New pet drugs are looking a lot more like human medications

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If you want to understand how different the human and animal medicine and vaccine industries have historically been, you don’t need to look much further than weight loss drugs.

On the human side, Novo Nordisk and Eli Lilly struggled to meet the demand for Ozempic, Wegovy, Mounjaro and Zepbound, respectively, since introducing them, as the popularity of these diabetes and weight loss treatment drugs surged in 2023. Other drug makers, like Pfizer and AstraZeneca, have outlined their strategies for getting into a market that could be worth tens of billions of dollars in the next decade, while small pharmaceutical companies are trying to grab a share in what has become the hottest part of health care.

Comparatively, the first medication designed to combat obesity in dogs was ultimately pulled from the market in 2014 due to lack of interest.

“I think I had one of the only dogs that was on it, and I’m going to make myself sound really bad when I explain why,” said Zoetis CEO Kristin Peck, named CEO in 2020 and named to the inaugural CNBC Changemakers list on Wednesday. “I don’t think a lot of people wanted to get their dogs weight loss drugs because if your dog is overweight, you have to admit that the reason is probably you’re not walking it and are feeding it too much.”

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As the saying goes, dogs, and pets in general, have long been viewed as man’s best friend. But pet pharmaceuticals haven’t always matched that, and often a tick or flea collar was the lone preventive medicine many pets saw, outside of necessary vet visits.

But Peck said she has seen a shift in mentality from pet owners, as well as a shift in the pharmaceutical pipeline, that is bringing animal medicine more in line with human medicine.

“Newer generations see their pets very differently than previous generations,” Peck said. “Fifty, sixty years ago, your dog was in the backyard; now it has moved into your house, often your bed and sometimes replaced your children — your dog or cat has a stroller, a backpack and an outfit.”

When Pfizer spun off its animal health business in 2013 creating Zoetis, about 65% of the company’s business was livestock-related. That has flipped now, with 64% of the company’s revenue coming from products for companion animals like cats and dogs.

Peck has kept the company’s emphasis on innovation, developing products in pet categories that didn’t previously exist.

For example, the company had more than $1.3 billion in revenue from dermatology-related dog and cat drugs in 2022, compared to less than $1 million from products in that same category in 2013. The company’s top product in that category is Apoquel, which is designed to treat dogs who suffer from allergic itches and dermatitis.

“When we said we were going to have dermatology, [the reaction] was that dogs don’t need dermatology, they take some Benadryl if they itch,” Peck said. “But we said we think we can create a market, and to now have over $1.3 billion in dermatology sales, if I told you that was even remotely possible five or six years ago you would have said that was crazy.”

Peck credits the Pfizer spinoff for allowing Zoetis to better balance what the company wanted to do in animal health versus the human health side. “We only have one customer, and we are only thinking about that every day and with every dollar we spend, whether that’s on R&D, commercial or manufacturing,” she said.

This approach has led to the next product that Zoetis and Peck are betting on to become a $1 billion franchise: the treatment of osteoarthritis pain in dogs and cats.

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In May, the FDA approved Librela, which is a monoclonal antibody treatment that can provide long-term control of OA pain symptoms in dogs, improving their mobility and overall quality of life. According to Zoetis, 40% of dogs have signs of OA, which can make it difficult for them to go up or down stairs, a hesitation to jump, limping after exercise and becoming more withdrawn.

A similar product was approved for cats, marking the first time that monoclonal antibody treatments, which have become increasingly popular for treating human illnesses, have been used to treat pet osteoarthritis pain.

“You can’t make a monoclonal antibody for dogs in a human health facility, so you have to be willing to outlay capital during clinical trials, and that’s a bold, large capital decision,” Peck said. “We’ve demonstrated that pet owners will pay if you find a product that has value.”

While Zoetis is focused on bridging that gap between human and animal health products, Peck said the company is also aiming to tackle some of the unique differences, like the diagnosis process.

“People with osteoarthritis, they go to the doctor, they get medication so they can live a healthier, longer and a better quality of life,” Peck said. “But if my hip is killing me but no one knows that because I don’t have a limp, it’s like the assumption that your dog doesn’t have osteoarthritis because it’s not limping.”

In June 2022, Zoetis spent more than $50 million to acquire pet care genetics company Basepaws, which produces DNA testing for dogs and cats focused on health and early detection of disease risks.

“You’re going to be able to extend life by looking at genetics and biomarkers to run diagnostics,” Peck said. “We’ll be able to get better at predicting, which will massively improve the quality of life of animals who can’t speak and can’t tell you they’re feeling some of the things that they are.”

Artificial intelligence is helping with that as well. Cats generally get less medical care than dogs due to the difficulty many owners face in bringing them to the vet, Peck said, so Zoetis has invested in AI technology that will allow cat owners to record their cat’s movements, upload those videos and have AI analyze it to see if the cat is dealing with any osteoarthritis issues.

Peck said Zoetis will remain focused on innovative approaches to animal health, taking some queues from human health but also forging its own path to deal with the unique challenges that come from taking care of cats and dogs.

Unlike 2014, could there now be an Ozempic for dogs and cats that works?

Peck said while the company continues to explore GLP-1s to treat pet diabetes, weight loss is not a current area of focus. Challenges related to cardiology, oncology and kidney disease are the highest priorities.

“We recognize the success this class of medications has had in human health. In terms of treating pet obesity, our work with genetic markers could yield a more targeted opportunity for a treatment that could be effective for pets and a solution pet owners would value,” she said. “A lot of the same technologies will work from humans to animals. And from animals to humans.”  

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