The lives of thousands of pets were put at risk after a drug company raised the price of a treatment for adrenal gland problems from £5 to almost £100.
Pet owners faced crippling healthcare bills for their dogs and cats and feared that they would have no choice but to have the animals put down after the overnight rise in the cost of 100 fludrocortisone tablets, a drug used to treat Addison’s disease, last year.
Many had to endure “months of misery” after being forced to switch to a new injectable treatment that, by coincidence, was launched by a different company at about the same time.
Owners found it hard to stabilise their animals on this treatment, an injection called Zycortal, and saw side-effects that left some dogs incontinent and without the energy to walk.
Ian Ramsey, professor of small animal medicine at the University of Glasgow, said that owners had faced a “terrifying situation” as without the newly unaffordable drug, their dogs would be unable to survive for long.
“If the other treatment had not come on to the market I think we’d have seen hundreds if not thousands of dogs having to be put to sleep because of the cost of fludrocortisone,” he said.
The increase in the price of fludrocortisone was imposed by Aspen Pharmacare, a South African company that is being investigated by the European Commission for alleged “price gouging” in relation to five cancer medicines.
In April last year, it stopped selling the drug under the brand name, Florinef, and launched a reformulated version under the generic name fludrocortisone. In the process it increased the cost of the 0.1mg tablets, which are also taken by humans to treat Addison’s disease. So the cost to the NHS rose from £5.05 for 100 tablets to £30 for 30, a 1,900 per cent rise. The price has since fallen slightly to £24.81 for 30 tablets.
Dennis Dencher, of Aspen Pharmacare, said the new version was “heat stable” and no longer needed to be kept in cold storage, meaning its price “was considered appropriate” considering the cost of this development.
The price rise meant the cost to the NHS for prescriptions of the drug rose from £850,000 in 2015 to £12.6 million last year. It also had major consequences for pet owners. Many had already exhausted their pet insurance and faced even higher prices because of the large markups charged by vets. Mr Dencher said veterinary use of the drug was not within Aspen’s control.
At about the same time as Aspen’s price rise, Dechra, a British maker of veterinary medicines, launched a new Addison’s treatment for pets called Zycortol. Mark Floyd of Dechra said it was a complete coincidence that Zycortol was launched so close to the price rise for fludrocortisone.
Although its launch has saved the lives of many pets, according to veterinary experts, the switch to Zycortol resulted in severe side-effects for some animals as their owners struggled to find the right dose and stabilise them on a new treatment after years on pills.
Carrie May’s dog, an English mastweiler called Shay, had been taking 18 fludrocortisone tablets a day for five years when the price of the drug rose from 5p to £1 a tablet overnight.
“I was in a complete panic,” Ms May said. “I really thought I was going to have to have Shay put to sleep because I just couldn’t afford it.”
She tried to find stocks online but the prices being charged were “astronomical” so Ms May, 49, who is disabled and lives in Ashford, Kent, had no choice but to switch to an injectable treatment called Zycortal.
She said that Shay suffered for five months as vets struggled to find the right dose of the drug.
“There were awful side-effects,” Ms May said. “She couldn’t control her bladder so she was wetting herself all the time.
“She used to love going out and now she couldn’t go in the car, she couldn’t walk. They just broke her,” she said.
Shay was eventually switched back to fludrocortisone when a specialist veterinary drug maker made it available as a “special” in late 2016, but the dog died of a blood disorder in March.
“Shay was my life,” Ms May said. I went without food, I went without heating so that I could pay her vet bills.”