What's good for the rest of the family may be good for Pepper, Taz, Crash and Lady Crash.
They are the four tail-wagging companions of Terri Walker and Randy Harrill of Irving, Tex. Using their cost-saving skills as small-business owners, the couple may be leading the pack among trend-setting pet owners.
Dog and cat lovers are defying U.S. law by buying discounted veterinary therapies from the same online Canadian pharmacies that offer lower-cost drugs for humans. Prices are lower because the Canadian government regulates them and because online pharmacies do not have to maintain brick-and-mortar stores.
"I kind of stumbled onto them," said Walker, 52, referring to the online Canadian pharmacy DoctorSolve.com.
Walker did some business with a U.S.-based online pharmacy and knew how to shop for medicine on the Internet. She found the Canadian outlet offered more than 40 percent savings on a preventative heartworm and flea medication -- $170 for a six-month supply for all four dogs, down from $300.
"It adds up," she said.
As with drugs for humans, Food and Drug Administration officials said such cross-border purchases are illegal. But they are turning a blind eye and allowing pet owners to import as much as 90 days' worth of veterinary drugs.
"We consider that to be a low regulatory priority," said Stephen F. Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine.
Even so, Sundlof said the FDA has concerns because the agency -- which regulates both prescription and over-the-counter veterinary drugs -- cannot guarantee the safety of drugs imported from Canada. He said that they could be fake or tainted, and that there is no way to know if they were manufactured in an FDA-regulated facility.
Canadian pharmaceutical experts disagreed with the safety concerns. They urged consumers to make sure online vendors are licensed and publish their addresses and phone numbers on their Web sites.
"It can be safe, as long as you know where you are getting the medications," said Gabriel Levitt, vice president of PharmacyChecker.com, which ranks Canadian pharmacies and provides free online price comparisons.
Canadian online pharmacies said customers must provide prescriptions when required.
So far, Canadian online pharmacies are getting just a trickle of U.S. pet business. That may explain why it is not drawing complaints from drugmakers -- unlike the howling over the importation of medication for humans.
"It does not register," said Ron Phillips, a vice president at the Animal Health Institute, a trade group whose members manufacture about 80 percent of veterinary drugs.
The human pharmaceutical market dwarfs the pet version in size or profits, experts said.
Consider the numbers:
Pet owners make 127 million visits to veterinarians annually, but less than 10 percent of those visits require prescriptions, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
A major pet drug might generate $300 million in annual sales, said Robert Brakke, a Dallas veterinarian business consultant. By comparison, Pfizer had sales of $9.3 billion for Lipitor, its best-selling cholesterol-lowering drug.
Total veterinary sales by member companies of the Animal Health Institute were $1.7 billion in 2002, while human drug sales totaled -- $139 billion.
But the business is growing quickly, recording a 30 percent sales gain in 2002.
Canadian pharmacies hope to capitalize on that increase, which is being driven by a growing demographic group: retirees. The pharmacies hope those veterinary customers return to fill their own prescriptions.
"The trend of baby boomers and seniors is to have pets for their empty nests," said Paul Zickler, part owner of DoctorSolve.com, based in Surrey, British Columbia.
Zickler said his pharmacy gets 20 to 50 veterinary drug orders a day, a pace he said will grow as customers realize savings and as a greater variety of medication becomes available.
Jason Pankratz, a part owner of Winnepeg's CanadaDrugPrices.com, gets three to five veterinary drug orders a day at its just-launched PetDrugs.ca. But he thinks the business has promise.
"We saw how the market was growing on the human side of the business, and we were getting calls from customers asking about drugs for their pets," he said.
Pankratz said U.S. customers should expect to save 15 percent to 20 percent on veterinary drugs, less than the 40 percent that is typical on human treatments from Canadian pharmacies. Others said consumers should shop around, as similar savings can also be found from U.S.-based online pharmacies.
Marilyn Bowser, a 62-year-old retired bookkeeper in Mesquite, Tex., said she hopes the savings from purchasing pet medication online will stretch her Social Security check. She expects to save about $15 on drugs for her cats, Mickey and Tiger, a savings that will pay for the shipping of her own medications.
"I have been taking medications from Canada for two years, and I have not seen any difference except the price," she said.
Jerri Thomas, a homemaker in Fort Worth, decided to try a Canadian pharmacy after seeing an advertisement and hearing about a favorable experience from a cousin. She ordered a heartworm and flea treatment for Sassy, her toy poodle.
Thomas said she is considering buying her own drugs from Canada. But before she does, she intends to check the packaging and other materials that arrive with Sassy's treatment.
"Our dog is just a little princess. I want the best for her," she said. "When I get the product, I will take it to the vet to make sure it is okay."
Thomas's veterinarian may not be thrilled to see her, though. Vets sell about 75 percent of the therapies purchased by pet owners and believe the online pharmacies will take a bite out of their business.
"This is a hot-button issue in veterinary medicine," said Roland Lenarduzzi, a veterinarian in Manvel, Tex. "That is part of the way we make our living," he said. "When someone comes along and wants to take that away, that is not going to make you very happy."