Pet meds barking up retail’s tree

A typical retail pharmacy is equipped to handle most of the prescription needs of its customers, whether they have a skin rash, chronic illness or the need for a vaccination against the flu or shingles.


With the plethora of health needs facing humans these days, it’s easy to forget that Fluffy and Fido have a few health needs of their own — needs that are driving sales of prescription drugs for pets and opening opportunities for pharmacy retailers.


Among people, the aging of the population has led to a rise in such long-term, chronic health conditions as arthritis, metabolic disorders and kidney disease. And similar trends have been occurring among pets. “It’s all chronic disease, for the most part,” Debbie Wang, an analyst with investment firm Morningstar, told Drug Store News. “In general, if pets stay away from trauma, really what gets them is stuff like cancer, cardiovascular disease and, for cats especially, diabetes.” Wang said pet health care likely would grow faster than it had in the past, driven by younger people putting off having families and older people becoming empty nesters. “So you have a lot of solid drivers for continued growth in pet ownership, and as pets get older, that’s where you’re going to see a growth in pet medication,” Wang said.


According to Packaged Facts, a division of MarketResearch.com, retail sales of pet medications — including sales through retail stores, online retailers and veterinarians — reached $6.7 billion in 2011. Online retailers, including those operated by Target and Walmart, have expanded their product ranges and continue to control much of the pet drug business, Wang said.


One reason why brick-and-mortar retailers have been relatively slow to get into pet meds is because most pet owners continue buying medications through veterinarians, while manufacturers often refuse to sell directly to retailers, forcing the latter to go through distributors while vets can get the drugs for cheaper from manufacturers. This especially is true for certain drugs designed solely for pets; many other pet drugs are reformulations of drugs originally developed for humans, or even human drugs dispensed at lower doses.


“Now, retail pharmacies are starting to see prescriptions for those products come in the door, and a demand for those products exists at retail,” Costco SVP pharmacy Vic Curtis told DSN. Costco soft launched a pet meds business last year and rolled it out nationally this month. The new initiative includes a custom CE program for pharmacists dispensing pet meds, as well as a veterinary drug handbook shipped to stores and access to veterinarians who can answer pharmacists’ questions. “It’s a small segment currently, but we have expectations that it will grow to be more significant over time,” Curtis said.


Kinney Drugs, a regional chain based in northern New York state, also has a pet meds business advertised on its website, while signage at Walgreens’ Chicago flagship store touted the availability of pet meds.


Pharmacy retailers also could stand to benefit from proposed legislation moving through Congress. H.R. 1406, the Fairness to Pet Owners Act of 2011, introduced by Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, would require veterinarians to allow pet owners to have prescriptions filled anywhere instead of making them obtain drugs at the office.


Meanwhile, analysts see pet drugs as serving a function similar to vaccinations — a way to attract more customers, even if they don’t necessarily make retailers a lot of money. “I believe the whole goal is to get people in the store more often, and if having to fill a prescription for your pet means it’s going to bring you into the space an extra time that you wouldn’t before, it seems to me that it would be a benefit for [retailers],” Wang said.