The Budget-Friendly Guide to Caring for Your Pet

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This guide, offered courtesy of Money Geek, was written by Chris Woolston, a freelance science, health and travel writer whose work has appeared in Nature, the Los Angeles Times, Reader’s Digest, and elsewhere. He lives with two Aussiedoodles and assorted other family members in Billings, Montana.

When you buy a pet, you’re investing in your future: a future of messes in the living room, chewed-up socks and scratched furniture. But you’re also investing in warm feelings, companionship and new opportunities for viral YouTube videos.   The initial costs at the pet shop or shelter are only the beginning. Whether they’re beagles or boa constrictors, pets cost money. Some expenses-food, toys, annual checkups-are easy to predict and plan for. But if your animal friend gets in an accident or comes down with a serious illness, the potential costs can be enough to break almost any budget. This guide will break down the true costs of pet ownership and provide tips for raising a healthy, happy animal without straining the family finances.

Can You Afford a Pet?

If you’re thinking that you want a little company around the house, keep in mind that a dog or cat will likely cost you more than $1,000 for the first year, according to 2015 data from the ASPCA. That includes the animal itself plus all of the medical care, equipment and food that you’ll need to get started. The ASPCA has a breakdown of the expenses available on its website.

And you should also be prepared for many more expenses down the road, some of which may be more than you’d expect. Suzanne Cannon of Westminster, Md., got a shock when a her 8-year old German schnauzer Liebe (that’s German for “love”) came down with acute pancreatitis in the early 2000s. The bill was $4,000, which was about $4,000 more than she had to spare. “I put it on a credit card, and it took me years to pay it off,” Cannon says. Even at that price, she sees it as money well spent. “Liebe held on for another seven years,” she says.

pet_calculator_chartYou can save on some key equipment, like a dog crate, by checking with your neighbors on apps like NextDoor or the “free” or “pets” sections of Craigslist, but be sure to check for product recalls before you buy. You can also purchase pet food in bulk or get discount food from brands being discontinued (just make sure they’re high quality). And while it may be tempting to splurge on pricey squeakies or chew toys, most dogs are just as happy with an old tennis ball as they are with expensive toys.

Thirteen Steps for Saving Money on Pet Expenses

Here are some things to think about if you want to save money on your pet. Most of these suggestions are courtesy of the ASPCA and the Humane Society of the United States

1. Know your options

Financially speaking, adopting through your local shelter or a rescue organization can significantly reduce your initial investment costs. That doesn’t mean adoption is free; many organizations charge a fee, but that fee is a bargain in more ways than one. The adoption fee for Maizie, a papillon/spaniel mixed breed, is $350. In comparison, Alvin, a pet-grade papillon pup from a reputable breeder, costs $700. Both pups have had initial vet check-ups and are up-to-date on vaccinations and deworming, but Maizie’s adoption fee also includes flea treatment, microchipping, spay/neuter costs and 30 days of complimentary pet health insurance. Tipping the scale further in adoption’s favor: demand for cheap “pure-bred” pets is the fuel that keeps inhumane “puppy mills” in business. The American Humane Association provides tips about how to adopt a pet.

2. Pet-proof your home

Take time to get your home pet-ready. You and your pup can get off on the wrong foot if she mistakes a high-end loafer for a chew toy, and once your kitty starts exploring you may feel like you’re are living with a poltergeist. Keep closets shut and put fragile items in secure areas. Most important, walk through the home with your pet’s safety in mind. Are electrical cords easily accessible? They may look very chewable to bunnies, puppies or kitties-with deadly results. Hide them away or use chew and lick repellent sprays. Are the houseplants on the windowsill poisonous? Swap them out for pet-friendly greens. Reduce the dangers posed by household chemicals like detergents and toilet bowl cleaners. Store them securely and opt for safer products when you can.

3. Don’t skip your pet’s yearly exam

This ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Your vet can spot emerging problems before they become more serious.

4. Get your pet spayed or neutered

Not only does this prevent the societal cost of caring for puppies or kittens, but it helps lower the risk of uterine, ovarian or testicular cancer, according to the ASPCA. Lots of shelters offer free or low-cost procedures.

5. Brush your pet’s teeth

Once again, prevention is the cost-effective path. Lack of oral care can lead to gingivitis, abscesses and even heart disease-that’s one way we are very like our furry friends. Make sure you get a pet-approved toothpaste; those made for humans often include ingredients like fluoride and xylitol, which can sicken a cat or dog. A toothbrush designed with the shape and size of your pet’s mouth with make things easier. An alternative is putting a bit of paste on a ridged chew-toy so Fido can “brush” his own teeth.

6. Keep your pets free of parasites such as fleas and ticks

Your vet can tell you which pests are a problem in your area. Protecting your pets not only keeps them healthier and happier, it reduces the chances that you will be exposed to diseases like Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Lyme disease and Bubonic plague. There are a variety of treatments for fleas and ticks: oral medicines, sprays, shampoos and “spot-on” liquids applied directly to the skin.

7. Groom your pet yourself

Furry pets benefit from regular brushing, bathing and nail care. Cats, those devoted self-groomers, will have fewer hairballs if you brush their coats regularly. For dogs, grooming distributes the natural oils, reduces mats and tangles in long-haired breeds, and keeps the skin healthy. Keep an eye on foot pads and nails. Overgrown nails can split, break or tear causing pain and increasing the risk of infection. In winter, a dog’s foot pads may be irritated by salt or other deicers used on sidewalks. If you don’t have facilities to bathe a large animal, check with neighborhood pet stores; many offer facilities for a reasonable fee. Grooming is a natural way for animals to bond and a great way for you to show affection to your pet.

8. Make time every day to walk and play with your pooch

Regular exercise is essential for a dog’s physical and emotional well-being. And the dog isn’t the only one who will benefit: a 2011 study from Michigan State University found that people who regularly walked their dogs were 34% more likely than others to meet the federal guidelines for physical activity.

9. Have dog, will travel

If you must travel or be away, your pet will need care. Bringing your pet with you may be much cheaper than paying for a kennel, but that may also be easier said than done. Not all animals are good travelers. Some get motion sickness; others are stressed by the noise necessary confinement. Domestic airlines set their own policies, which vary widely.

10. Keep your vaccinations current

Annual shots can prevent major illnesses. If you can’t afford shots, you may be eligible for free vaccines from Vetco (a veterinary service connected to Petco) or veterinary services at a local free clinic.

11. Don’t smoke in the house

Your animal companions share your air, and cigarettes aren’t much better for them than they are for you. A recent University of Glasgow study found that dogs and cats who lived with smokers were more prone to cancer. Cats seem to be at especially high risk, presumably because the ingest all sorts of smoke residue when they groom themselves. If you need help quitting smoking, check out the app from smokefree.gov.

12. Buy good-quality pet food

A trip to the pet food aisle can be bewildering, and the costs can induce sticker shock. It takes some smart shopping to find the product that provides the best nutrition for your pet at a good price. Learn to read those labels. The difference between Kitty’s Chicken Dinner and Kitty’s Dinner with Chicken? The first must be at least 25% chicken, the second means chicken is 3% or less of the product. For more on labels and what they mean, visit The American Association of Feed Control Officials’ website. Watch for look for sales and buy in bulk if you can.

13. Don’t overfeed your pet

Your pet will not only be more comfortable and happy if he’s not obese, he’s less likely to develop type 2 diabetes (a chronic condition with complications that can be costly to treat).

Resources: How to Save Money on Pet Care

Pet owners who are looking to cut the costs of raising a pet have several places to turn for tips and advice:

How Dog Expenses Vary by Breed

Beyond obvious differences in the initial price tags, some dogs can be more expensive to raise than others. When choosing a breed, you should definitely be aware of common health ailments and the potential costs to treat them. Keep in mind, though, that no breed has cornered the market on a particular disease; bulldogs may be especially prone to hip dysplasia, but a poodle or mixed-breed can have that problem, too.

costsbybreedchart

Should I Get Pet Insurance?

Pet care costs are on the rise, especially at the vet’s office. Vet bills have nearly doubled from $8.3 billion in 2004 to $15.3 billion annually in 2014, according to the American Pet Products Association (APPA). Treatment for cancer or a serious injury can easily run into the thousands of dollars, which puts pet owners in a tough spot, says Cannon, the pet owner who had to max out a $4,000 credit card to get her dog treated for pancreatitis. “A pet is like a family member,” she says. “If you don’t have insurance or any type of fallback position, you’re faced with a gut-wrenching decision.”

For pet owners who can afford the monthly premiums-which average $36 a month, or $4,320 total for a dog that lives 10 years-a pet insurance plan can bring peace of mind. Keep in mind, though, that insurance won’t cover everything. And unless a pet faces a major health crisis, you may end up paying more for a policy than you ever would have in vet bills. A 2011 report from Consumer Reports found that the owners of a particular beagle who lived for a relatively healthy 10 years wouldn’t have saved any money with any of nine different health policies. The same report noted that owners of a cat that received $9,000 in cancer treatment did save money through insurance.

Cannon, who now runs vetbilling.com, a payment plan service for veterinarians, says she’s a believer in pet insurance, and she’s glad she had coverage for another schnauzer who recently needed a $5,000 surgery after eating chicken bones out of the garbage.

Krista Magnifico, DVM, a veterinarian in Jarrettsville, Maryland, has mixed feelings about pet insurance. “It can be a critical need for many people,” she says, but she also believes that many pet owners can do without it. Magnifico encourages clients who are interested in pet insurance to shop around for a monthly quote. Then, instead of sending that money to an insurance company, they can set aside that amount of money every month in a pet savings account to cover future expenses. “If you are not the kind of person who does a good job of planning and budgeting, pet insurance may be a good option for you,” she says.

If you do opt to get pet insurance, be sure to comparison shop by price, breeds, pre-existing conditions and illnesses to determine what coverage makes the most sense for your pet.

Home Insurance: Does It Cover Dog Bites?

Check your homeowner’s policy to see whether it covers injuries caused by your pet. Some insurers exclude certain breeds; Farmers Insurance in California, for example, discontinued coverage for pit bulls, Rottweilers and wolf hybrids in 2013. Always be honest about your pets and their breed – many insurers now check social media profiles of their customers, and they won’t be pleased to find photos of you hugging your pit bull when your pet was listed as a Chihuahua. Legal experts suggest getting at least $300,000 in liability coverage for a medium-sized dog; if not, you could risk losing your home in a lawsuit by the victim of a dog bite. If you rent, make sure you have a renter’s insurance policy that covers your pooch.

An Emergency Plan for Your Pet

Natural disasters can threaten an entire community, including pets. If you live in an area prone to flooding, earthquake or tornados, the ASPCA recommends putting together a pet emergency package, including a first-aid kit, several days’ worth of non-expired food pet food and an extra collar and leash. This should be near an exit in case you need to leave your house in a hurry. Before a disaster strikes, think about friends, family members or shelters that might be able to care for your pet for while if needed. Make sure your pet has a collar with an ID tag. The ASPCA also recommends microchipping, a simple procedure that will greatly increase the chances that you’ll be reunited with a pet that gets lost during an emergency.

How to Protect Your Pet If Something Happens to You

It’s usually the other way around, but many pets do outlive their owners. Even if you’re in good health, it’s smart to have a back-up plan in case you’re no longer able to care for your pet. A promise from a friend or family member is one thing, but the Humane Society recommends working with an attorney to write up a will or establish a trust that specifies your plan for your pet. You should also carry emergency contact numbers for your pet in your wallet. If you’re in a serious accident, your pet will be in good hands.

End-of-Life Care for Your Pet

It may seem like just yesterday that your new puppy was licking your face or your kitten was stalking your shoelaces. But as your pet ages, you have to face the reality that your friend may not be with you much longer. Here’s a guide for getting through these hard times.

Get regular veterinary care as your pet ages. A vet can spot illnesses that can make your pet uncomfortable and unable to get the most out of the remainder of his life.

Consider quality of life. Pet owners can sense when their companions have taken a turn for the worse. You may need to start having end-of-life conversations with your vet if your pet acts irritable or confused and starts avoiding his favorites pastimes. A lack of appetite or excessive thirst can also be red flags.

Get serious about pain. Even if your pet can’t play or run like he used to, he can still enjoy his later days as long as he’s not in pain. “No dog should die in pain until we’ve tried one of many medications that can help,” Magnifico says. Older pets may express pain by gasping for breath or being reluctant to move.

If the end is near, and you want to keep your pet around as long as possible, ask your vet about how to provide hospice care at home. The vet can give you tips for keeping your animal comfortable and tend to her specific needs. In many areas, you can hire a professional to provide hospice care in the home. The International Association of Animal Hospice and Palliative Care (IAAHPC) has a searchable member directory for places that offer the service.

Euthanasia by injection is a humane approach that won’t cause your pet any pain or discomfort. Expect to pay $100 or more for the procedure. Some vets may be able to provide this service at home, which will cost extra. Euthanasia in a vet’s office is covered by many pet insurance plans.

Have an after-life plan. It’s hard to think about now, but you should know what you’ll need to do after a pet dies. Many pet owners choose to have their pets cremated, a process that can cost roughly $50 to $150, depending on size. Again, this may be covered by pet insurance.

National Organizations That Provide Financial Assistance to Pet Owners in Need

The Humane Society has a list with state- or region-specific programs.

The Magic Bullet FundThe Magic Bullet Fund is one of several organizations providing financial assistance to provide cancer treatment for pets.

The Brown Dog FoundationThe Brown Dog Foundation provides emergency assistance to those who can’t afford the costs of life-saving emergency surgeries or prescription medicines for their pets.

Red Rover Relief GrantsRed Rover Relief Grants not only reach out to those who need assistance with medical care, they provide help to those who are displaced because of fires, natural disasters, and domestic violence crises.

For Veterans, Vets and Their PetsFor Veterans, Vets and Their Pets provides temporary housing, veterinary care, and food.