Pet owners trying to keep vet bills down turn to cheaper human drugs

Warning that some medication is not licensed or safe for all pets

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High vets' bills are causing some pet owners to turn to cheaper human drugs in order to keep costs down.

The inflated price of drugs used to treat animals has sparked calls for a national registry, with experts calling for vet services to be rated under a universal set of standards, similar to those applied to Dubai's hospitality sector.

The cost of drugs used to treat pets can vary wildly, with some medications almost identical to those used by humans but costing significantly more.

For example, Renitec, used to treat heart conditions in humans, costs about Dh1.8 per tablet but the animal-specific version, Enalapril, costs almost three times more.

But vets warn that although some drugs used for humans are safe for pets, the varying dose, tablet size and metabolism of animals can make others dangerous.

It is often far more expensive to treat an animal than a human, some of the prices are horrendous
David Appleby, founder of

Also, some medications, such as those used to treat animal seizures, are unavailable in the UAE due to licensing regulations.

This means vets often have to look for alternative human medications that are available at greater cost, but may not be as effective.

Claire Champion, who owns five rescue pets – three dogs and two cats, said finding the right treatment for animals can be a challenge.

“The vet bills are difficult to deal with,” said Ms Champion, who is British and lives in Town Square, Dubai.

“Unless you know what medication pets need or which vets are good to use, there is a lot of trial and error.

“We've tried a few veterinary clinics and we've even had a misdiagnosis.

“If my dog needs antihistamine tablets, I can get them from the pharmacy for Dh20 for a pack of 40, rather than Dh5 a tablet from the vet.

“It is a lot of savings, but many clinics don't do that. You put your trust in the experts and veterinary consultation fees can be very different.”

Another pet owner, who lives in Jumeirah Village Circle, says she was charged Dh582 for heart pills for her 14-year-old rescue dog, after previously being prescribed the human drug Renitec.

The Renitec tablets cost about Dh1.8 each from a pharmacy, but the pet version, Enalapril, costs about Dh4.85 per pill.

Another example is Augmentin, an antibiotic used to treat bacterial infection in humans, and the animal version Clavamox.

Augmentin typically costs around $1.30 (Dh4) per tablet, while Clavamox can cost around $3 (Dh12) per tablet.

David Appleby, founder of, a company that tracks lost pets and conducts animal community care, said expensive veterinary fees can also be a barrier to rehoming animals.

“A good vet will often give advice on what cheaper drugs from the pharmacy can be used, but this is usually for minor complaints,” said Mr Appleby, who helped rescue more than 150 cats dumped in the Abu Dhabi desert by pest controllers in October.

“With heart medicine I would always follow a vet’s advice, but the costs can vary hugely between different veterinary clinics.

“We believe vet services should be rated under a universal set of standards, similar to the way hospitality is.

“The difference in prices can be astronomical. It is often far more expensive to treat an animal than a human, some of the prices are horrendous.”

Not all veterinary drugs are more expensive than the human equivalent, though. Tetracycline is one antibiotic that bucks the trend.

Drug pricing

For one hundred 500mg Tetracycline capsules suitable for animals – pet owners can expect to pay about $2 (Dh7), whereas for human consumption, the online price is about $50 (Dh183) for 100 capsules of the same dosage.

Anaesthetics used in animals also tend to be cheaper than for humans, with Lidocaine for pets usually significantly cheaper than the human alternative, Xylocaine.

While there is no UAE legislation preventing the prescription of human drugs for animals, unlike in the US or UK, vets say they often feel reluctant to waver from pet-specific medications.

“We don't use human medications in our practice as we've got a policy where if there's a licensed veterinary drug we would always use that,” said Dr Sam Westhead, from the Amity Veterinary Clinic in Al Barsha, Dubai.

“Human medication is often only a rough translation because there are different pill sizes and different formulations. Veterinary drugs are formulated to be palatable to animals, to be the right size and the right shape.

“If there is a veterinary-licensed product, you have to use that unless you've got very good reason to use a human medication.”

Some pharmaceutical companies have specific animal divisions, creating medications solely for the veterinary industry.

However, due to the market being smaller, the demand is well below that from the global human population, so it is less lucrative.

That leads to higher prices for pet owners, and fewer treatment options at the disposal of vets faced with a sick animal.

“Certain vets will prescribe human medication for an animal as a cost-reduction exercise,” said Dr Westhead.

“There's not going to be a great deal of difference between Enalapril and Renitec, for example.

“Some over-the-counter anti-inflammatories here are very similar to the drugs we use in veterinary medicine.

“But, during our training, it's very clearly pointed out that there is the potential for risk and toxicity.

“I could be dealing with a 1kg kitten one minute and then a 60kg Great Dane the next.

“We have to be a lot more accurate with our dosing and you can't always get that with human medication.”

The US Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approves animal drugs in the same way human drugs are verified for use.

Meanwhile the Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act (AMDUCA) permits extra-label use for veterinary “un-met animal needs”.

Toxic risk

Dr Hollis Stewart, a former veterinary specialist in the UAE who now works in the US, said there are limited animal-specific medical resources available.

“There are only around 15 per cent of diseases for which the FDA has approved animal drugs,” she said.

“In those circumstances there is something called extra label use, under which vets will make a decision when to use a human drug.

“Legally, we are supposed to use veterinary medications, but there are many crossover antibiotics such as amoxycillin and tetracycline, and a lot of human eye medications used for cats and dogs.”

Most drugs in veterinary medicine are given in accordance with the animal’s weight, a consideration rarely offered in human care.

Also, not all drugs metabolise in animals the same way as they do in humans.

What works in one animal may be toxic in another, such as anti-parasite medications used in cats and dogs that are toxic in tortoises and turtles.

And because of the way drug receptors work, vets may give a horse more of a drug than they would give to a rhino, or a bird a higher dose than a dog.

“Although it is safe to use human drugs in animals under guidance, it is only done when there is no other option, or if the disease is not common enough to have specific animal drugs,” said Dr Stewart.

“For animals we can use a lot of injectables, such as penicillin straight into the muscle for a horse, that we could never do in a human.

“The issue is there is not enough research into different species, and how they respond.

“What we do know is that animals often react better to chemotherapy drugs than humans, as there is a psychological component to cancer that animals are unaware of.

“Animals tend to do better after radiation treatment, and are generally stronger and handle things better than humans.”

Updated: January 17, 2024, 3:15 AM