By Joe Smydo
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, such as Giant Eagle, which began marketing the service in 2012, 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 that hit the market.
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, grilled or baked 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.
Bernadette Kazmarski, a Carnegie, Pa., resident who has rescued 60 cats, said she has purchased medications from pharmacies when doctors didn’t stock what she needed or charged what she considered too much. Today, she said, she uses a Carnegie pharmacy for pet medications and her own prescriptions and once had to tell the uncertain pharmacist, “It’s my turn now.”
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.