Seattle — As a marketing executive, Marian Salzman knows she shouldn't let the slick advertisements get to her.
But as the owner of two golden retrievers, she feels a twinge when she sees a dog limp across her TV screen and hears, "Because the pain is every day -- ask your veterinarian about ..."
Once the mangy mutt of the marketing world, ads for pet prescription drugs now flaunt the sophistication of a purebred poodle. Drug companies are chasing the success of Viagra, Allegra, Prilosec and other human drugs whose aggressive marketing campaigns turned them into top sellers.
The goal: fetch some of the $18 billion American households spend yearly on veterinary expenses. More than 71 million households own a cat or dog, and a growing number view pets as family members worthy of the best, from health care to doggie spas and pet day care.
"Vets have become like pediatricians," explained Salzman, executive vice president and chief strategy officer of Euro RSCG Worldwide, an advertising and marketing firm. She recently spent $800 on a thyroid test to determine why her 9-year-old dog was losing weight. Her company doesn't do pet drug ads, but she admires the craftsmanship.
"It invents desire to keep pets healthy and it invents guilt, that maybe other people are doing something for their pets that you're not," Salzman said.
Furry family members
Marketing experts and veterinarians agree, ads for pet drugs are becoming harder to distinguish from the human version.
"They are done in very similar fashion -- it's still the guy in the sweat suit running down the beach with the dog by his side. It's still the same visual and message," said Rob Frankel, author of "The Revenge of Brand X: How to Build a Big-Time Brand on the Web or Anywhere Else."
One particular ad campaign stuck with Dolly Woerman, of Seattle, who hurled tennis balls for her athletic boxer Remo at a dog park one recent sunny afternoon.
"There was a golden retriever sitting on the porch ... then it showed him running through a field, acting like he was a puppy again," Woerman recalled. "Oh yeah, if you're any kind of animal person at all, that's what you want -- to make them feel good."
The ad, several years old, was for Rimadyl, an arthritis medicine for dogs. Although the drug helped Woerman's previous dog, the campaign was almost too successful for the manufacturer, Pfizer. The company pulled the ads after the drug's widespread use revealed lethal side effects for some breeds. Rimadyl remains one of the leading brands.
The federal Food and Drug Administration regulates pet drugs the same as it does human drugs. Any claims about what the drug does must include warnings of possible side effects. Ads that simply state the drug's name, along with an exhortation to ask your doctor or veterinarian about it, can skip the risk warnings.
A month-long ad campaign for Deramaxx, an arthritis medicine that competes with Rimadyl, boosted sales 50 percent in May, according to senior product manager Elaine May. "Ask your veterinarian" billboards plastered the drug's name across Times Square and in dozens of cities.
Getting pet owners' attention is half the battle, said May, who works for the drug company Novartis. And selling the brand is particularly important with more pet owners buying discounted prescriptions online, May said.
"They're getting more sophisticated. Because there are so many more players, that raises the bar," May said of the evolution of the ads in recent years. "They're using much more premium imagery, really working on branding."
Pet drug ads aim for the heart with all the subtlety of a Celine Dion ballad. Even the most skeptical consumer might be moved to sniffles by the Deramaxx ad that shows a dog staring forlornly up the stairs he can no longer climb.
"It has the potential to be very effective because people are very, very close to their pets and they want their pets to be happy and anxiety-free," said Larina Kase, a therapist at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Treatment and Study of Anxiety.
Kase sometimes has to rebuff requests from her human patients for mental health medications for their pets.
"I don't think your dog needs Prozac," Kase said. "He probably needs a walk."
Veterinarians say pet drug ads make consumers more educated -- and sometimes more demanding.
"People are going to come in asking for Frontline (anti-flea medication), Rimadyl, Deramaxx. Most of the time people know the names of the product they want. It's certainly on the upswing," said Dennis Feinberg, president of the American Animal Hospital Assn.
Feinberg said the increasing brand-savviness means pet owners recognize symptoms of illness sooner. But sometimes vets struggle to convince people that the best-advertised drug isn't best for their pets.
"It's bittersweet," he said.