Mar 15 2008

How to reduce the costs of pet ownership

This is a guest post written by Emily Starbuck Gerson. Thanks for submitting this, Emily! I don’t have a dog or cat, and so I have no idea how to reduce pet costs.

Emily Starbuck Gerson is a recent college grad living in Austin, Texas. She is a writer and blogger for CreditCards.com, where she focuses on young adults and frugality. She plays cello, does semi-professional photography and is the proud mother of a short-haired Tabby and a Miniature-Pinscher/Chihuahua mix.

Who doesn’t love animals? Furry friends lower our heart attack risk, reduce stress and blood pressure and bring us unparalleled happiness. The part of pet ownership that isn’t often discussed is how expensive they can be.

I have a dog and a cat, and in the last year, I’ve had to race them to the vet for multiple emergencies (two cat fights, eye infection, and a messy bout with garbage eating). The costs of the visits ranged from $120 to $240 apiece, and because I haven’t even been out of college a year, my parents have had to rescue me financially more than once. In addition to routine and emergency pet visits, there’s also monthly flea and heartworm medicine, food, annual vaccines and other necessities. I love my pets, but I had no idea they would be so costly. 

If you can’t resist getting a dog or cat of your own, here are some tips on keeping it cheap:

Utilize low-cost clinics. Here in Austin, many people don’t realize we have two low-cost clinics, Emancipet and Animal Trustees of Austin, which offer greatly discounted vaccines and spay/neuter services. Vets often charge outrageous fees for annual vaccines, so these clinics can save you big bucks.

Remember that they are animals. Every time I’m shopping and see the pet aisle, I’m tempted to buy cute toys and knickknacks. Then I take one home and the dog rips it up or the cat ignores it. My maternal instinct overcomes me and I forget they are not children. They are animals, and do not need massive toy collections.

Do the grooming yourself. Buy pet shampoo (which is very cheap at Wal-Mart), grab a friend and use the kitchen sink or bathtub. Buy nail clippers (or a Dremel sander tool) to shorten those nails. If your dog is long-haired, buy clippers and shave it yourself. It may not be a dog-show caliber ‘do, but who cares?

Shop around. Different vets charge different prices for the same services. So do trainers and boarders. Ask friends for recommendations and call around for quotes. I love my dog boarder, who charges $22 a night. My coworker is wild about his but pays over $40 a night. Everyone has different thresholds for how much they want to spend on pets, so call around first.

Ask how much it costs. You pay an exam fee for every vet visit. You’re also charged for every test, X-ray and medicine, and you usually aren’t asked permission beforehand. I was shocked how high my first vet bill was — I didn’t know that several simple tests cost extra because the vet didn’t say anything. When your vet enters the exam room, say, "Before you do something, please tell me how much it will cost. I can only afford what’s absolutely necessary."

Order medicines online. Vets charge a hefty price for heartworm and flea meds. Online pharmacies, such as 1-800-PETMEDS, offer the same products at significant discounts. They still need a prescription from your vet, which some vets refuse to give. In that case, you can use an international pharmacy online, such as VetShopOnline.com, which doesn’t require a prescription. They provide the same medicines we have, just in metric measurements.

Keep them healthy. If your pets get regular exercise, don’t eat things they shouldn’t and are well cared for, you will usually need to go to the vet only for annual check-ups. If a pet is unhealthy, you will have to spend extra money on specialized food, medicine and additional vet visits.

You probably don’t need to spend money on pet health insurance. In my family, we love our pets, but if they are old and sick, we let them go. These days, many people will do anything to keep their pet alive, including chemo and radiation therapy and surgeries costing thousands of dollars. If you’re that committed, pet insurance may be a lifesaver. If you don’t plan on going that far if your pet falls ill, you will probably pay more for the insurance than you will ever rack up in vet bills. The pet health industry is not based on insurance like the human health industry is, so it can also be complicated. In this blog post on AOL’s WalletPop, the writer says pet insurance can be a bargain. If you’ll scroll below to the comments, however, you’ll see several people diligently paid for pet insurance, but the companies refused to cover anything and much money was wasted. There are many types of pet health insurance, some very costly and some quite cheap. Some cover routine visits, while others cover emergencies only. If you do decide to get pet insurance, be sure to extensively research your options. If you’d like more thorough information on how it works, this About.com.



19 Responses to “How to reduce the costs of pet ownership”

  1. I have 4 pets that I dearly love. It is interesting that I stumbled across this post this morning. I am afraid my cat has got to go, since she recently peed on both of my sofas. I left the couch cushions outside on the porch overnight after cleaning them to air out. This morning, I let my boxers out as usual, not thinking about the cushions. A few minutes later, when my husband went to let them in, we discovered that 1 of the couch cushions was completely destroyed by the dogs, and spread all over the back yard. So now, my sofas are completely ruined permanently. We can’t afford to replace them at this time, and want to avoid financing a big purchase. This is a huge moral dilemma. Keep the cat? Buy new sofas? What would you do?

  2. Usually a cat will start marking in a different area because of either behavioural issues (ie someone or something has seriously stressed them out) or because of a health issue (UTI, crystals, etc.).

    I would try and find a low-cost vet that can do a urinalysis. In the meantime, review whether you changed anything — new litter, anyone new in the house, stressed the cat out.

    And *I* wouldn’t get rid of the cat. Would you get rid of the dogs because they’re the ones that actually destroyed the couch? Shelters and pounds everywhere are overrun, and if you drop your cat off it will almost certainly be put to sleep, unless you can find a no-kill rescue.

    And just a note on the original article — I agree with the points, including the suggestion to obtain meds online from a reputable distributor. But steer away from off-brands for meds, as products like Hartz can (not always, but can) make pets ill as they use different chemicals.

  3. Alyssa,
    That is a tough situation. Here’s what I would do: go to Goodwill or look on Craigslist and get a new sofa. In Austin, Craigslist is really popular, and many people who have to move and get rid of furniture sell couches at extremely discounted prices (or sometimes give them away for free). I would then buy a sofa cover — they have them at Target. That way if the pets go to the bathroom on it, you just remove the cover and wash it. Or, if you’re really nervous about the dogs destroying it, you can cover the sofa in a plastic cover, then put a regular cloth sofa cover on top of it. That way the plastic cover is hidden, but the couch is very protected (it won’t be as comfy, but it won’t get ruined). Also, when you go to bed, put the dog in a crate and the cat in a cat carrier. That way they can’t destroy things in the middle of the night. I know you love your pets, so don’t get rid of any of them for just one accident. Would you do that to your kids? It’s traumatic for animals to move homes.

    If you feel like the cat really has to go, my best piece of advice is to charge an adoption fee to the new people. The Humane Society and ASPCA and many other reputable organizations recommend this, even if it’s $25, to make sure they are good people who really want the pet and will take care of it. Giving them away for free is risky, because just anyone can take it, and they may not care for it well.

    Good luck!
    Emily

  4. One quick comment. While they are just animals, you should not try to save money by feeding your dog the cheapest food available.

    There is a huge difference in between chicken and ‘chicken-by-products’. Every animal owner should know what is in there food and it should be quality ingrediants. Proper nutrition an add years to your animals life.

    Plus, would you rather eat real meat or the ‘by-products’?

    Great post!

  5. Overall, this is a great post, but I do have to disagree with doing your own grooming. Depending on your breed, of course, sometimes it really is just better to let the professionals handle it. As a former groomer, I had customers come in all the time that bought clippers and tried to do it themselves and still ended up bringing their dog to me. At best, they were out the price of the clippers plus the price of a professional groom. At worst, they were out the price of an emergency trip to the vet. If you don’t know what you are doing, it is very easy to injure your dog while attempting to “learn as you go” and groom them at home. Thanks for the other tips!

  6. Regarding pet grooming, I usually only pay for 3 or 4 groomings per year for our miniature poodle. In between I trim him myself (we keep him in a puppy clip, so not fancy or complicated). I bought a pet clipper set on sale (50% off) but I am a little nervous with the clippers so I usually take a couple of days and work on him with the scissors (from the set). I do one area at a time so it doesn’t bug him. I also have shampoo and can easily give him a bath in the kitchen sink. *Much* cheaper than $50 for a shampoo & clip. But it’s nice to have the professional job every once in a while.

    On the subject of pet insurance, I don’t have it and have had to pay $3,000 for emergency surgery & care when he was attacked by an off-leash German Shepherd. One good idea is to see how much pet insurance would cost and then start putting that amount away every month into an ING or similar high interest account. Over time you’ll build up a big amount but you can use it for any procedure your pet might need, not just what the insurance company will cover.

  7. Some tips on my blog may be useful for you !
    Pls check it yourself !

  8. I would like to add an option to the “low-cost clinics” section of this article…. Luv My Pet Inc is a company partnered up with Petco that offers low-cost dog and cat vaccination clinics in 23 states – on weekends, Saturdays and Sundays. The clinics are administered by state-licensed vets so it is definitely safe and legitimate. They offer all the core vaccines, as well as heartworm and other diagnostic tests, veterinary flea treatments, and microchipping services.

    These clinics are a really good option from a national perspective and can save pet owners a lot of money. For example, you can get your dog all the core vaccines (DHPP/DHLPP) plus rabies, corona, and bordetella for $49. Their clinic locations can be found on the LuvMyPet.com website.

    Regarding the pet insurance, I have friends who are paying $15-20 a month. Last year, my young dog had a disc rupture – within 24 hours he was almost fully paralyzed…. he underwent surgery and is now as good and healthy as new. I ended up spending $6000; but of course I’d do anything for my puppy – and the surgery worked! At that point, I did not have pet insurance and wish I had. I just figured he was young and wouldn’t have a problem like that. So in retrospect, I’d encourage people to shop around for pet insurance.

  9. My sister brushes her dog’s teeth regularly. Then again, she’s a dental hygienist…! Seriously, though, she does this in order to save money on veterinary tooth-cleaning, which as you may know requires anesthesia. She also clips her dog’s nails by herself; the clippers paid for themselves almost instantly.
    I think this was a great post, and forwarded it to Karen Datko of MSN Money Smart Spending. She linked to it on March 27. I hope this results in increased traffic — and, more importantly, in increased understanding that (1) a pet is a lifelong commitment and (2) while there are ways to keep costs reasonable, there *are* costs involved with pet ownership.

  10. I saw that this was linked to on the Smart Spending blog–thanks for helping to make that happen!

  11. Not to be insensitive, but I would never put my dogs outside with my couch cushions. I would know what to expect.
    How old is the cat? Is it an adult that should know better or a kitten that just doesn’t have it down pat as yet?
    If I were in your spot,( and my husband hadn’t lost his temper and hauled them all off to the pound), I’d opt for buying some large pillows or cushions that would be usable and buy or make throws or slip covers until I could replace the furniture. If it’s expensive stuff, check into re-upholstering. As to wheather or not the cat should go, you need to figure out why it happened. Did the cat want out? Does the cat have a physical problem? Life is cruel and difficult for homeless animals. Just be fair.

  12. Dear Cat Owner,
    I wouldn’t put your cat to sleep just yet. Urinating on the furniture could be from something that might’ve stressed your cat, frightened him/her. Or, your couch could’ve had a strange scent on it which could also have made him/her urinate on it. Also, cats tend to urinate outside the litter box if they have a urinary tract infection which can be easily fixed with antibiotics from your vet. Don’t give up yet! Good luck.
    Cathy

  13. The quality of pet food is very important. You can spend anywhere from $7.00 to $70.00 for food and there’s always someone ought there with a reason why you should follow their advice. I say talk it over with your veterinarian, do some research using reputable veterinary websites and make the best decision for your family. We spend a hefty amount on dry dog food, but they consume much less and we supplement with fresh veggies. Their waste proves the point that more can be less. :-)

    Pet treat coupons are very frequently published in the paper, particularly when a new item comes out. I clip those religiously and stock up for special occasions (like when a new visitor comes over).

    For treats, another good option is to invest in a quality stuffable toy like a Kong … I stuff mine with carrots, apple slices, dry treats and a “plug” of either peanut butter or cream cheese. Healthier for the pets, keeps ’em busy while I’m gone and very affordable.

    Another option … join your local animal shelter group. Here in Pgh, an annual membership to Animal Friends give us unlimited free nail trims which is useful as our boys are hard to trim. Plus, we attend most of their events at a significant discount which is a nice outing for us and the woofers.

    Toys … shop at thrift stores for safe stuffed animals (no loose buttons, beads, etc). For a few dollars, you can buy a whole bag of toys and support a good cause. They tend to last a lot longer too.

    Great topic.

  14. I agree with a lot of what you have said. But, sometimes you have to pay high prices for dog food. One of my girls is allergic to all grains. Buying food for her is expensive. My other to girls get Costco’s food, large bags and a great price.

    Thanks for the article.

  15. Are you personally a fan of pet insurance? I have considered it multiple times, but have always decided against it.

    PS – Great site!

    Insurance Blogger’s last blog post..Pet Insurance – I love my pets, but is pet insurance worth the cost?

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Hey! I'm Kacie, wife to Shane and mother to Jonathan (7), Vivienne (5) and Amelia (2) . I write about my family's finance: how we save money, improve our spending, and plan for the future.

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