Friends of the furry or scaly variety hold an important place in many households, offering amusement, companionship, and even health benefits, according to some studies. On top of chewing through your favorite slippers, though, house pets can leave a hole in your wallet. The American Pet Products Association estimates that in 2012, Americans will spend more than $52 billion on their pets, including an estimated $20 billion on food and $13 billion on veterinary care.
Just ask Roxanne Hawn, a journalist and blogger outside of Denver, whose border collie, Lilly, wracked up $8,000 in veterinary bills after suffering an adverse reaction to a vaccine. "That was by far our biggest veterinary bill," she says. Hawn's pet insurance coverage maxes out at $3,000 per pet's life, so the family is cutting back on spending in other areas to make up the difference.
Still, Hawn says the incident is unusual and has found other ways to keep dog ownership affordable. For instance, working from home allows her to walk Lilly and her other dog, Ginko, instead of paying for a dog walker, and participating in a local store's loyalty program lowers the overall cost of dog food.
Here are other strategies to save on pet costs without sacrificing the health of your beloved companions.
1. Choose the right pet for your lifestyle and budget. If you're in the market for a new pet, consider your living style and budget—not just the cuteness factor—when choosing among breeds. Do you live in an apartment or a house? How much time can you devote to walking a young, active dog or grooming a long-haired cat? Are you prepared to handle the respiratory and skin conditions that afflict many English bulldogs? Or the heart disease that's common in Persian and American shorthair cats? Jason Nicholas, founder of The Preventive Vet, an online resource for pet owners, suggests "talking with your vet when you're in the planning stage and researching the breed online" to help match the pet to your needs.
Whether you're buying from a breeder or adopting through your local animal rescue, ask to see veterinary records so you know about any preexisting conditions that could cost you money, suggests Jeff L. Barnes, coauthor of Pampered Pets on a Budget. When a breeder's prices seem too good to be true, he adds, it's often because they've skimped on vet care, which could cost you more in the long run. Shelter animals are usually up-to-date on shots and vet care, but they sometimes come with behavioral issues because of mistreatment or neglect.
2. Invest in preventative care. Emergency veterinary care can cost several times more than a regular office visit, so keep your pet's vaccines and vet visits current instead of waiting until your pet is in obvious distress. Some vets offer package deals for all your preventive needs over the course of the year, according to Hawn, so that could help you budget for vaccines and routine care.
Many pet emergencies, like car accidents or poisonings, are preventable, says Nicholas. That's why he urges pet owners to make their dog visible at night using a light-up collar or leash and keep medications out of reach. Open pill containers over a bowl or sink so that Fido or Fifi won't ingest a pill after it falls on the floor or rolls under the couch. If your pet is especially mischievous, consider baby-proofing the trash. Even seemingly innocuous items, like sugar-free gum and certain other human foods, could poison your pet. A pet first-aid class, offered through the Red Cross or your local pet hospital, could alert you to other hazards and ways to handle them, he adds. (April is National Pet First Aid Awareness Month, so now is the ideal time to find a class.)
3. Consider the cost of pet insurance. Experts disagree about whether pet insurance is a smart investment. The general wisdom on buying insurance is don't insure what you can afford to replace (or in this case, pay out-of-pocket). It could help cushion the blow of an expensive veterinary emergency, as Hawn's experience shows, but many policies have limitations. In addition to coverage maximums, pet policies may not cover preexisting conditions or conditions that are common to your pet's breed, adds Barnes.