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Like humans, dogs could benefit more from proper diet and exercise than just relying on drugs, says former breeder Geri Marshall of Dartmouth, N.S.

paul darrow The Globe and Mail

Like their owners, dogs can wear clothes, eat organic food and even enjoy a day at the spa. Now, there is a growing opportunity for dogs to be like their owners in another way: by taking medication to treat every illness, symptom or pain they experience.

Pain management, obesity, anxiety and motion-sickness drugs are just a sampling of the burgeoning range of pharmaceuticals for canines that have hit shelves in recent years.

Sales of drugs for animals are now a multi-billion dollar market. Many veterinarians, as well as pet owners, say the new drugs are a reflection of the elevated status dogs and other pets now have in their families and are an important way to improve quality of life and longevity.

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But to others, rapidly escalating growth in the market is a troubling trend that puts animals at heightened risk for serious side effects, overmedication and unnecessary exposure to powerful drugs.

"I think the reliance on a quick fix by pills is a problem," said Michael Goldberg, veterinarian and owner of the Vancouver Animal Wellness Hospital, which focuses on treatment with a combination of traditional and homeopathic medicine.

The Canadian Animal Health Institute says sales of drugs for dogs are growing every year, although it doesn't formally track exact figures. In the United States, animal health-product sales reached nearly $7-billion (U.S.) in 2008, according to the Animal Health Institute, which represents pharmaceutical companies and others involved with animal health.

In the past five years alone, Health Canada has approved 40 new drugs for use in dogs.

Among the new approvals are dirlotapide, sold by Pfizer under the brand name Slentrol, a drug that is designed to combat obesity in dogs; maropitant, sold by Pfizer under the name Cerenia, to treat canine motion sickness; and firocoxib, sold by Merial Canada as Previcox, used to treat osteoarthritis in dogs.

But since those drugs were approved, Health Canada has also received dozens of reports of adverse reactions associated with them. The department has received 34 adverse-reaction reports involving firocoxib, five involving maropitant and three involving dirlotapide.

Health Canada is in the process of creating binding regulations that would ensure those four drugs are only allowed to be dispensed by prescription. The move is necessary in large part because the drugs could pose serious risks if not given under proper care and supervision.

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For instance, weight management drug Slentrol has "potential for undesirable side effects" when given at normal therapeutic doses, the department said in a consultation document outlining the proposed new regulations. Motion sickness drug Cerenia could mask other ailments in dogs, Health Canada said. It also said there is a "narrow margin of safety" between therapeutic and toxic doses of pain drug Previcox in younger and older dogs.

There are also serious side effects associated with a variety of other veterinary drugs on the market.

For instance, Deramaxx and Rimadyl, two non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs that are in the same family as Vioxx, a human drug that was taken off the market because of serious safety issues, have been linked to hundreds of adverse events and deaths in dogs in the United States and Canada that have led some pet owners to call for their removal from the market.

These problems, combined with the rapid growth in availability of new drugs for dogs, has some veterinarians worried.

"I'm not ignoring the fact there are advances to some of the pharmaceuticals that are produced," said Paul McCutcheon, founder and director of the East York Animal Clinic in Toronto, which offers traditional and holistic services for animals. "But all of the hype and all of the push that is given by the sales forces of the pharmaceutical industry is just overdone."

Dr. McCutcheon said he thinks animal medicine risks moving in a troubling direction by placing too much focus on treating symptoms rather than the root cause of a problem. He singled out anti-obesity medication as a prime example.

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"Why we have to have a pharmaceutical for that is beyond my comprehension," he said. "We should address the reason for the obesity that's the problem in all these things."

Rick Goulart, director of media relations for Pfizer Animal Health, said Slentrol is designed to improve the health of dogs.

"It's not a frivolous medication to make a dog look more attractive," he said. "It's really designed to address the serious health needs on the part of the dogs and their pet owners who want to deliver good health."

He added that the company's animal health division, which had nearly $3-billion (U.S.) in sales last year, is focused on finding new ways to improve and promote the health of animals, including pets, who are considered by many to be part of their family.

While vets have used medication to treat dogs for years, companies are shifting their focus to "lifestyle" drugs that have traditionally been the domain of humans in an effort to increase their sales, said Jim Edwards, who writes about the pharmaceutical industry at business website

"Because more people regard their dogs as little humans and not just as pets, the amount of money they will spend on their pets has gone up," Mr. Edwards said. "Drug companies are taking advantage of this trend."

Despite the problems, many veterinarians still believe recent advancements in animal therapies represent a positive trend toward promoting good health.

"People are much more interested in and willing to take their animals that next step to go into very specialized diagnostics and medication to keep the animal … healthy and alive as long as it can," said Duane Landals, registrar of the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association. "I believe it's obviously just the tip of the iceberg."

However, some pet owners are wary of the growing emphasis on medication for pets. Geri Marshall, a Dartmouth resident and former dog breeder who owns two dachshunds, said that much like humans, dogs could benefit much more from proper diet and exercise than relying on drugs.

"I wouldn't say run to the drugstore for drugs," she said. [But]there's a lot of people in this world that have to have a pill for everything."

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