Millions of people adore their pets and consider them almost family. Kroger is now offering prescription medications for their four-legged kin at all 100 of its pharmacies in the Houston area.

After launching a pilot program last year, Kroger has more recently expanded pet meds into all its pharmacies nationally. The Cincinnati-based grocer aims to undercut veterinarians on price, and many pet medications are included in Kroger's $4 generic drug program, said Marla Fielder, the assistant director of pharmacy in Kroger's Southwest division.

Many other pharmacies offer drugs for pets that are also used by humans, such as blood pressure medicine, but Kroger is among the relative few selling pet-only medications such as, for example, Baytril, a broad spectrum antibiotic for cats and dogs; and Rimadyl, a non- steroidal anti-inflammatory drug for dogs. Target also offers pet-only meds in 670 pharmacies nationwide, although none of them are in Houston.

Some grocery analysts say offering prescription drugs for pets is a good way to increase revenue. The U.S. animal health industry generates about $4 billion in sales of packaged pharmaceuticals and vaccines annually, said Bob Fountain, president and CEO of Stonington, Conn.-based Fountain Agricounsel, a management consulting firm for agribusiness and animal healthindustries.

"I wouldn't be surprised if Kroger's pet medication business became very popular," said Terrie Ellerbee, associate editor of the Shelby Report, a Gainesville, Ga.-based supermarket trade publication.

"It's an interesting concept and something the grocery industry will be watching," said David Livingston, a grocery industry analyst at Waukesha, Wis.-based DJL Research. Grocers are already selling pet food, he said, and there are vast numbers of pet owners.

Once mainly restricted to veterinarians, the selling of prescription pet medications by retailers such as Kroger represents a significant change in the animal health industry, Fountain said. There is also a growing market for animal health products via the Internet, he noted. Online companies such as PetMed Express and Drs. Foster & Smith sell prescribed pet medications once they receive copies of veterinarians' prescriptions.

Kroger's offering of vet-prescribed pet drugs "is a natural extension of what's been going on in the industry," said Fountain, who noted that many retailers, including mass market, drug and pet stores as well as grocery chains, are selling more and more over-the-counter pet medications such as flea and tick treatments.

Traditionally, vets have marked up their pet medication prices by as much as 100 percent, he said, but in a still less-than-robust economy, many pet owners are looking for lower prices from over-the counter retailers like PetSmart, Petco, Wal-Mart and Target - particularly for flea and tick medications, he said.

Ask a vet
Along with selling over-the-counter flea and tick products, all 20 Houston-area PetSmarts have Banfield Pet Hospitals that can prescribe pet meds, PetSmart spokeswoman Toni Eberhardt noted.

While Kroger offers a full range of medications, there are other pet drugs that consumers may be able to find only at their vets, Fielder said: "It's wise for pet owners to ask their vet if they're able to purchase the prescribed medication at a retail pharmacy."

Doctors who treat humans do not fill their own prescriptions, whereas it is a huge profit center for veterinarians, Fountain noted: "Vets will have to work hard to maintain their income from medications."

Dr. Diane Wilkie, co-owner of Richmond Ave. Animal Hospital, said she tries to be competitive on pet medprices.
"We're usually $5 or $10 more, but sometimes less than retailers," she said. "I understand it's a competitive market. My only concern is whether retailers get their meds directly from the manufacturer or from a third party."