When Debbie Schoenack of Plymouth brought her malamute to a vet for a skin problem, he suggested that she go elsewhere for the prescription. "He told me that I could get it from a regular pharmacy or pay twice as much and get it through him," Schoenack said.

She decided to get her dog's medicine filled and refilled at Walgreens, which was much closer to her home than her vet's office.

Buying pet prescriptions at a neighborhood pharmacy instead of a veterinarian's office isn't new, but more pharmacies are joining the ranks, including Rainbow, Lunds and Byerly's pharmacies. It's easy to see why. Americans spend about $4 billion per year on pet medications and pharmacies would like a larger chunk of it. Currently, nearly two-thirds of dog and cat owners get their pet prescriptions from veterinarians, according to Consumer Reports. The price for drugs from veterinarians includes a $5 to $10 dispensing fee plus a markup that starts at 100 percent and can go higher, depending on the drug, said Dr. Sharon Hurley, a veterinarian and current president of the Minnesota Veterinary Association.

The recession caused some pet owners to start considering other resources for pet medications, said Hurley. Internet sales started the trend, including mail-order companies such as 1-800-Pet-Meds, but Target added the service in 2010. Cub Foods jumped in last year and Wal-Mart followed suit this year. Rainbow, Lunds and Byerly's added the service last month.

Hurley said most vets don't mind if consumers want to get their pet medications at a pharmacy. It's all part of being sensitive to their client's budgets, but it's important that they have final control over the dosage and the exact medication prescribed. Nearly half of the prescriptions that vets write can be filled with a human drug equivalent, said Ron Richmond, director of managed health care contracting for SuperValu, which includes Cub Foods.

That can cause problems if the veterinarian, pharmacist and the pet owner aren't careful. Hurley wrote a prescription for an allergy medication that had cortisone and antihistamine in it. The pharmacist called her to ask if substituting a human drug with just an antihistamine would be OK. It wasn't. "They weren't comparable," she said.

Most veterinarians will call in the prescription to the pharmacy to see whether any substitutions will be made, said Richmond, but pet owners should check with their vet before leaving the pharmacy, since drugs are not returnable.

How do vets like the trend?

Betsy Kroon of Minneapolis loves the convenience of being able to pick up her dog's anti-anxiety meds at a pharmacy just a few blocks from where she lives. "It's grab and go," she said. Kroon credits her vet, whose office is 90 minutes away in Nicollet, Minn., for telling her about the pharmacy option.

But not all vets are as quick to tell their customers about filling prescriptions elsewhere. "What people don't understand is that getting their pets' meds from pharmacies lowers our profit margin," said Dr. Kim Schnepf, a veterinarian at Dakota Pet Hospital in Lakeville. For many clinics, drug sales represent about 20 percent of a clinic's profit. If their profit margin is lowered, a lot of single-practitioner clinics will have to raise prices or be forced to close, Schnepf said.

About 25 percent of the customers at her clinic are already inquiring about transferring their prescriptions. "People want the best deal in this economy and that means we're going to have to work harder not to be dependent on drug sales," she said.

Schoenack, the malamute owner, saved 50 percent on one drug at Walgreens with its discount program, but consumers are unlikely to save that much on every prescription. A 30 percent savings is not uncommon, said Bill Schommer, manager of the Rainbow pharmacies in the Twin Cities. Pharmacies can usually charge less because they buy in larger quantities than veterinarians do.

Schnepf is even starting to see her clients asking for a price match. "We will do it, but we won't take a loss on it."

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633 or jewoldt@ startribune.com.