March 10, 2007
By JEFF DONN Associated Press Writer
© 2007 The Associated Press
WAYNE COUNTY, N.C. With aging, it's become a routine faithfully endured by the Guffords. Each day starts with a blood sugar check and a shot of insulin. Then a couple of pills, maybe mashed into a bowl of tuna and canned carrots. Mixed with dry chow.
All for their 12-year-old dog.
Brownie takes more drugs than his human companions put together. He has been medicated in recent months for diabetes, infections, high blood pressure, and his finicky gut that rebels at red meat. Since 2005, he has taken drugs for everything from anemia to a spider bite.
"He's our baby, he's a family member, I would want somebody to do that for me," explains Ann Gufford.
She estimates spending $5,000 over the last two years on medicine for her baby, a mixed beagle-cocker spaniel. He has lost a couple of steps on the squirrels outside their little home near Goldsboro. His hearing is failing. Still, without some of the drugs, he'd probably be gone.
"You cannot put a price on that," says Mrs. Gufford.
"And I don't want to," adds her husband, Ben.
Americans have begun to medicate their dogs, cats and sometimes other pets much as they medicate themselves.
They routinely treat their pets for arthritis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, allergies, dementia, and soon maybe even obesity. They pick from an expanding menu of mostly human pharmaceuticals like steroids for inflammation, antibiotics for infection, anti-clotting agents for heart ailments, Prozac or Valium for anxiety, even the impotence drug Viagra for a lung condition in dogs.
Increasingly, they buy at people pharmacies or online and sometimes pay with health insurance.
Until recent decades, American veterinarians still concentrated on care that reflected the country's agrarian roots: keeping farm animals healthy to protect the human food supply. Instead of being medicated, a very sick animal was quickly sacrificed to save the herd. Pets were typically kept outside with the cows, chickens and pigs. A dog was lucky for a dry place in a crude shelter; a cat, for a warm spot in the barn.
Within the last five years, pets have finally overtaken farm animals in the pharmaceutical marketplace, claiming 54 percent of spending for animal drugs, according to the trade group Animal Health Institute.
Keeping more than 130 million dogs and cats alone, Americans bought $2.9 billion worth of pet drugs in 2005. Though equal to only 1 percent of human drug sales, the market has grown by roughly half since the year 2000.
"As more and more drugs are being developed for people, more and more drugs are being developed for veterinary medicine. It's really a parallel track," says Dr. Gerald Post, founder of the nonprofit Animal Cancer Foundation.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved more than 40 new pet drugs over the past five years.
One of them was Slentrol, which became the first government-approved slenderizer for obese dogs in January. It will cost up to $2 a day, though buyers could presumably put their animals on a diet and save money on dog food in the bargain.
"We're treating them like part of the family, so we indulge them," says Georgette Wilson, a vet for Slentrol's maker, the animal health branch of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. "We give them too much food. We don't exercise them as much as we can."
The market growth reflects an intensifying bond between pets and their people, who are comforted by the unquestioning love of their animals in an affluent society where traditional institutions are frayed and mobility severs family ties. A 2002 survey for the American Veterinary Medical Association found that 47 percent of people viewed their pets as family members.
This attitude people depending on their pets makes customers vulnerable to overspending, some vets warn.
For example, a single three-month course of pet chemotherapy might cost $3,000, though chemo in an animal is meant more to ease symptoms than prolong life. It's a reasonable option only for some pets. Researchers have also begun to test new, expensive, targeted cancer drugs like Gleevec on animals.
"I really should have let him go before I did," says Margaret Park, in Raleigh, who had her failing Abyssinian cat treated with a second round of chemo. "When you've been treating an animal for a really long time, you lose your objectivity a little bit."
Unwilling to let go, some people go to extremes to scrape up the cash even mortgaging their houses, says Dr. Steve Suter, who treats pet cancers at North Carolina State University's veterinary college. "It doesn't affect people at all. They love their animal," he says.
Most days, retiree Ben Gufford takes Brownie into Goldsboro for lunch at Burger King. In the drive-through lane, he orders the fish fillet sandwich hold the mayo for Brownie, along with a chicken sandwich for himself. Then Gufford takes the fish from the bread, cools it with the air conditioner and sops up the grease with napkins to accommodate Brownie's sensitive digestive tract.
Brownie wolfs down his lunch from Gufford's outstretched hand, along with any pills he refused at breakfast.
"It puts new meaning into their motto: Have it your way!" cracks Gufford's wife.
The Guffords take life Brownie's way. When Mrs. Gufford's parents and Brownie fell ill two years ago, she visited all three daily at their hospitals.
Mrs. Gufford, who works as a laboratory technician in a hospital, says some co-workers seem to think she "should just go and put that dog down and forget about it."
She adds disdainfully: "They have yard dogs."
Of course, many people still medicate pets sparingly. Laura James of Plymouth, Mass., said she and her husband had a tumor removed from their 11-year-old golden retriever. When it returned, though, they decided to let "nature takes its course," and had to put their pet to sleep recently.
They never considered pet chemo, rejecting it as too expensive. "If it were our children, there'd be no question, but it's a pet," James said. Then she added, "My sister thinks I'm cruel."
James is not the only one uneasy with the cost of pet medicines. Dr. Laurence Family, a vet in Latham, N.Y., acknowledges coming across the occasional client who finds his charges "outrageous."
Some question whether society is keeping priorities straight. Dianne Dunning, an ethicist at N.C. State's vet school, anguishes over the millions of animals, lost and unwanted, that are euthanized each year, while millions of dollars are spent on pet medicines.
David Rothman, a Columbia University expert in medicine's role in society, points to the millions of people who are desperately short on care: "If you can't get malaria drugs in some Third World countries, what are we doing with chemotherapy for cats?"
Yet many American pet owners, like some who come to N.C. State's veterinary school, "spend $500 a month on their chronic medications and they don't flinch," says school pharmacist Gigi Davidson.
Neither do the drug companies. They're doing more direct marketing with ads that show active, healthy-looking pets the perfect counterparts of vibrant people in ads for human drugs.
"Vets are not great marketers," says industry consultant Ron Brakke. "The companies have figured this out: that by advertising to the pet owner, we'll have the pet owners asking about more products."
In the past year, 1-800-PetMeds, a phone and online seller, spent about $22 million on advertising, says its chief financial officer Bruce Rosenbloom. Actress Betty White has acted as celebrity endorser.
But promotion can backfire. Some popular pet drugs, tested less extensively than human medicines, have hurt the health of some pets with unexpected side effects.
One example: The drug Rimadyl, developed for humans but later approved by the FDA as a treatment for dogs' arthritic aches, was aggressively advertised by its maker, Pfizer. But it ended up causing kidney and liver damage in some animals. It has been tied to more than 3,000 pet deaths, FDA records show.
In the end, hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation were paid by Pfizer, and the FDA asked the company to give out warning sheets with the drugs.
In 2005, the FDA asked the makers of 14 heartworm products to quit marketing them as 100 percent effective.
And it's not just the wording of ads that reflects marketing innovations. To make pet pills more appealing to pets and their people, some are flavored like table scraps: bacon, turkey, cheese, peanut butter.
Some vets believe that a greater share of spending is wasted on ineffective or harmful drugs for pets than people. "I don't want people to think that the health of their animals is medication-driven," says Dr. Norm Stillman, a Plymouth vet, a stethoscope slung around his neck.
Most pet drugs are still sold by vets, but that could be changing. Internet-based companies are fighting for business, stirring tension with vets who argue that they can better protect pets with careful examinations. "In the past, veterinarians have gouged the public," fires back Rosenbloom at 1-800-PetMeds.
Health insurance for pets has finally begun to catch on in the past five years. It multipled from near invisibility in 2002 to as much as 3 percent in 2005, a marketing study found. Now insured are dogs, cats, birds, pigs, mice, snakes and other exotics.
Veterinary Pet Insurance of Brea, Calif., claims close to 80 percent of the U.S. market with its 400,000 policies, typically costing $30 a month in premiums. Company spokesman Brian Iannessa says the total market is expected to climb to $500 million by 2010.
Paul Hubrich, who recently treated two dogs for chemo at Tufts University's veterinary school in North Grafton, Mass., doesn't have insurance on them and figures it wouldn't have saved him much.
But he's not complaining. One of his dogs, of mixed breed, was expected to die of lymphoma within weeks. It labored during chemo but beat the odds, still alive after two years. His other dog, a springer spaniel, was alive too, though it had run through more than 50 drugs for various problems over three years.
"Do I think the drugs are expensive?" says Hubrich, who adopted both from a shelter. "I would just say to you that the dogs are still here."