T

hey’ve sold out to Big Pharma to hawk a new drug — and they didn’t even get paid for it, not in biscuits or in bones.

The furry faces of pitchdogs are flooding Facebook and Twitter as dozens of veterinarians and pet hospitals seek to raise awareness of Sileo, the first drug approved to calm canines who are afraid of fireworks and thunderstorms.

“Do not fear, Sileo is here!” Aston, a gray-and-white dog with a remarkable grasp of English, is quoted as saying (or perhaps, barking) in one post.

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Zoetis, the big animal drug maker that’s marketing Sileo in the United States, didn’t organize or ask for the PR campaign. But it did supply its sales reps with red-white-and-blue bandanas printed with the drug name to distribute to pet clinics. And it did launch the drug just in time for the Fourth of July.

Vets couldn’t resist.

The drug, a low-dose version of a dog sedative, hit the market last month. It was approved late last year by the Food and Drug Administration to treat dogs with a condition called “noise aversion” that causes symptoms ranging from skittishness to extreme panic and can result in dogs running away or injuring themselves.

Zoetis estimates that about a third of dogs are afflicted by noise aversion, which can be triggered by everything from the bangs of celebratory gunfire to the swishing of a running dishwasher.

Sileo is the latest offering in a crowded market of remedies. A dog vest branded as Thundershirt has amassed a huge following with the promise to relieve anxiety by simply applying gentle pressure. And a Texas company last week launched a wearable device that promises to deliver “calming frequencies that the dog can hear and feel.”

Sileo, which must be prescribed by a vet, is sold as a gel that is absorbed by mouth and costs $30 for several doses. Zoetis pitches it as an option that works faster than existing sedatives and antidepressants, without putting dogs into a stupor. The Finnish drug maker Orion, which developed the drug, tested it on 144 canines on New Year’s Eve and said 75 percent of dogs who took Sileo had lower anxiety than expected during fireworks, compared to 33 percent of dogs who got a placebo. (That’s according to their owners, who were asked to report on their pets’ reactions.)

The drug launched so close to July 4th that vets worried their clients wouldn’t learn about it before the skies lit up with fireworks. So they took to social media to spread the word — giving Zoetis a free marketing campaign that speaks to the powerful role social media can play in boosting or sinking the fortunes of a drug.

Linda Randall, a veterinarian who owns a pet hospital in Ohio, paid a small fee to Facebook to widely advertise two photos she took to promote the drug. One post urges pet owners to “Call us to see if Sileo is right for your dog.”

In another, her border collie, Trace, and her receptionist’s corgi, Chuck, wear bright pink earmuffs. (Trace and Chuck, for the record, are just unpaid actors; neither of them actually suffers from noise aversion.)

“If I put a cute picture with it, that might catch people’s eyes,” Randall told STAT in a phone interview over a chorus of barking. “People obviously can’t help their dogs if they don’t know the drug exists.”

Some animal clinics and hospitals had dogs don the Sileo-brand bandanas, emblazoned with stars and stripes, for social media photos.

Zoetis wouldn’t say how many prescriptions have been filled since Sileo became available last month.

But STAT counted about 40 social media posts from vets and pet clinics promoting the drug. In a Facebook video posted by an Oklahoma pet hospital, a small dog named Olivia cowers under a desk during a thunderstorm, shaking and panting audibly, her tongue stuck way out of her mouth.

“I’m going to try a new product called Sileo,” her veterinarian owner says before cutting the feed.

Twenty-five minutes later, the camera comes back on: Olivia is still under the desk but only trembling slightly. And her tongue is securely back in her mouth.

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