By Melinda Dodd
Money-Saving Advice for Pet Owners
Look at that that face! The moment potential pet owners lay eyes on a sweet little puppy or kitten, they're goners. But in the rush of emotion that comes with pet adoption, few consider the long-term costs, which can be at least $400 or more annually, according to the ASPCA. The good news: It's surprisingly easy to save money on pet care. Just follow these insider tips.
When deciding on a pet, choose a mixed breed that has been reared by a friend, reliable breeder or trusted shelter. "Hybrid animals tend to be hardier than purebreds, who often have hereditary diseases, or those from pet stores, who may have acquired illnesses in animal mills," says Louise Murray, DVM, director of medicine for the ASPCA's Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital and author of Vet Confidential: An Insider's Guide to Protecting Your Pet's Health. Lower costs further by adopting pets over a year old; they'll likely have been spayed or neutered, and had shots and training.
Next, spend a little to save a lot. "The biggest mistake owners make is not keeping up with routine preventive care," says Dr. Murray. "People forgo $15 vaccines, then their pets get $2,000 infections." Never skip core vaccinations, annual checkups, flea-and-tick treatments, heartworm drugs, or spaying/ neutering-they save thousands down the line. Swiping wet gauze or a pet toothbrush over your animal's teeth daily will even help stave off serious disease.
Slash nonessentials. Call vets with minor questions (rather than visiting) and ask about package deals for treating several pets. Teaching hospitals, shelters and branches of The Humane Society offer cheap treatments, but weigh those savings against quality of care. If your pet needs multiple procedures, double-book surgeries: "You'll pay just once for anesthetic and hospital stays," says Gregory Hammer, DVM, past president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. Finally, if you smoke, quit. "Pets suffer severely from secondhand smoke," notes Dr. Murray. "They ingest the particles that settle on their fur and can develop asthma, lymphoma, bronchitis and lung cancer. Plus, cats have a higher rate of oral cancer when they're owned by smokers."
Nothing siphons cash faster than feeding your pets gourmet or premium food, which can cost $5 a can or $50 a bag. You may think you're treating them well, but the truth is, pets don't need it. "Just look for a well-known, high-quality brand name, and buy it in bulk at a discount store," suggests Dr. Hammer. "You'll slash costs by a third." Don't go too cheap, though: "Generic and local brands may not have the same level of nutritional research."
If your pet is overweight, like 35% of those in the U.S., a simple measuring cup can mean more money for you and fewer pounds for him. Use it to dole out the correct portion, based on the package's feeding recommendations.
Also, ask your vet which of your food picks have the most "bioavailable" nutrients; these meet pets' nutritional needs faster and keep them from overeating. "Give cats, in particular, high-protein foods and they'll be satisfied sooner," says Dr. Hammer. (One exception: older cats with kidney disease. Excess protein is dangerous for them.)
Professional grooming isn't just a way to keep your pet looking good; it also prevents medical problems from developing. But shelling out up to $100 every month can be tough. Slash costs by keeping pets in good condition before bringing them in, says Kathy Salzberg, owner of The Village Groomer and Pet Supply in Walpole, Massachusetts.
Her #1 tip? Go over your pet's fur with a wire-bristled slicker brush, and then follow up with a double-sided stainless steel comb, like the Greyhound ($15; AFortunateDog.com) once or twice a week, making sure to thoroughly penetrate the fur from root to topcoat. "Matted hair is the biggest bugaboo in grooming," Salzberg explains. Also, bathe dogs with hypoallergenic pet shampoo. (Leave cantankerous cats to the pros.) You can lengthen the time between visits by requesting a "puppy" or "lion" trim: Fur is shorn as short as half an inch, which means fewer grooming sessions. Animals like it, too, assures Salzberg. "They love really feeling your hand when you pet them."
To keep expenses down even more, do touchups at home. Grooming schools offer in-depth courses (PetGroomer.com), but a quick, inexpensive lesson from a groomer, vet or certified pet stylist should cover the basics. For dog owners, Salzberg especially likes champion groomer Jodi Murphy's how-to videos ($35; JodiMurphy.net). You can find the tools you'll need, like fur clippers ($33) and nail clipper-styptic sets ($10) at most big-box stores. While DIY may set you back a few bucks in the short term, you'll save hundreds in the long run. Prefer leaving it to the pros? Ask if groomers offer discounts to clients who rebook frequently.
Buying a bushel of gadgets to entertain pets is like getting a flat-screen TV just to watch Law & Order: awesome, but unnecessary. "People really overspend on pet toys," says Dr. Hammer. "They'll give a 5- pound dog 25 pounds of stuff." Truth is, pets prefer basic toys and are more likely to play with an empty box than with a $20 animatronic mouse.
For dogs, Dr. Hammer says huge hunks of plain, U.S.-made rawhide ($5 at grocery stores) are perfect. (Imported versions may contain contaminants.) "Give them three of those, and they'll be happy. I've seen broken teeth from harder nylon toys and have removed too many sock toys from dogs' intestines to recommend them." Another good option: the Kong, a $10 indestructible rubber ball that you can stuff with food. It will keep your dog happily occupied for hours.
Finicky as they may seem, cats are equally low-maintenance. They love to play with wooden spools, crumpled tinfoil or paper, knotted socks stuffed with catnip or anything else they can bat around. Dr. Hammer prefers to use cheap laser pointers ($8; PetSmart.com): "It's good exercise for them." Don't spend lots of money on pricey scratching posts, either, he adds. Make your own using a traffic cone wrapped in 3/4-inch rope. The total cost? About $13.
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