Recently I have had some level of difficulty convincing a veterinarian to release a written prescription to me. The scenario was this: I had a non-urgent visit for a long-term problem with one of my pets. Some tests were ordered, and the results would determine what prescriptions were needed. The experience I encountered thereafter led to some research about your rights to receive a written prescription in the state of California. It’s when I found out that not one of the many vets I’ve visited in the past have really followed the letter of the law as it’s written in California. Many other states have similar protections, and I’ll add some resources to help you find your own rights at the end of this post.

Understanding the law: you have a right to your pet’s prescription

The following is found in the California Department of Consumer Affairs Veterinary Medical Board Minimum Standards Regulations.

Section 2032.2. Written Prescriptions:

(c) Pursuant to section 4170(a)(6) and (7) of the Business and Professions Code, veterinarians must notify clients that they have a choice to obtain either the medication or a written prescription and that they shall not be charged for the written prescription.

Section 4170(a)(6) and (7) of the Business and Professions Code is as follows:

(6) The prescriber, prior to dispensing, offers to give a written
prescription to the patient that the patient may elect to have filled
by the prescriber or by any pharmacy
(7) The prescriber provides the patient with written disclosure
that the patient has a choice between obtaining the prescription from
the dispensing prescriber or obtaining the prescription at a
pharmacy of the patient’s choice.

And this section defines “prescriber” as:

(c) “Prescriber,” as used in this section, means a person, who
holds a physician’s and surgeon’s certificate, a license to practice
optometry, a license to practice naturopathic medicine, a license to
practice dentistry, a license to practice veterinary medicine, or a
certificate to practice podiatry, and who is duly registered by the
Medical Board of California, the State Board of Optometry, the Bureau
of Naturopathic Medicine, the Dental Board of California, the
Veterinary Medical Board, or the Board of Osteopathic Examiners of
this state.

Many states have adopted their own laws, or follow the AVMA’s code of conduct on this matter:

Veterinarians shall honor a client’s request for a prescription in lieu of dispensing.

This makes sense. Your own doctor can’t also be a pharmacy because of a conflict of interest, but this protection hasn’t yet extended to the doctor of your pets. These laws seem to offer the bare minimum protection over a massive conflict of interest: a great financial benefit to prescribing that medication, preventative, or vaccination to your pet. As long as your pet is receiving the proper medication from a licensed facility, why is it such a problem for your vet where it comes from? Oh yes, lost profit.

Anecdotal evidence at every veterinary practice I’ve been to (lots)

In most cases, a vet will mention what your pet needs and will often simply state that it can be “picked up on your way out” or will be ordered and sent to your house. I am never, ever offered a written prescription or the option to have it filled elsewhere. I can’t recall a single time this has been offered to me.

As an aside: As noted above, this is also true of eye doctors, to which these laws also apply if they offer prescription lenses. I always have a really hard time getting my prescription from an eye doctor even upon request. Again, it’s a major profit center for the office.

Honestly, with the way that things are phrased and the slightly stressful environment focused on your pet (obviously), I often forget I even have the option of going to Walgreens, Target, or online for the prescription. Usually my prescriptions seem “instantly ready” as the vet is writing their notes and heading out the door – just pick it up at the counter. It’s already done!

But remember, the law states (in California and many other areas) that your pet’s doctor is supposed to offer you the option. Because, in my experience, this doesn’t happen it is up to you to remember it is. And to ask for it, if it’s what you want.

What’s an exception to this? Urgent care is always an exception here, for me. If your pet needs meds and going elsewhere for them will impact their health, don’t do it. Always make sure your pet gets the care they require if it’s within your means.

An example: 300% markup

Recently one of my pets required some non-urgent medications and supplements. I had to wait for some test results before knowing what they would be. When the first round of test results arrived, the vet “prescribed” something over the phone and noted further prescriptions might be needed later. She said it was ready for pickup at the front desk, so in I headed.

When I returned home, I looked at the product in detail. It was marked as a “joint gel” so I headed online to find out if it was the correct item. Sure enough, it was used for the ailment my pet had, so all was good. But what I also learned was:

  • It wasn’t a product that required a prescription. It was described as such by my vet, and perhaps it was “prescribed”, but it didn’t require a prescription. It was an over the counter supplement.
  • It was marked up 300%, and also required a 40 mile drive (I was “prescribed” the product over the phone and asked to drive in to pick it up as it was prepared for pickup).

Of course, the product was also taped heavily with my name and information when I picked it up.

Request for my pet’s prescription

After this incident, I decided to advocate for my rights. When the second round of results came in and two more medications (real meds this time, not OTC supplements), I asked for my prescription citing I couldn’t get in easily (it is a 40 mile drive, after all, and in heavy traffic amounts to a couple hour trip!)

I was given the runaround, big time. The vet was extremely reluctant to release the prescription to me, and refused to send me the written one. I received lectures (one leaving me in tears), and they refused to send me the written prescription citing “technology limitations.” After a lot of stress and some back and forth agreed to send it to a pharmacy. However, one of the prescriptions they refused to send anywhere unless it was a specific flavor, and kept noting ad infinitum how they had the flavor in stock and how I should drive in for it. Essentially they treated me like I was doing my pet harm if I didn’t buy the medication from them and went to a different licensed facility.

I quite easily found an online pharmacy that stocked it, so I ordered upon reading the company offers to deal with the vets themselves and received some decent reviews as a business. This was essentially what I did.

  1. Found the correct drug (and in this case, flavor of it, although I think that’s probably an edge case!)
  2. Ordered it, even though I wasn’t sure what the right dosage would be or even how long my pet needed it because the vet wouldn’t give me that info (when ordering they state they work with my vet to sort that out). The order form takes your vet’s information, all of which was already in their system as soon as I typed the clinic’s name and my state.
  3. I got a call from the online business requesting my permission to change my order to the correct amount needed, as they had consulted with my vet.
  4. It arrived on my doorstep a day or two later with all the correct dosage requirements and how long to give it to my pet.

Done. Free shipping and treats, too.

In retrospect, I would have collected the name of the drug and simply called the pharmacies and had them collect the information from the vet thus avoiding all the unnecessary stress. Lesson learned.

Always working with my vet and doing what’s best for my pets

I will always, of course, work with my vet to sort out the best way to care for my pets. And as mentioned earlier, in urgent care cases always make sure your pet receives the medication they require in a timely fashion.

But honestly I’m not too keen to pay really exorbitant markups. I have a sneaking suspicion they are there because so many people simply walk to the front counter when the vet says to just go pick it up (never offering the prescription in the first place). I am always happy to pay a bit extra for convenience, and am loyal to a fantastic vet, but driving excessive amounts and/or 300% mark-ups are a bit beyond my comfort level. And now I’m reluctant to pay 300% ever, at all.

Yes, I know a lot of the above says “find a different vet!” and that’s what I’m trying to do (even though the one I have is the only openly raw food supporting “holistic” vet in the area). But I will say I’ve been to dozens of vets over the past 15 years and none of them have seemed to follow the laws mentioned above. That I find problematic, as it is a conflict of interest – no matter how wonderful the vet is.

So I ask – is it time to take this right into our own hands, as clients? Is it time to have an option? Until we exercise our right from time to time, the markup will continue to be there. Why not? So many clients don’t even know they have an option, don’t know what the price is elsewhere, so vets are free to charge whatever they like! I believe prices are higher than they need to be as a result. A small markup to cover the retail operation is absolutely fair, but the kind of mark-ups I’m seeing speak a different truth. Not to mention, I’d much rather give that extra money to my local rescue or shelter or save it for the next emergency vet visit.

Find the laws regarding veterinarians and prescriptions for your state

Twenty-one states have adopted laws about your rights for a written prescription. Ten more states have adopted the standard that veterinarians should honor a client’s request for a prescription in lieu of dispensing.

USA: To find out the laws in your state, use this resource as a starting point. Then search for the specific laws they mention for your state using the section numbers provided.

International: I haven’t researched laws in other countries (yet), but I’d love to hear about your experience or research in the comments!

About Author

Jen deHaan is graphic designer, small business owner, and dog person living in Bay Area, California. Jen enjoys learning about dog training and behavior, and has taken several courses and seminars since 2010. She also contributes articles to leading websites, such as Victoria Stilwell's Positively . It all started with a great dog called Mikey (aka "dude"), loved and lost but remembered forever. Jen also runs a freelance business focusing on graphic, web, and UI design at FoundPixel, and a small business creating hand crafted dog products at Stylish Canine.

  • I remember the first time a vet handed me a written prescription… I was dumbfounded. The doctor noticed my shock but when she told me where the only pharmacy in the entire city was that would fill a pet prescription, I probably turned more pale. That was a long time ago and now there are many compounding centers, pharmacy chains and online chemists that will fill pet prescriptions. However, stories like these , of which I hear more and more of every day, make me believe that even a 300% markup is better than a dead pet. Far too many pharmacies put up a cute sign that says they fill pet prescriptions but, in fact, have no idea what they are doing. I believe good vets do try to protect us from this. Protecting us from incompetent pharmacies should not come at the high price of violated legal rights or massive markups though. Your analogy to eye doctors made me laugh… I have had fights similar to yours with your vet to get my eye glasses prescriptions too! I recently had a similar dumbfounded experience with one who handed me a laminated card with my glasses and contact lens prescriptions on it as I checked out. He’s a keeper!

    • Jen

      That’s a great point about compounded medications where you may not know all the ingredients to ensure that you ask if it’s not a veterinary compounding establishment, or have your vet transfer the prescription as mentioned above. And certainly one of the known risks of using human meds off the counter. The compounded prescription we purchased was from a licensed veterinary pharmacy, and the other “prescription” (300% markup) was identical as it was a branded product. And as someone who has paid over $30,000 in vet bills over the past 5 years, it’s about rights more than cash. Don’t for a second think that I’m valuing money more than my pets. If something can be done, I give the thumbs up to just do it.

      That’s true it’s always a good idea to be prudent if the human pharmacy is creating the product themselves (discuss with the prescribing vet and the pharmacy), but the story here is really about law, rights, and availability of choices. I think the compounding stories speak to an entirely different problem: professionals offering/advertising a service they are not qualified to offer. And at any rate I don’t at all believe that an extreme markup is necessary or fair to a consumer who is not being presented a choice.

      I don’t for a second believe the vet had my safety as a concern, but I also don’t believe my safety was being risked by going the route I did, the way I did. The vet themselves said (somewhat angrily) they were checking it was identical (or I’d “have to come get it from their office”), and it was from both locations. So that should be an option for anyone with a prescription, or at least being provided the spoken option as dictated by state law.

  • Awesome post! I’m sorry they gave you such a hard time and I agree that 300% markup is ridiculous.

  • We never had a problem getting a prescription from our vet. They even call it into out local pharmacy when we ask.

  • Thanks for writing about this, as I think most people have been given the run-around about getting prescriptions from their vets. My old vet refused to give prescriptions, citing that they couldn’t confirm the quality of medicine unless it was purchased directly from them. I have no problem with vets having a reasonable markup on prescription drugs, but I agree…300% is a bit much.

  • I think most people don’t even think about the option of picking a prescription up at the pharmacy as opposed to the vet. I didn’t until my pharmacist mentioned it to me. The next time my vet was prescribing something I asked if I could in fact pick it up at the pharmacy and she complied with no issues. For me a lot of it is the convenience of picking it up right then and there, but if the script is costly, I will ask if I can find it cheaper.

    Thanks for tackling this subject!

  • Wow, Jen. This post is so interesting. I had never really put too much thought into this. I assumed vets have to give a written prescription if we ask them, but I didn’t realize they are required to tell us about that option (in California). Makes sense, and they should! Convenience is a factor for some people, and picking it up right there at the desk might be someone’s choice, but they should definitely know about the other (cheaper) options.

    I am very aware of how much more expensive the prescriptions are at the vet vs. at 1800petmeds or cvs. I think some pet owners forget that the majority (or even all?) of the prescriptions for pets are available at human pharmacies like CVS, costco or walgreens. Right? Or are some of them hard to find? I guess I don’t really know.

    Anyway, great topic.

    • Hi Lindsay – Yes, some of them are aren’t carried at regular human pharmacies even if they’re advertising “pets”. With one of the meds in the article I went to a licensed online vet pharmacy, the other Costco as it’s a widely carried basic med (variation of prednisone). The third item “prescribed” was OTC and was pretty much available “everywhere” online (but the vet pharmacy was actually cheaper than Amazon even). That said, several drugs are the same drug as used for humans, but dosages in pills is often an issue – whether they come small enough, or are able to be split. One tip I received was to call pharmacies that are located near hospitals, which generally carry a greater variety of prescriptions.

      If the dosage size isn’t available, I think that’s when they compound into a liquid but compounding pharmacies are fewer in number in general (and as mentioned in an earlier comment, you have to make sure they’re aware of how to properly compound for pets – this is another case where having the vet talk to the pharmacy is a good idea if it’s not a pet-specific vet. If any doubt, I’d err and go with an online licensed vet pharmacy or the vet themselves).

      To be sure, you can have these spots phone your vet for the prescription to ensure it’s the same thing and received at the correct dosage. The online vet pharmacy I utilized has a vet on staff and always calls the vet to receive the info directly, which I think is a good feature.

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