Pet medication market opens up as retailers enter game

When her 12-year-old cat needed an antibiotic a year ago, Karen Sable went, of all places, to a grocery store.

The Munhall, Pa., resident picked up Colby’s prescription at a Giant Eagle pharmacy for no charge — it was one of the grocer’s free antibiotics — and the ailing kitty unwittingly joined a marketing revolution.

Pet medications, once the domain of veterinarians, are increasingly available at grocers, chain pharmacies, specialty pet stores and retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target, all of which are finding the $7.6 billion-a-year pet-med market to be the cat’s meow.

Instead of paying whatever their vets charge — and doctors have been criticized for big markups — pet owners now can shop for the best prices and rack up retailer loyalty points in the process.

In addition to getting some antibiotics for free, for example, Giant Eagle customers earn “fuelperks” on certain pet-med purchases. Rite Aid, which offers pet medications at some stores, offers discounts through its “Rx Savings Program.” Target customers can apply pet-med purchases to a promotion offering 5 percent off a day’s purchases.

Some stores mainly dispense the pet-appropriate doses of medications their pharmacies carry for people. Others, such as Target, carry those medications plus drugs manufactured exclusively for pets.

Target rolled out pet medications on a limited basis in 2010. Now, according to its website, the retailer sells about 70 medications for cats and about 100 for dogs, a list that includes antibiotics and antifungals, pain relievers and parasite-killers and drugs for the eyes, gallbladder, heart, liver and thyroid.

Pet owners still have more options because of a jump last year in the number of online pharmacies and in the number of lower-costing generic drugs.

Putney Inc., a manufacturer of pet generics in Maine, last year ranked 290th on Deloitte’s list of the 500 fastest-growing technology-related companies in North America. Putney has five medications on the market and another 20 medications in development.

Currently, it says, 93 percent of pet medications lack lower-costing generic equivalents.

United Networks of America says pet owners can rack up savings — as much as 75 percent in some cases — with a Pet Drug Card that can be used like a coupon for the pet-appropriate doses of human medications. United Networks, which offers similar programs for other kinds of products, says it has tens of millions of card-holders and uses that clout to negotiate discounts with manufacturers and retailers.

Independent pharmacies have their own niche with the individualized preparation of medications for pets that require special doses, need liquids instead of pills, or insist on special flavors. Murray Avenue Apothecary in Pittsburgh has about 15 flavors — including liver, cheese, chicken, tutti frutti and marshmallow — for finicky pets.

“We have one dog who likes bubble gum,” pharmacy owner Susan Merenstein said.

The changing landscape reflects pharmaceutical companies’ desire to expand their sales channels, retailers’ hunger to cash in on a profitable market and the willingness of cost-conscious pet-owners to step out on their vets.

“Let’s go find a better price,” said George Puro, a New York pet-industry analyst, summing up the consumer mindset.

Sable, owner of Pet Emergency Training LLC, which teaches CPR and first aid for animals, said she supports a wider market because high medical costs sometimes force people to give up their furry companions.

Puro said pet insurance programs, which have begun to leave their own industry footprints, aren’t driving the proliferation of medication outlets. Rather, he said, high-cost medications may be pushing some pet owners into insurance programs.

Puro, who recently completed a state-of-the-industry report for the market research publisher Packaged Facts, said the evolving marketplace has upset some veterinarians. According to a video on Putney’s website, medication sales account for as much as 35 percent of gross revenue at some practices.

Pet owners who buy from prescribers pay mark-ups as high as 248 percent on some drugs, U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, said in 2011 when he introduced a bill to require veterinarians nationwide to provide prescriptions that clients could fill wherever they wanted. That bill died, and Matheson reintroduced the legislation recently with Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.

The American Veterinary Medical Association opposed the 2011 bill, saying that it already encouraged doctors to provide prescriptions and that the bill infringed on state regulatory prerogatives.

Mike Hutchinson, a veterinarian and owner of Animal General in Cranberry, Pa., said clients should feel free to buy medications wherever they want — provided the prescriptions are written by a vet who has treated the pet and the drugs come from a reputable source. Even among retailers, costs vary, Hutchinson said, recalling a caller to his radio show who told him that the charge for one medication at Animal General was higher than one retailer’s price but lower than another’s.

Hutchinson said medications aren’t a profit-making part of his business but that other practices are structured differently. He said big retailers have the economies of scale to sell medications for less, even if it’s just to bring people into the store.