions. I think at the time CVS wouldn’t. This was in 2018. Yes it is a huge hassle. But we will jump through those rings to ensure our senior pets are living as comfortably as they can.

  10. I live in Minnesota, where thankfully, I am allowed to buy tramadol for my pets at my local vet clinic. I have used GoodRX.com to find better prices on other drugs. My dog takes cyclosporine for a skin disease. Thirty days worth of this medication costs about $77 a month at my local vet clinic. With a Good RX coupon I am able to buy 90 days worth for about $84 at my local Walgreen’s. It can’t hurt to check the website for better prices when a pet is on medication long-term for a chronic condition.