PORTLAND, Maine — Pharmacy students at the University of New England are learning how to formulate custom medications not only for their future customers, but also for those customers’ pets.
Doctoral students are studying how to safely compound veterinary drug prescriptions, mixing up batches of the same medications humans take but in doses and applications better suited to cats, dogs, exotic creatures and other companion animals, according to UNE assistant professor Cory Theberge.
Take Valium, for example. Humans swallow the drug in pill form, most commonly to combat anxiety. Veterinarians sometimes request that pharmacists mold the drug into a suppository that can be administered to a dog as it’s experiencing a seizure, when a pill or shot isn’t practical, he said.
“Many drugs do not come formulated for a certain species or a specific animal use, so veterinarians commonly order compounded drug prescriptions for their patients,” he said.
Dosing human drugs for animals is much more complicated than just figuring out a pound-to-pound conversion, Theberge said.
“[The drugs] have the same function as in the human body, but they need a much different dose, and that’s due to the fact that the animal’s biology is different,” he said. “It’s not metabolizing the drug in the same way, it’s not absorbing the drug through its intestinal tract in the same way. Its blood chemistry is different.”
Creams and lotions that deliver medications through the skin are commonly requested by vets because they’re easier to administer to pets, Theberge said. Cats with hyperthyroidism are often treated with a medicated cream that’s rubbed into their ears, where the blood vessels are close to the skin’s surface, he said.
Then there’s flavor — much like humans, critters have their preferences. Horses prefer hay and oat-flavored oral medications, while tropical birds, naturally, are more inclined to take drugs when they taste like fruit, Theberge said.
Cats, which make up most of the market for compounded veterinary drugs, are especially finicky, he said. Felines often get medications flavored with a blend of sardines, tuna and salmon, and are more likely to tolerate square-shaped tablets than round ones in their delicate mouths, he said.
Cost-conscious pet owners are increasingly looking to buy compounded drugs for their pets at the same retail and community pharmacies where they pick up their own prescriptions, Theberge said.
“If you can get it down the street at Pharmacy X, Y or Z for $20 less, most people will,” he said.
Compounding of drugs for livestock is treated separately and is more highly regulated, Theberge said.
Pharmacists who can speak knowledgeably with veterinarians and possess the skills to mix drugs for animals will have a professional edge, he said.
Katelyn Richard, a student pharmacist at UNE, said she valued the elective class as the market becomes more competitive.
“Pets are now considered another member of the family,” she said. “Taking this class has given me an advantage over other pharmacy students to provide another level of care to customers’ furry friends.”
The inaugural class of UNE’s College of Pharmacy will graduate in May 2013. Doctoral students, who learn the basics of drug compounding as part of their regular curriculum, can take the veterinary compounding elective in their third year.
A lab for the elective was co-organized by Steve Hauke, a veterinary pharmacist and owner of PetScripts in Yarmouth, which formulates custom drugs for animals. Big pharmacy chains are beginning to carry and advertise pet medications — more often preformulated drugs such as Frontline and Heartgard — but their pharmacists typically don’t have much time to compound drugs, he said.
Medications specifically formulated for pets could evolve into significant niche for corporate pharmacies, Hauke said.
“I see this as a small component of a larger retail market,” he said.