Why Drug Makers Are Targeting Your Pet

Dog next to vet holding money

Some very powerful people have become extremely interested in your cat or dog.

And not in a good way …

A few years ago, I had the privilege of speaking to Dr John Virapen. Dr Virapen worked for more than 35 years in the pharmaceutical industry. He was the general manager for one of the major players, Eli Lilly & Company.

Dr Virapen shared some alarming information with me.

And it’s something that every pet owner needs to consider:

“There are numerous opportunities for pharmaceutical companies to corrupt the marketing of animal medicine because nobody really checks them. These people make a lot of money because nobody questions them and the animals get the short end of the stick. Vets can do whatever they want without fear of malpractice suits because dogs are property and their value is insufficient to be much of a threat.”

I knew this was a very dangerous problem. What I didn’t realize was how strong a hold the pharmaceutical companies have on vets. Or why animal pharmaceuticals have become so important to the major pharmaceutical companies.

And why they should be important to you.

Professional Development Or Good Marketing?

When IndyStar reporter John Russell attended the 2013 American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) convention, he felt compelled to talk about the how drug makers were working extremely hard to push pet medicines:

“On the main floor of the convention, hundreds of veterinarians and technicians stood in a line that stretched to the far wall to enjoy a free lunch and hear from a world-class researcher on fleas.” 

During that lunch, people were treated to a speech from a rep from Merck Animal Health, then offered a chance to win a book on animal parasites.

Then Dr Michael Dryden took the stage. Dryden is a professor of veterinary parasitology at Kansas State University. And his talk was about flea control. But he wasn’t an impartial speaker. According to Russell:

“Dryden talked for more than a half-hour on how fleas nest and lay eggs in a pet’s fur. Then he listed the benefits of Merck’s Activyl — how the active ingredient blocks insect nerve impulse transmission, which halts insect feeding “and causes irreversible convulsions, paralysis and death” to the fleas.”

But this wasn’t about informing the masses for the good of our pets. Merck paid Dryden $56,705 to conduct research on the effectiveness of Activyl. And his research at Kansas State received over $5 million in industry funding. That, to us, seems like the exact opposite of impartial. 

Russell tried to reach out to Dryden to ask about this, but phone messages and emails went unanswered. 

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. When Russel spoke to Merck spokesperson Pamela Eisele, she “declined to say how much the company had paid Dryden or other veterinarians in recent years for research, speaking or consulting.”

“We do not maintain a public database of all recipients, primarily to protect the confidentiality of our research efforts,” she wrote in an email.

So pharmaceutical companies can legally refuse to talk about payments to vets.

Which is notable, because this would be illegal in human medicine.

“Federal law now requires all drug companies and medical-device makers covered by federal health care programs to publish databases of all payments to physicians of more than $10” says Russell.

This means that if a human doctor were to accept a toaster or even a $10 Starbucks gift card, the information would have to be made public. But in veterinary medicine, we have no idea whether vets are accepting gifts or payouts from the drug makers. Neither the vets nor the pharmaceutical companies are required to report it.

And it’s really important to know if your vet is being completely objective about the meds he prescribes for your pet because …

Drugs Provide 30% Of A Typical Vet’s Revenue

Did you know that you don’t have to purchase your pet’s meds at your vet clinic? 

Most people don’t.

Which is ironic because medical doctors aren’t allowed to profit from drug sales at all. You have to go to the pharmacy for your drugs and that’s good business … you wouldn’t want to be guessing whether you really need that drug or whether your doctor needs the money.

But in veterinary medicine, that’s not the case.

Back in 2016, Packaged Facts estimated that by 2021 retail sales of pet medications across the United States would hit $11.2 billion. About 62% of all pet medicine sales are from veterinary clinics.

Those sales are a major supplement to veterinary income. (The median pay of a veterinarian as of May 2017 was $90,420.) 

How Much Are Meds Marked Up?

Veterinary markups are huge.

At the Pacific Veterinary conference in California, in 2007, accountant Fritz Wood advised veterinarians that keeping medicine priced high was a smart way to make a clinic more profitable.

“To operate a pharmacy as an efficient profit center, veterinarians need to be able to manage inventory and price products appropriately,” Dr Lowell Ackerman, a veterinarian who taught at Tufts University, he wrote it’s “not unusual” for veterinary clinics to mark up products by 200%.

On average, flea and tick products are marked up, on average, 80%. Heartworm drugs are marked up almost 83%.

Vet holding up a credit card and pills/ meds for dogs

But those are comparatively low compared to some other drugs. Many veterinary drugs can be marked up 100% or more.

Back in 2011, Veterinary Magazine DVM360 recommended much higher markups: “For a standard dispensed medication, add an average markup of 150 percent to the cost of the medicine, including sales tax and shipping. Also include a dispensing fee of $9 to $13.”

And years later, even as vets compete with online sales of meds, that remains the norm. Still vets are encouraged to use medication pricing as a way to make their practices profitable. This information isn’t a closely guarded secret either. Google veterinary pricing strategy and you’ll easily find vets and industry leaders offering advice about how much to markup meds.

Why Are Drug Makers Focusing On Pets?

Pharmaceutical companies are investing billions of dollars into pet medicines.

And why wouldn’t they? It’s faster and easier (and ultimately cheaper) for pet medicines to be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“But that abbreviated review comes with a cost,” says Russell.” There is a greater risk of pet drugs entering the market with unforeseen side effects.”

“I recruited the General Manager of animal product in Scandinavia and we had frequent conversations,” says Virapen. “He warned me of the many issues with the animal products. For example, while the company was still trying to get approval for human growth hormone (HGH) for animals, they were already injecting it into pigs and cows. They didn’t care that the HGH was contaminated: they were mostly waste from the human market although humans would be consuming these animals in the end.”

Moreover, Virapen says that pet medicines can be a dumping ground for expired human medicines.

“The pharmaceutical companies use vaccinations and drugs they can’t dispense for humans on dogs. This includes expired lots as well as products not approved for human use.”

Seeding And The Media

The marketing efforts of the pharmaceutical companies don’t end with vets. They also work closely with the media.

This is called “seeding.”

“Marketing strategies are planned years ahead,” says Virapen. “If a new product is on the way, the pharmaceutical companies will do the market research first and based on that, lay down strategies in terms of time and method. This is normally done with a five year projection before launch.

Their ploys include personal letters to vets and doctors with large practices, targeting specific sections of medicine and gathering information on how many animals can be targeted, who owns them (and they get information from licenses, so the government is in on it).”

Anatomy Of An Epidemic

Global vaccine sales are expected to reach $20.60 billion by 2021

And vaccines, while just a portion of pharmaceutical sales, account for a massive source of revenue for drugmakers.

And just take a look at this example of the conflict of interest that exists …

In 2011, canine influenza and the need for vaccination were heavily covered in the media. At the center of most of the media articles warning pet owners of canine influenza outbreaks was Dr Cynthia Crawford.

Screenshot of tv news showing a dog's face and the headline "Deadly Dog Flu Outbreak In Chicago"

Dr Crawford is a veterinarian at the University of Florida (UF) who led the research team that first identified the canine influenza virus in 2004.

Crawford, along with colleagues at UF, Cornell University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), share intellectual rights to the canine influenza virus.

The pharmaceutical company Merck then licensed the right to use the canine influenza virus to make a vaccine.

Crawford maintains that she and the others do not receive compensation from vaccine sales but since it’s a pet vaccine, she isn’t required to reveal whether she does.

Merck states that it markets the vaccine through “education of boarding facility operators, kennels, pet owners and veterinarians about the disease state and about steps they can take to encourage prevention.”

The VIN reports “some veterinarians suspect that vigorous marketing of canine influenza vaccine plays a part in confusing perceptions of disease prevalence.”

When Merck was approached about overzealous marketing, a company media relations official had no comment.

Practice manager of A-Animal Clinic in Fort Worth Texas, Newley Spikes reported to VIN that vaccine vendors “pounded us with the information. We’re one of the largest boarding facilities (in the area); we hold 150 dogs. They’ve been after us for about 24 months or so that we need to get on board with CIV. They continue to bring it to our attention if there are cases anywhere.”

Spikes said he doesn’t consider Merck’s vigorous marketing inappropriate. He said the clinic charges $19.85 for the first shot and the same for the booster.

“Our clientele has been nothing but receptive,” he reported.

After the media frenzy, just how bad was the influenza outbreak of 2011?

Dr Christian Leutenegger, head of molecular diagnostics for Idexx, reported just eight cases in California, ten in New York City and environs and ten in Texas.

Vet Spending Is Up

Although pet owners are visiting vets less often, veterinary spending is actually going up.

In 2017, US pet owners spent $69.51 billion on veterinary care – up 4.1% over 2016. And that number is only expected to grow.

Perhaps declining vet visits are making vets look for more ways to keep their clinics profitable. And pharmaceutical sales may be just what the doctor ordered.

“Clients have no idea how much medicine should cost, so a fee increase will almost never be noticed,” says accountant Fritz Wood.

And vets seem to be motivated enough by sales of pet medicines to fight a recent move to make pet meds available online and in big box stores.

So, here’s some food for thought to finish things off. Packaged Facts says 8 in 10 pet owners trust what their vet says about medications. Be part of the 20% that questions that advice before blindly lining drug makers’ pockets.

Read John Russell’s full article in the IndyStar

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