Veterinary Prescriptions – Science or Profit?

Reviewed By Kim •  Updated: 07/19/20 •  10 min read
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Have you taken your dog to the veterinarian for a health issue, and then walked out later with one or more prescription medications? Have you wondered if your canine companion truly needs that expensive medication, or if there was a cheaper alternative?

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These are a couple of the issues we’ll take a look at in this article. Pet medications is a growing market, especially with the scientific advances made in veterinary medicine in the last decade or so. While many of us appreciate these advances and treatment options for our pets, it can seem overwhelming, confusing, or even as if the prescriptions aren’t really necessary when prescribed by a vet.

In this article, we’ll review the vet’s code of ethics, laws and regulations regarding prescribed medications for pets and more.

Veterinary Code of Ethics

All students studying to become veterinarians must now take a course in veterinary ethics. Ethics is now considered a part of the core curriculum and is used as a guideline for veterinarians to use when they’re practicing medicine. The goal is to help vets avoid moral issues in their practice.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), has set the vet’s code of ethics in the US. All veterinarian’s practicing in the US must follow the code of ethical conduct, which are known as the Principles of Veterinary Medical Ethics (PVME). This is similar to the code of ethics that medical doctors must adhere to in their practice of human medicine. But why is the code of ethics so important?

The code of ethics for vets is important because it means they are bound to give ethical treatment to provide good care for all the animals they treat. The code of ethics is supposed to ensure medical treatment is provided only to help the patient, not for gain (money), to appease a pet parent, etc.

Here some highlights from the AVMA’s vet code of ethics:

A veterinarian shall be dedicated to providing competent veterinary medical care, with compassion and respect for animal welfare and human health.

  1. A veterinarian shall provide veterinary medical clinical care under the terms of a veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR).
  2. A veterinarian shall uphold the standards of professionalism, be honest in all professional interactions, and report veterinarians who are deficient in character or competence to the appropriate entities.
  3. A veterinarian shall respect the law and also recognize a responsibility to seek changes to laws and regulations which are contrary to the best interests of the patient and public health.
  4. A veterinarian shall continue to study, apply and advance scientific knowledge, maintain a commitment to veterinary medical education, make relevant information available to clients, colleagues, the public and obtain consultation or referral when indicated.

These are some of the basics in the opening part of the code of ethics for vets. As you can see, these are geared to ensure the vet maintains care and compassion for each of his patients, always work within professional bounds, and stay up to date with develops in veterinary medicine. In the next session, the code of ethics lays out some additional rules for the treatment of patients. These are in the section “Principles with Supporting Annotations:”

  1. A veterinarian shall be dedicated to providing competent veterinary medical care, with compassion and respect for animal welfare and public health:
  2. Veterinarians shall first consider the needs of the patient: to prevent and relieve disease, suffering, or disability while minimizing pain or fear.
  3. Regardless of practice ownership, the interests of the patient, client and public require that all decisions that affect diagnosis and treatment of patients are made by veterinarians.
  4. The choice of treatments or animal care shall not be influenced by considerations other than the welfare of the patient, the needs of the client, and the safety of the public.
  5. The medical judgments of veterinarians shall not be influenced by contracts or agreements made by their associations or societies.

Next, under these principles, you’ll find ethics regarding treatments, including the prescribing medications:

Attending veterinarians are responsible for choosing the treatment regimens for their patients. It is the attending veterinarian’s responsibility to inform the client of the expected results and costs, and the related risks of each treatment regimen.

  1. Veterinarians may not promote, sell, prescribe, dispense, or use secret remedies or any other product for which they do not know the ingredients.
  2. Humane euthanasia of animals is an ethical veterinary procedure.

All veterinarians practicing in the US must follow this code of ethics, and it is the guideline by which they provide medical treatment for their patients. These guidelines mean that a veterinarian must not provide treatment just because a pet parent demands it. Or the vet cannot prescribe medications based on perks they may receive from vendors of prescription medications, etc. This is not allowed.

However, as in all professions, there are vets who don’t follow the rules. There are also vets who may not truly care for their patients, or those that perform unnecessary medical treatments for gain (money), and more. Unfortunately, this is the case; however, most vets do care for their patients and clients, and work to find solutions that are medically acceptable for the patient.

For example, a friend of ours had an older dog who had a liver problem that developed from the tick-borne disease called ehrlichiosis. The vet recommended a very expensive medication that would help improve liver function; however, the medication at the time was too expensive for their budget. The pet parents asked if there were any alternative treatments that might work.

In response, the vet looked up some information for them and found that there was an over the counter supplement that might work. The vet said they could try that first, and if it didn’t work, then they would have to go with the more expensive treatment to save the dog’s life. Fortunately, the supplement worked, and the dog lived for about 9 years with this liver problem that otherwise would have killed him years before.

This is an example of treating a pet in an ethical manner and recommending treatments that had a very good chance of working, including an alternative that was cheaper for the pet parents’ budget. This is what being a good vet means.

Veterinary Prescription Laws and Regulations

You may be wondering if the vet was legally able to make the recommendation of an OTC supplement.  The answer is yes. This is because the vet understood the pet parent wanted to treat their dog, but needed an option that was easier to afford. The vet was able to find a treatment that was cheaper and would help the dog at the same time. This type of situation is covered by the AVMA’s guidelines for veterinary prescription medications which include:

“Veterinary prescription drugs are those drugs restricted by federal law to use by or on the order of a licensed veterinarian [Section 503(f) Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act]. The law requires that the drug sponsor label such drugs with the statement: “Caution, Federal law restricts this drug to use by or on the order of a licensed veterinarian.”

In addition, the FDA (Federal Food & Drug Association) has very strict laws regarding prescription medications being used in animals. Finally, each state has their own laws governing how and what veterinarians can prescribe for their pet patients.

As you can see, vets have plenty of regulation that covers the types of medications and how they can be used in animals. If they don’t follow these guidelines and are caught, there are stiff penalties including fines, disbarment, and even prison time.

So, if your vet has prescribed a medication for your fur baby, chances are pretty good that the medication is needed, otherwise the vet would not recommend it. There are always exceptions to the rule, but generally, if the vet prescribes a medication, then your pet needs it.

Common Ethical Issues in Veterinary Practice

Research has shown that some of the most common ethical issues for a vet usually involve:

This is why the vet code of ethics is so important; they provide veterinarians with the guidelines to meet these types of challenges in their practice, and how to deal with these challenges.

Veterinary Vendor Incentives

In recent years, there’s also been a concern that veterinarians are being swayed by vendor incentives when it comes to prescribing special diets and medications. Studies have shown there are some issues in this area; however, the vast majority of veterinarians continue to follow the vet’s code of ethics in these matters.

Veterinary Malpractice 

What should you do if you believe the vet has harmed your pet? This is when malpractice comes into play. Vet malpractice is very similar to medical malpractice for us humans. If a vet harms or kills any animal due to carelessness or negligence, this may be malpractice.

If you suspect your vet of malpractice, you can do the following:

For additional information, it’s a good idea to seek out the advice of a lawyer in your state who is familiar with the laws there.

Most of the time, you’ll find a vet who wants the best for your fur baby. While there are unethical vets, most are truly concerned about your pet and want to prescribe treatment that will help them. In addition, most vets will work with you on payments, types of treatment options available, and more.

To avoid misunderstandings with the vet, never hesitate to ask your vet to explain anything you don’t understand about medications, the need for a special diet, or discuss financial issues that may make it difficult to pay for certain treatments. Most vets will work with you on these issues and help find the best solution for your pet and you.

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Kim is a talented author, who loves animals especially dogs. She engaged in writing books and articles relating to animals a decade ago. Kim resides in Chicago with her husband and son. The family is the proud owner of a dog and a parrot (Jack and Lily). Kim wanted more than these two pets, but her husband put his foot down... She often visits elementary schools to talk to the kids about what she learned about pets and how they could learn from them.

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