Pets can be expensive. I know, because we have two dogs that continually find inventive ways to keep us on our toes and reaching for our wallets. Last time we left our American bulldog Murphy with a pet sitter, for example, he finished off a 15-pound bag of dog food. The damage: an $80 vet bill. His not-so-friendly run-ins with the local groundhogs: $325. Our miniature goldendoodle Bella is less mischievous but is our pampered pup, requiring $70 grooming sessions every month.
At least we’re in good company. Literally, since they’re lots of fun, but also statistically: According to the American Pet Products Association, Americans spent $50 billion on pets last year. Food and vet costs contributed to 65 percent of the spending, but the service category – which includes grooming, boarding, pet hotels, pet sitting, and day care – surged more than any other in 2011.
Whether you have a dog, cat, bird, or pet turtle, there are some simple ways to save on the cost of caring for your pet without skimping out on their needs – and even some luxuries.
Below, some ways to save on your pets:
1. Find the right pet/breed for your budget
There are many factors to consider when deciding which type of pet you should bring into your home: Do you have time to provide long walks and activities that larger dogs need? Or would a smaller dog or cat be a better fit for your lifestyle? Are you prepared to deal with the typical health issues – and expenses – that could arise?
It also helps to know what to expect when it comes down to annual expenses. According to the ASPCA, the minimum cost for a fish during the first year is $235, but a guinea pig costs about $705. You should be prepared to pay at least $1,035 for a cat during the first year, and anywhere from $1,314 to $1,843 for a dog, depending on the size (larger dogs typically cost more). If you’re weighing dog vs. cat, check out our story Which Is Cheaper: Cats or Dogs? for a more thorough breakdown.
2. Adopt a pet
On a budget and looking to do a good deed? Consider adopting a pet through your local animal rescue. Just be sure to do your due diligence: Is the pet up-to-date on vaccines? What’s the age and typical life expectancy? Also ask to see veterinary records so that you’ll know about any pre-existing conditions that could add up in expenses over time.
3. Find coupons for food and toys
Fortunately, there are a number of deal sites out there tailored to pet freebies and promotions.MyPetSavings.com, for example, shares coupons on everything from dog food to household products that eliminate pet odors. Online marketplace Wag.com offers 15 percent off your first order [Code: WAG] and free two-day delivery on orders over $49. If you shop at retailers like PetSmart or Petco, keep an eye out for coupons and ask to be included in their rewards programs.
Another way to save on pet food: Buy in bulk. At PetSmart, for example, a 5-pound bag of Nutro Natural Choice Dog Food is $13.99, but a 30-pound bag costs $45.99 – which comes out to less than $8 per 5 pounds.
4. Invest in preventive care
Keeping up with routine vet checkups can help dodge bigger medical issues and expenses in the future. Also stay current on treatments that protect against fleas, ticks, and heartworm – which you can easily administer yourself. Another bit of advice, especially for dogs: Good oral hygiene can help reduce the likelihood of health problems later on.
5. Treat illnesses promptly
If you put off vet care until a situation worsens, you’re more likely to pay an arm and a leg for care. Emergency veterinary care, in particular, can cost several times more than a regular office visit – and this is often a last resort when your dog gets sick on a Sunday when local veterinary centers may be closed.
We learned the hard way when our dogs seemed lethargic and were refusing food on a Saturday and we decided to “wait it out.” By Sunday, their conditions worsened and they were admitted into Animal Emergency Service of South Jersey. Their exams alone cost $119 a pop, and then with X-rays, administered fluids, and medication, we were hit with a $926 bill. The diagnosis: It was just a stomach virus, and they were both better within a couple of days.
6. Consider pet insurance
Expert opinions vary on whether pet insurance is a smart investment – particularly because many plans come with coverage maximums and limit coverage for pre-existing conditions or issues common to your pet’s breed. However, the right pet insurance plan could help alleviate the financial blow of medical emergencies. Just be sure to shop around and read the fine print before selecting your plan.
If you have a pet with a talent for getting his nose into trouble, pet insurance may be particularly helpful. Take, for example, my sister-in-law’s English bulldog. After eating a baby pacifier, he went through X-rays and surgery that came out to $2,550. And let’s just say this wasn’t a one-time occurrence. Pet insurance could have saved a considerable amount.
7. Learn DIY grooming
Like I said earlier, my miniature goldendoodle’s grooming appointments cost $70 each. You can sidestep this expense by learning how to groom your pet on your own, or you can consider a pet or breed that is low-maintenance. If your pet requires some pampering, consider getting his coat cut as short as possible, so that you can wait longer before the next grooming visit. Regularly brushing your pet’s coat can also help save money, since there are usually extra charges for dogs with matted fur.
8. Invest in training
Of course, training isn’t cheap, but having a well-behaved pet can reduce the likelihood of accidents later on. A dog that has been trained to get along with other dogs, for example, is less likely to have a run-in with the neighbor’s pet – which could be both dangerous and costly. If you’re not comfortable footing the bill for training, you can educate yourself on ways to train your pet by reading books and researching online.
9. Find a reasonably priced pet sitter
Going out of town for a weekend? Hiring a pet sitter doesn’t have to bust the budget. Luckily, there are many ways to find a reasonably priced sitter – for about $15 to $35 a day. Start by asking your veterinarian for recommendations, and also consider looking at Pet Sitters International or the National Association of Professional Pet Sitters. You’ll want to be sure your sitter is bonded, insured, and certified by a professional organization.
10. Skip the fancy extras
Pricey toys, gourmet food and treats, and even trendy pet clothes can really add up – and most of the time, they’re completely unnecessary. If you’re on a budget, consider skipping the fancy extras and opt for easy ways to keep your pets satisfied. Most of the time, they’d rather play with you than a gimmicky toy anyway.
Renee Morad is a writer for Money Talks News, a consumer/personal finance TV news feature that airs in about 80 cities and around the Web. This column first appeared in Money Talks News.