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.
Instead of sending a monthly check to an insurance provider, you could self-insure by depositing funds into a money market or other savings account earmarked for pet care. If you decide to buy pet insurance, keep in mind that premiums are generally cheapest if you start insuring a younger pet.
4. Feed your pet the right food. Pet-food labels carry some of the same hyped marketing terms as human foods, so finding the right food can be confusing. Terms like "all natural" or "wild" can be misleading, according to Nicholas, so he suggests looking for an AAFCO (The Association of American Feed Control Officials) statement on the label, because that shows that the food meets the organization's standards. "Watch to see how your pet does on the food," he adds. "If the coat is nice and healthy and they're not vomiting, it's probably a good food for them."
However, over-feeding your pet could lead to health problems like food bloat and obesity, which will cost you more for the extra food and vet bills. Buying food in bulk could save you money if you have the space, but Nicholas suggests storing food in an air-tight, pet-proof container so your pet can't get into it. The air-tight container will also keep food fresh. Barnes recommends using a measuring spoon instead of eye-balling portions to avoid over-feeding.
5. Focus on attention over fancy toys. Several daily deal sites, including Coupaw.com, DoggyLoot.com, Furryboo.com, and Petching.com, cater to pet owners. But switching vets or dog groomers or even the type of food in pursuit of a bargain could do more harm than good, because of the inconsistency. (When changing your pet's diet, do it gradually, not all at once, urges Nicholas.) Kristen M. Levine, coauthor of Pampered Pets on a Budget, waits until she sees a deal on her dog Chilly's favorite treats or toys rather than trying new products through deal sites.
When it comes down to it, though, "you don't have to spend money on fancy toys or collars," says Levine. "You should be bonding with them, grooming them. That's what they really want. They'd rather play with us than a toy."
Corrected on 4/10/2012: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Ginko, Roxanne Hawn’s dog.