After diagnosing him with gingivitis, Dr. Thomas Wake gives Chip the cat a routine check-up.
Though debate over national health coverage continues, cats and dogs have nothing to fear. Americans spent $12.4 billion on veterinary care in 2009 and another $3 billion on medication alone.
“People take much better care of their animals,” said Greg Hammer, past president of the Schaumburg-based American Veterinary Medical Association. “It used to be that the dog was tied out back and the cat was a barn cat – now they are the other family member.”
Even Walgreen Co. includes pets under a $35 monthly prescription savings club.
Big pharmaceutical companies are driving the trend, creating new pet-specific medications for the animal sector. With advances in veterinary medicine, pets can now be treated for a whole host of diseases and conditions that in the past might have led to death or euthanasia.
Veterinarians are increasingly treating animals for conditions that mirror the human population such as obesity and diabetes.
Diabetes is “almost an epidemic proportion because of obesity in pets,” Hammer said. “It’s not a new disease. We see it more and diagnose it more.”
Hammer primarily uses Novolin insulin, a human product made by Novo Nordisk A/S, to treat canine diabetes. He uses Prozinc, manufactured by Missouri-based Boehringer Ingelheim Vetmedica Inc., for feline diabetes. The newer drugs, in general, are more expensive because there is no generic competition, “but they tend to be the best ones to use,” he said.
“Most animal drugs are human drugs that are adapted for animals,” said Hyde Park veterinarian Thomas Wake. So as pharmaceutical companies make newer diabetes treatments for people, insulins that have been used on pets for many years are no longer available, Wake said.
But vets also use hundreds of drugs that were designed originally for humans. The Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act allows animal doctors to use their judgment to prescribe any Food and Drug Administration approved drug on an animal in need.
Growing rosters of behavioral modification drugs – such as Eli Lilly’s Reconcile for dog separation anxiety – are providing veterinarians with new ways to treat animals with mental duress that might chew destructively, urinate or tremble when left alone.
“I certainly use behavioral modification medications more than I used to,” Wake said. He often prescribes Reconcile, which is a flavored, chewable redesigned version of the anti-depressant Prozac. “After there was enough research to see they are safe – and I see these incredible, wonderful results.”
Wake said a woman brought a stray dog with severe behavioral problems into his clinic. He thought the canine would be unadoptable, but after a brief stint on the anti-anxiety medication, Lucky the dog was much calmer.
“He was on it for two or three months. Now he’s perfect,” Wake said.
Vets don’t need to worry about suicidal tendencies or a loss of libido in pets on anti-depressants. “Those are the biggest side effects and they are really are not germane in animals,” Wake said.
Part of the increase in pet medication spending can be linked to the aging population of cats and dogs. A variety of medications exist for elderly cats with kidney failure and old arthritic dogs.
“Pets are living longer,” Hammer said. “Because of that we are beginning to see more geriatric situations.” Dogs and cats live an average of 15 years or more. When he started practicing in Delaware in 1973, most companion pets didn’t live past 10, Hammer said.
Elissa Sineman of Evanston is part of the trend. She had to take out a $2,500 line of credit through her Morton Grove veterinarian to pay for her dog’s chemotherapy treatments. Her dog died two years ago at 12 years old, and she is still paying off the bills.
“I should just do direct deposit from my salary to the vet,” she said.
Last month Sineman spent $450 on Mama, her 14-year-old American bulldog/shar- pei mix. “She had a really rough summer but the medications really pulled her through,” she said.
Mama could barely get up because of arthritis, so she got shots of Adequan, by Luitpold Pharmaceuticals Inc., and Pfizer Inc.’s Rimadyl for pain. Then the dog developed bedsores, which eventually got infected. The antibiotic for the infection gave the dog an upset stomach, so she also took metronidazole, a medication to alleviate diarrhea.
Even when her dog isn’t having medical problems, Sineman expects to spend $150 to $200 a month on her.
Chicago resident Lynda Young, one of Wake’s regular visitors, spent a couple thousand dollars on her 10-year-old dog Ruby in the past year. Wake will be removing a second ear hematoma in the coming weeks. The adopted stray used to see the veterinarian only for yearly check-ups, but recent medical issues have made her a frequent patient. To keep Ruby comfortable before surgery, Young has been giving the dog a beef-flavored pain reliever for canines, which costs $20 to $40 a bottle.
Each ear surgery costs between $500 and $600. “I could do this the cheap way and just have them drain it, but it would be uncomfortable” for the dog, Young said.
Vets have a lot of liberty in deciding individual service and medication prices, but they don’t control the entire market. Also competing for a piece of the growing animal health industry is PetMed Express Inc., the largest online pet pharmacy. The company is a licensed pharmacy in all 50 states, which allows it to sell prescriptions. PetMed posted profits of about $26 million in the year ended March 31, up 13 percent from the year-earlier period.
Edward Woo of Wedbush Securities Inc. estimates the veterinary medication industry will grow at a 5 percent annual average rate over the next five years.
Eli Lilly & Co. recently reported an increase in U.S. sales of 15 percent to $775.1 million in its animal health division in 2010. Company executives attributed the growth in part to Reconcile as well as sales of food and Comfortis, an oral flea control tablet for dogs. Lilly representatives said in a recent conference call that they will continue to invest in the animal drug pipeline and plan to launch two more parasite-control medications in 2011.
These pet medications “are not just seconds that come off of a manufacturing line,” former AVMA president Hammer said, adding that pharmaceutical giants have to go through several processes to get drugs approved by the FDA for use on animals. “These companies spend millions of dollars developing and researching their drugs.”
The increasing significance of pets to Americans has given rise to expensive pet products like luxury dog beds and cat condos, new businesses that provide dog walkers and cat sitters and a collection of other services. The pet economy appears to be thriving regardless of the lagging U.S. economy.“People are very attached to their pets,” Hammer said.