Keeping your beloved pet safe, happy, and healthy can be an expensive proposition. There are so many things to consider even beyond the day-to-day necessities.

While vet bills can be planned for with a good pet insurance plan, the medication your furry family member needs can easily begin to gouge your wallet as they grow older, or if they're diagnosed with a lifetime condition.

One option is to look online for the best deals on pet medication, but before you reach the checkout, consider this: would you buy critical medication for yourself or a human family member online?

It's likely that you'd look for more than just the best deal you can find, so here are some things to consider before you click 'buy' and take a chance on that too-good-to-be-true online pet medication.

The dangers of ordering pet medication online

There are two main concerns that pop up when ordering your pet medication online: that the medication will not work properly, or that it isn't suitable for your pet.

The first issue can be the more frightening one at first glance; counterfeit medication can cause a number of problems, ranging from a lack of effectiveness at treating dangerous conditions, all the way to potential injury to your pet.

It can be difficult (even impossible) to spot counterfeits when you've purchased them online, and unscrupulous sellers may switch producers regularly, so purchasing these medications can be a game of Russian roulette for you and your pet.

Of course, the second issue - that the medication is unsuitable - can be just as dangerous. Many online pet pharmacies boast that they don't require a prescription for the pet medication they peddle. Some simply pass on the medication you ask for, while others claim to have a veterinarian on staff who will analyse the information you provide and then proceed to issue the prescription themselves.

Even if the medication is legitimate, it can be dangerous to your pet if what they really need is something else entirely.

How to safely buy pet medicines online

With all of that said, it's still possible to safely and securely buy your pet medication online, without worrying that your pet will be put in danger.

1. Speak to your vet ahead of time.

If you're thinking of making any pet medication purchases online, prescription or otherwise, ensure that you talk to your vet first. Not only will this give you additional insight into potential issues with your pet's health, but your vet will also be prepared for any problems which do arise.

In addition, your vet can give you a prescription which can be used online; most vets charge 5 - 10 for this service, which they are obligated to provide under UK regulations.

What's more, some pet drugs can only be prescribed by a vet so without their help you could be stuck.

It's also possible that your pet's health insurance may not cover issues that arise because you've ordered medication online, so do a check on this beforehand as well.

2. Look for a VMD approved website

The VMD (the Veterinary Medicines Directorate) - the official body responsible for monitoring the quality of pet drugs prescribed by vets - has also set up an approval scheme for pet drugs sold online. It's called the 'Accredited Internet Retailer Scheme' or AIRS for short.

All AIRS approved websites have been inspected and approved by the VMD for compliance with the Veterinary Medicines Regulations and AIRS standards. While it's voluntary it's a good idea to look for this stamp of approval before you order vet prescribed medication online because it gives you some reassurance that the drugs you order will be safe.

All AIRS approved retailers are listed on the VMD website, and each retailer's website should also display the 'VMD Accredited Retailer' logo with a link back to their page on the VMD site - so check.

Counterfeit sites can still spring up so check for other warning signs such as poor writing standards, prices in multiple foreign currencies, and mirror sites in other languages. Read 5 Ways to Check A Website Is Legit for more tips.

3. Investigate the website's policies

Some warning signs for dodgy websites are easy to spot, such as not asking for a prescription for prescription-only medication. Others, however, may be buried deeper within terms of use and policies.

Shipping and return policies should be clear and concise, allowing you to make a complaint or return if your package arrives damaged or there's another problem with it.

The retailer should also display a UK location based address (not a PO box) and have a phone number that works.

Read How Can I Check If A Company Is Legitimate? for tips on what to look for.

4. Protect yourself

In the effort to keep your pet safe, don't forget to protect your wallet in the process. Keep an eye out for the signs of a scam operation, ensure that you only provide your credit information on properly secured pages (https), and be wary of any offered downloads as these may contain viruses or trojan programs.

It's a good idea to pay for purchases costing over 100 (per item) with a credit card (and then clear the balance before you get your statement) so that you benefit from Section 75 protection if things go wrong.

Otherwise, if there's an issue you could always make a Chargeback claim if you paid by debit card, or by credit card for something less than 100.

5. Look for reviews and complaints

Keep in mind that on-site reviews may be fraudulent, and spread your net a little wider. If there are major problems with an online pet pharmacy, searching for their name will likely bring up any complaints, debates, or recommendations.

Read these with a grain of salt as they too may be sponsored by the pharmacy itself, use your instincts, and avoid any retailer which has attracted too much negative attention.

6. Look for properly branded medication

Most legitimate pet pharmacies will also outline why their medication is cheaper than their competitors; if you spot phrases like 'identical to' or 'off-brand' back away immediately, as this may be the sign of a dangerous supplier attempting to appear legitimate.

Any off-brand medication should be clearly labelled as such, not passed off a counterfeit.

7. Consider what you're purchasing

As a rule, it is usually safer to purchase non-prescription medications online rather than prescriptions. Not only are these often less critical for your pet's health (making it less of an emergency should they turn out to be counterfeit), but they are often sold by a wider range of reputable online stores.

Flea repellents are one easy area to save money online, along with nutritional supplements and parasite preventatives like heartworm medication (as always, be sure to speak to your vet before giving your pet any new medication).

8. Check your purchases when they arrive

Even if you're confident that you've chosen the perfect online pharmacy for your pet's medications, the last step is to ensure that all of your purchases are legitimate.

As soon as your package arrives, carefully examine the medication. You should look for unreasonable expiry dates, poor package construction (including smudging or blurred images), instructions which are entirely in other languages, and misspellings, as any of these can indicate off-brand or counterfeit medication.

If you have any suspicions, do not hesitate to return your order (and do not give any to your pet). I

You can report any websites you have concerns about to the VMD enforcement team by emailing enforcement:vmd.defra.gsi.gov.uk.

Buying medication for your pet can be a stressful and costly experience, but with common sense and these suggestions leading the way it's still possible to get great deals online without sacrificing their health.

Important: These tips are intended as guidance only, please take extra care when ordering pet medication online and only buy from retailers you are sure are legitimate and licenced to provide the correct drugs for your pet.

If you have any concerns or are unsure about dosage or the drugs your pet needs then please speak to a qualified vet.

It's also best to take your pet to the vet for a regular check up if they are taking medication ongoing because their needs may change over time.