The Pets We Love--And Drug

Fluffy is getting old. Going on 13, she's geriatric for a Rottweiler. And like many people past retirement age, she takes a lot of pills—steroids for her bad hips and pinched nerve, a chewable tablet for her underactive thyroid, even Benadryl for her allergies. Her owner, Kelly Dowd, is happy to pay the $75 monthly. But to date, there has been no pill to treat Fluffy's most serious ailment—at 110 pounds, she's 25 pounds overweight, borderline obese.

Next month this will change when Slentrol, the first diet drug for dogs, hits the market. Developed by Pfizer and approved by the Food and Drug Administration late last year, Slentrol suppresses a dog's appetite and limits fat absorption. Although Dowd says she'll try to cut the amount of food Fluffy eats before resorting to drugs, at a cost of nearly $2 a day Pfizer believes the owners of at least 17 million dogs will be willing to try Slentrol. That could be a conservative bet: about one third of the 74 million dogs in the United States are overweight (5 percent are obese). And, increasingly, Americans are willing to open their wallets for Fluffy and friends, spending nearly $40 billion on their pets last year, double what they did in 1994.

Perhaps that's because pets have become more prominent members of the family. "We've shown an increasing willingness to spend money on our pets as they've become a bigger part of our lives," says Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association. This is partly because a decade ago, most pet owners were parents, but now more are owned by people with no children at all—empty nesters, gay couples and single adults. In many households, pets aren't just presents for children—they are surrogate children. "Two thirds of homes in the U.S. have a pet," says Vetere. "Twice as many [as those] with children."

Whether we worry that our pets are eating tainted, potentially lethal food—or that they're simply eating too much—we've made pet health a priority. In 2006, 77 percent of dogs were given medication, compared with 52 percent in 2004. According to APPMA, spending on pets' surgical procedures and dental care—including floss and teeth whiteners—has also risen. Pet products now make up more than half an animal-health market once dominated by products for livestock, fueling what in 2005 was a $5 billion industry. "The companion-animal sector has snowballed into this unstoppable force," says Richard Daub, who covers the industry for the trade publication Animal Pharm.

Not surprisingly, some of the world's largest drugmakers are pouring resources into their animal-health divisions in hopes of capitalizing on this emerging market. The FDA has approved more than two dozen new drugs for pets since 2002 alone. Along with Slentrol, Pfizer has a drug to treat motion sickness in dogs that's due out in August. Eli Lilly just launched a new companion-animal division, and plans to develop six drugs in the next four years, in part by reconstituting drugs developed for humans, targeting not physical but psychological ailments. Lilly's new flagship pet medication, Reconcile, approved by the FDA in January to treat separation anxiety in dogs, is the same compound as its antidepressant Prozac. "The cost of developing a new drug is so high, they're crazy not to reuse molecules developed for humans," says Nick Dodman, director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. Based on research done by Dodman, a British firm, Accura Pharma, recently bought a patent to develop the first antiaggression drug for dogs.

Some pet owners say medication has improved their pets' lives dramatically. Mark Musin of San Francisco gives his Jack Russell, Murphy, Prozac to keep him from fixating on reflections and shadows. "Without it, he obsesses over them," Musin says.

But others see pet drugs as a quick fix that fail to address the root of a bigger problem. Pets are often cooped up indoors and left alone for much of the day, under-exercised and overfed—is it any wonder they're aggressive, anxiety-ridden and fat? "We're absolutely projecting our neuroses and bad habits onto our pets," says Dr. J. P. O'Leary, a veterinarian outside Pittsburgh who says that of the 400 animals he sees a week, half are obese and many have behavioral issues. Rather than spending the time and energy working with their pets to correct them, though, "people would rather throw a pill at it," he says. O'Leary hesitates when asked if he plans to prescribe Slentrol to clients with overweight dogs. "Only as a last resort," he says. "The problem can be solved by regulating their food and getting more exercise." That's advice plenty of humans could use, too.