If you're a conservative investor looking for a high yield plus the potential for price appreciation, you may be doing yourself a disservice by sticking to the bond universe. For Foolish investors, stable stocks with growing dividends are always worth a look.

When looking for solid dividend stocks, I try to look for a combination of excellent dividend-raising history, high current yield, and superior potential for earnings growth. Earnings are important, and you should also examine the projected five-year earnings growth rate, as well as the current P/E ratio.

Here are three pharmaceutical companies to consider for investors looking to get exposure to this sector.

Patent expiring in three more tears
(NYSE:ABBV) has a 3.3% yield, and the stock is up 44% since it began trading in January; it's currently just off its all-time high of $50.

AbbVie was spun off earlier this year from Abbott Labs, which has raised its dividend every year for 40 years. Its payout ratio is a reasonable 42%, which leaves plenty of cash for further investments in the company as well as returning some to shareholders.

The company announced third-quarter earnings on Oct. 25, reporting $0.82 in earnings per share, 5% better than the consensus analyst forecast. The consensus for full-year 2013 is $3.14 per share.

AbbVie's P/E is 30% lower than the pharmaceutical sector average at 24.5. Its 5-year projected earnings growth rate is 13.4%, which gives it a low PEG ratio of only 1.3, compared to 4.0 for the industry as a whole.

AbbVie is heavily reliant on one drug, Humira, which treats rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and digestive diseases like Crohn's and ulcerative colitis. It was the No. 1 selling drug in the world in 2012, and it accounts for around half of AbbVie's annual sales. While it still maintains its patent, it is due to expire in 2016, although competitors' drugs are expected to ramp up more slowly than normal because of the biologic nature of the drug, which is harder to duplicate than an ordinary synthesized medication.

Although the patent expiration is looming, there is still some time before it will begin to seriously impact sales. In the meantime, keep an eye on AbbVie's pipeline, especially its efforts with a new oral hepatitis-C drug.

Teva in turmoil?
Teva Pharmaceuticals
(NYSE:TEVA), the Israel-based company known mostly for its line of generic drugs, is currently trading at around $38 and yields 3.4%; the company has been raising dividends consistently for 14 years and has an impressive five-year dividend growth rate of 21.8%. Its five-year projected earnings growth rate is not terribly exciting at 5.6%, and after excluding extraordinary items, it has a reasonable payout ratio of around 46%.

The stock price has bounced around in the $37 to $42 range over the past year, and has slid recently to its low point because of its lackluster third-quarter results and the departure of its CEO. The reason for the change in management is unclear, as the official announcement said that he stepped down, but he told a reporter that it wasn't his decision. Only days previously, he had issued a statement that said,  "I categorically deny the rumours suggesting that I am considering resigning from the management of Teva. We are talking about a report without any basis."

Teva will lose its patent protection on Copaxone, its popular multiple sclerosis drug, in 2014. Copaxone accounts for more than 20% of Teva revenues and 50% of its profit, which will be a huge hit next year. The company had been asking for a stay until 2015, but it was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Teva is also involved in a bribery investigation in Europe, so that fact may also be weighing on investors. Additionally, the company just announced that it will pay nearly $600 million to the Israeli government in "trapped profits," profits generated by multinational companies that have not been taxed by the Israeli government. The government is offering reduced rates as incentive to repatriate some of the untaxed profits. 

AstraZeneca turnaround?
(NASDAQ:AZN) is currently trading at $53 and yields 3.4%; the company has a five-year dividend growth rate of 8.2%. The company pays its dividend twice per year instead of quarterly, and its 2013 dividend will be $0.05 less than its 2012 payout. Its P/E is low at 14.4, and its payout ratio is high but not unsustainable at 75%.

The company reported its third-quarter results on Oct. 31, and profits and revenues are down significantly in 2013; they are estimated even lower for 2014. In fact, the 5-year projected earnings growth rate for the company is a negative 10.6%.

Declines are the result of patent losses on many of the company's popular drugs; even though the patent still remains on heart drug Crestor, sales for the company's top-seller have slowed. The company is pursuing acquisitions in order to supplement its drug pipeline.

The company has hired a new CFO, and explained in the recent earnings conference call that it is in a "trough" and that a turnaround can be expected. But when asked to forecast a timeline for that turnaround, outgoing CFO Simon Lowth refused to commit.

The stock is trading at its 52-week high, up 15% from its low of $44 a year ago.  This is actually a little curious, since there are many near-term challenges for this company.

AbbVie looks good for another couple of years, before the risk of the Humira patent expiration begins to really weigh on the company. It's still reasonably valued despite the price increase, and It would be terrific in a dividend-growth portfolio.

Both Teva and AstraZeneca yield more than AbbVie, but that doesn't mean they are a better option. Teva needs to clean up its management team and get its legal troubles behind it before it can stabilize. And AstraZeneca is a potential turnaround story, but a lot of patience might be required.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.