It’s a big species world out there. Though we may love our goats and parrots and rabbits no less than our beloved cats and dogs, it’s a mission to find approved drugs for them when they’re ill. In fact, it’s mission impossible—truly—as there are almost none available.

Any vet wanting to obtain some measure of safety and efficacy-related security in selecting a drug for a minor species patient is plumb out of luck (to put it nicely). There’s almost no approved product for you if you’re not a human, cow, horse, pig, chicken, turkey, dog or cat.

That’s why we need a more streamlined, less expensive approval process for species who wouldn’t otherwise get any attention from the pharmaceutical industry. The Minor Use and Minor Species Animal Health Act of 2004 makes way for just that. In recognition that some species represent too small a market for pharma to enter into the ridiculously expensive drug approval process, the MUMS Act gives economically small-time species a chance to get a leg up, healthwise.

Now, you might think the FDA requires so much reform in terms of safety and efficacy already that it makes sense they’d bypass the so-called “lesser” species in favor of fixing their outmoded, highly bureaucratic system for human drug approvals. I mean, why spend money when you don’t actually have to?

Well, thank goodness no one argued that line when it came time to offering approved drugs for our dogs and cats. Where would small animal vet medicine be today without it? God knows we wouldn’t have the plethora of well-researched products we vets currently stock our shelves with if the FDA didn’t invest resources on our pets’ drugs.

You could argue that our drugs are still not safe enough—and you’d be right. But then you’d be overlooking the fact that without an established approval process, pharmaceutical companies have almost no incentive to devise new drugs for specific species.

It means a lot to offer drug approval. Consider the sheep and goat ranchers who are increasingly tending to home-grown herds for their wool, mohair and cashmere. This could be a bigger industry in this country, but ranchers have few drugs tailored to fit their creatures. That means they lose many of them every year to treatable diseases (parasites and diarrhea, for example).

Or how about our dairy goats? Are they not viable participants in our economy? They could be even more important to many local economies across the US as the health benefits of goat milk and the gourmet-quality of their cheese become more widely known. But good luck finding a dewormer ideally suited to lungworms in caprines.

Without a doable approval process, these sheep and goats will continue to do without. How better to stifle an emerging industry than to fail to recognize and support its needs?

On the humanitarian front, alone, it only makes sense that animals not destined for the food chain also be given a chance to play. Drugs for psittacines (parrot-like birds), reptiles, ferrets and small rodents are necessary if we’re to keep our wide variety of pets in the good health they deserve while they’re under our care.

So you understand, we use lots of drugs on these animals already, but their use is termed “off-label.” This means there’s been no systematic testing of their safety and efficacy. All we typically have are small studies and empirical evidence to go on.

So if a well-recognized avian vet in California is using a new drug in parrots successfully, she presents a paper at a conference and the rest of us adopt her ways. But we don’t usually get to know how safe and effective it is in a controlled research setting. We’ll figure it out six years from now when the next paper comes out reporting that every African Grey that ever received it died as a result. That’s not an ideal process, now, is it?

The MUMS Act changes this by setting up less rigorous standards for minor species drug approval (not that parrots are high on the list for new drugs anytime soon, I’m afraid). While the system may not be perfect, it’s a big step in the right direction. Here’s the rub:

Though it passed in 2004, it has yet to be implemented. The funding isn’t there. Now we’ve just heard that the expected 2007 earmarks didn’t come through for this project and that no funding is expected for 2008, either. Considering the vast sums of money that go towards frivolous earmarks every year, it seems unconscionable that one economically justifiable Act can’t make the grade over some historical society’s collection in Smallville, Somewhere or than some Bridge over the river X, Elsewhere.

After all, government funding should be an investment. Not that funding the arts and history aren’t investment-worthy, but earmarks should be judged on their merits, not on the lobbying savvy of a given region’s congressional representative. If we have limited money to spend, then spending it intelligently in areas that will provide demonstrable value to a greater number of citizens becomes a moral imperative.

And though animal welfare may not be enough of a good reason for some of our citizens, it’s clear to most industry-watchers that our burgeoning animal health sector (the lucrative pet health industry and the nascent sheep and goat industry, in particular) deserves this modest investment on the basis of economic gain alone.

It boils my blood to read the lists of earmarks that made the cut over funding an Act passed almost four years ago. Furthermore, knowing we have the power to improve the health and welfare of animals through a simple bit of intelligent legislation—but not finding the money to actually implement it—makes this vet wonder how this democracy ever got to be so unrepresentative.

PS: If you seek to help with your personal voice, here’s something you can actually do: Contact your US Senator! This is what you can say…

“Hello. This is XXX calling from XX county. I am calling to ask Senator XX to support the Minor Use Drug Program (NRSP-7) as it is an essential program for maintaining the health and welfare of minor animal species.  Would you please ask Senator XX to contact Senator Harkin and Senator Chambliss and ask them to support reinstating NRSP-7 in the resolution budget for 2008?”

Note:  If you live in any of the states below, the following US Senators would be especially influential in helping NRSP-7. These senators are on the Agriculture Committee (except for Diane Feinstein). Contact information is for Washington, DC offices.  All of these Senators also have regional offices. The telephone numbers for the regional offices can be found on their web pages.

Tom Harkin (IA): 202-224-3254 or http://harkin.senate.gov/

Patrick Leahy (VT):  202-224-4242 or http://leahy.senate.gov/

Kent Conrad (ND):  202-224-2043 or http://conrad.senate.gov/

Max Baucus (MO):  202-224-2651 or http://baucus.senate.gov/

Blanche Lincoln (Arkansas):  202-224-4843 or http://lincoln.senate.gov/

Debbie Stabenow (MI):  202-224-4822 or http://stabenow.senate.gov/

E. Benjamin Nelson (Nebraska):  202-224-6551 or http://bennelson.senate.gov/

Ken Salazar (CO):  202-224-5852 or http://salazar.senate.gov/

Sherrod Brown (OH):  202-224-2315 or http://www.sherrodbrown.com/

Robert Casey, Jr. (PA):  202-224-6324 or 866-802-2833 Toll Free or http://casey.senate.gov/

Amy Klobuchar (MN):  202-224-3244 or http://klobuchar.senate.gov/

Saxby Chambliss (GA):  202-224-3521or http://chambliss.senate.gov/public/index.cfm

Richard Lugar (Indiana):  202-224-4814 or http://lugar.senate.gov/

Thad Cochran (Mississippi):  202-224-5054 or http://cochran.senate.gov/

Mitch McConnell (KY):  202-224-2541 or http://mcconnell.senate.gov/

Pat Roberts (KS):  202-224-4774 or http://roberts.senate.gov/public/

Lindsey Graham (South Carolina):  202-224-5972 or http://lgraham.senate.gov/

Norm Coleman, MN:  202-224-5641 or http://coleman.senate.gov/index.cfm?FuseAction=News.AudioVideo

Mike Crapo (Idaho):  202-224-6142 or http://crapo.senate.gov/

John Thune, South Dakota: 202-224-2321 or 1-866-850-3855 (toll Free) or http://thune.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Contact.DCOffice

Charles Grassley (IA):  202-224-3744 or http://grassley.senate.gov/public/index.cfm?FuseAction=Contact.Offices

Dianne Feinstein (CA): 202-224-3841 or http://feinstein.senate.gov/public/