By Kim Everson, DVM
I really had to see it to believe it.
I’ve been warned for years by pharmaceutical manufacturers, professional online forums and colleagues that counterfeit medications sold online at internet pharmacies are a legitimate concern. Typically, the counterfeit products are heartworm and flea/tick preventative — medicines that are widely used but somewhat expensive and therefore worth shopping around. I’ve gotten used to warning clients that if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is not a legitimate product. Until recently, I’ve never seen an actual counterfeit medication with my own eyes.
Last week, a little terrier named “Mack” came in for his annual check up. He was wearing a Seresto collar the owner had purchased from an online discount pharmacy. Much to our dismay, Mack was accompanied to this appointment by a LIVE, blood-filled tick in a plastic baggie that the owner had removed from his ear a few days prior! Finding a well-fed tick — alive and kicking — on a dog wearing a Seresto collar is very unexpected. The Bayer Seresto collar has a long track record of safe and effective flea and tick control in dogs and cats. Dr. Hannah Albright mentioned the possibility that Mack was using a counterfeit Seresto collar and the owner readily agreed; she had noticed the collar seemed different from ones she had used in the past. Mack’s owner purchased a new Seresto collar from our clinic — one that comes through a verifiable distribution channel direct from the manufacturer — and returned later with the counterfeit collar complete with packaging. Luckily for us, Mack’s owner keeps her Seresto tins in which to dispose of the collar after eight months of use!
Curious, I immediately made a visual inspection comparing an authentic Seresto collar to the suspected counterfeit. I started with packaging. Some of the differences were very subtle, and would be easily overlooked unless you had the authentic product for comparison. On close inspection, the graphic of the dog on the counterfeit is slightly pixelated because it is a reproduction. Also the “8 Month Protection” label is noticeably blurry.
From the side, the differences in printing are a little more obvious even without an authentic product for comparison. On the counterfeit product, the font of “Seresto® Large Dog” is irregular and cartoonish. Other print, including the image of the collar, is distorted and sloppy looking. Interestingly, the container for the counterfeit product is slightly taller than the real Seresto tin.
Even without anything to compare to, Mack’s owner could tell there was something different about her new counterfeit Seresto collar compared to her past authentic ones. An authentic Seresto collar looks and feels different from a fake. It has a powdery white coating that is actually not medication but the chemical used to release the collar from the mold at the factory. The counterfeit product does not have this coating. Also, a real Seresto will have a serial number imprinted on the collar which was missing on the counterfeit. According to our Elanco representative, fake Seresto collars usually turn out to be nothing but plastic when tested at the laboratory — they certainly don’t repel and kill fleas and ticks!
The elaborate hoax continues even with the medication insert. The counterfeit insert is obviously a poor quality, faded-looking photocopy.
It is astounding to me that con artists find it profitable to go through the effort of making fake collars and packaging. It must take considerable time, graphic arts knowledge and access to manufacturing material and equipment to pull off this hoax. But distribution of these fakes through fly-by-night internet pharmacies is relatively simple. If one website gets shut down, the cons can simply start a new website. The anonymity and lack of accountability of online buying and selling allows this hoax to happen.
It is often safest to purchase medications directly through your veterinarian who obtains medications directly from the manufacturer. Cost may be less than you expect, and rebates and special offers are usually available. Furthermore, if your pet has a strange reaction or won’t take the medication, then customer support, replacements and refunds are available through veterinary channels. If you do choose to purchase medications or supplements from an internet pharmacy, your veterinarian can suggest a reputable company. And keep in mind that because the retail markup on parasitical preventatives tends to be narrow, if an internet pharmacy offers a medication at a cost substantially below what competitors charge it is most likely a fake.