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How to Save Money on Pet Care

Written by Laura Martinez - 21 Comments

Last month was a bit of an adventure with our seven year old cat. He ran away (something he’s never done) and we were worried sick. Once we got him back, we spent some money on keeping him healthy.

In addition to taking him to the vet for a check up, we also got him updated on his rabies shot. I couldn’t have imagined the true costs of being a pet owner when we first adopted him. I thought it would be cheap and easy to take care of an animal, but that’s not always the case.

If you’re thinking of adopting a pet, please read this article. It’s my hope that pets get adopted into ‘forever homes’ and that both parties happy. Unfortunately, many pets are dropped off at shelters because the owners couldn’t handle the financial responsibilities.

How much does it cost to own a pet?

Some people don’t realize the total costs of maintaining their pets. They may only think of food and the occasional visit to the vet. Being a pet owner, I can tell you that unexpected things will happen even if your pet is relatively healthy.

If you’re still interested in getting a pet, you should first check out how much it costs to care for a pet. The ASPCA looked at the first year costs of some common animals people have as pets and shared the numbers:

  • Fish: $235
  • Bird: $270
  • Guinea Pig: $705
  • Rabbit: $1,055
  • Cat: $1,035
  • Medium Sized Dog: $1,580

Speaking of the ASPCA, shelter animals can make wonderful pets for your home. Don’t think that they are the throwaways. My family went to the local shelter years ago and they were able to find a kitten with the particular temperament they were looking for. He was very people friendly and loved to snuggle up to you when you fell asleep.

Have a pet emergency fund

It’s important to plan ahead and save money up for your pet. Look at the numbers the SPCA has and budget for your pet’s care. You may want to set aside a dedicated savings account for your pet, or you could add that amount into your emergency fund and keep it in one big account.

We all want to be responsible pet owners, but you have to realize that while love and attention are the main ways to care, you still have to have money. The last thing I’m sure you want is to be forced into an economic euthanasia.

Tips for saving on vet care

While pets are never free to take care of, there are ways you can make it more affordable. The key to saving money on taking care of your pet(s) is not to be frugal, not cheap.

Find an affordable vet you can trust

I’ve had my cat since I was in college and was on a very tight budget. I managed to care for him on my limited budget by utilizing my local animal shelter’s low cost pet clinic. There are shelters around the country that offer this service.

The catch with these cheap clinics is that often have odd hours (whenever they can get volunteers), are based on your income (my shelter was $42k or less), and offer limited services. The shelter I used in Virginia covered my cat’s needs (shots, annual checkups, and flea control) and was incredibly inexpensive. I paid about $15 for an office visit and $12 for his rabies shot.

If you don’t qualify for a low cost clinic at the SPCA, some pet stores have clinics, like Banfield at PetSmart. They offer more services and have regular office hours. The quality can vary with the clinics, so check around before you choose.

Once I finished school and had a higher income, I went ahead and found a vet with more convenient hours and a good reputation with my pet owner friends. I’m happy with my current veterinarian and my cat is doing well.

Schedule regular check-ups

Don’t skimp on getting your pet’s annual checkup. Preventive care can save you money in the long run, as you can catch ailments earlier. Keep careful records of your pet’s inoculations and other health-care services. If you move somewhere else or switch vets, make sure you can provide this information to avoid duplication and/or mis-diagnosis.

This past spring, my cat started urinating blood. We went to our veterinarian, but it hadn’t improved even after a few visits. I took my cat to get another vet to second opinion based on a friend’s passionate recommendation.

When I arrived, I gave the new office a copy of the records I had and the contact info for my original vet. They were able to diagnosis and treat him without spending a fortune on another complete round of tests.

Try some DIY grooming

Depending on your pet, this may be a great idea or a huge stress. Getting my cat nail caps at the vet was too much money and not enough reward. Instead, I bought a Pedi-Paw (or something like it) and I trim his nails as needed. After he got used to the routine, it hasn’t been too bad.

Bathing your dog can be messy, but it also save you some money. If you’re not really in the mood to give your dog a bath, do what my dad did and offer your kids money to do it. It’ll help teach responsibility and earn them some spending cash. Who knows, maybe they can start a side business and do it for the neighborhood.

The big take away is look if the grooming service is worth it to you and budget accordingly.

Consider pet health insurance or a pet care plan

Just like people, pets can have health insurance. Not all policies are equal, though. Some policies can save you some money, but be sure to double-check the fine print. You have to run the numbers and see if pet insurance is a good deal for you. If you want to get pet insurance, some popular companies include:

I think a wellness plan might be a better fit if you find pet health insurance to be too expensive. Many offices offer a package, so ask your vet what their wellness plan is. Having a wellness plan for your puppy or kitten can save you some money during that expensive first year.

Your thoughts?

I love being a pet owner, but I can now understand why my mom was so hesitant with getting a pet. She made us wait until our family budget could afford handle it, and I’m glad she did.

If you’re a pet owner, what tips would you give to potential pet owners? What unexpected expenses have you incurred? What unexpected benefits have you received at a pet owner?

Published on November 17th, 2009
Modified on October 4th, 2011 - 21 Comments
Filed under: Miscellany

About the author: helps families achieve financial freedom by sharing tips for reducing debt and building freelance income over at Couple Money.

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21 Responses to “How to Save Money on Pet Care”

  1. 1
    Alissa Says:

    One of the more regular costs to find savings is food. I shopped around for food costs, and then realized I could get case discounts for my cat’s wet food. And once I found a dry food the one would eat and I liked, I buy it in the biggest bags I can. Unfortunately, I also have to feed one of my cats a prescription food, not something you can easily save money on. So instead I order as much as I can at one time to save on shipping (flat fee).

  2. 2
    Courtney Says:

    We have Banfield’s wellness plan for our cats (8 and 13 years old). For about $34/month (roughly $400 a year) we get all our office visits, vaccinations, checkups, bloodwork and routine care like deworming and ear cleaning covered. We also get a 10% discount on all other services and medications. We’ve saved thousands of dollars over paying for services at each visit.

  3. 3
    Kevin@OutOfYourRut Says:

    We looked into health coverage for our dog a few years ago and found that your probably better off having a dedicated emergency fund, as Laura suggests.

    Coverage was capped at $1000, the annual premiums were around $180 and they didn’t cover a dog over the age of 11. Maybe it’s gotten better of late, but it was a weak deal at best when we looked into it.

    Also, the advice on shopping for a vet is excellent. We have a vet around the corner, but we drive 10 miles to one that charges, on average, about 30% less for services. This really adds up with boarding fees in particular, so it definately pays to shop.

  4. 4
    lostAnnfound Says:

    Something else to think about is getting an electronic chip implanted in your pet. That way if the cat runs away again (hopefully not!) there will be ID with him all the time. Our current dog was adopted from a rescue group two years ago and came with a chip implanted right in his neck near the top of the back. That way if he gets away his chances of getting back home are much better over just a collar & tag. Most shelters and pounds now have scanners that read the chips. Just need to remember to update the info if you move.

  5. 5
    Jim Says:

    Those costs seem to be at the high end. I doubt that average spending is anywhere near that high.

    I’ve looked at pet insurance and haven’t found a policy that is a good deal. Mostly they limit what they pay for so much that its not really worth it. I think having a decent pet emergency fund and self insuring is the better bet.

  6. 6
    John DeFlumeri jr Says:

    That is a good article, so many new pet owners think it’s just food and water.

  7. 7
    Kim Says:

    Wow! What an eye-opening article. My son is asking for a pet – my focus was on the daily care – like taking them for a walk and feeding them. However, it’s clear I need to pay more attention to the overall financials. Once I noticed advertisements for pet insurance that was another indicator for me. Great insight. Thank you.

  8. 8
    Rob Says:

    Great writeup – you can definitely cut some costs when it comes to pet supplies and meds if you know where to get them. A few online outlets sell the same stuff as petco/petsmart at like 40% off. I’m sure you could even shave another $400 off of that price for the medium sized dog figure.

  9. 9
    Craig Says:

    My fish costs way less than your estimate. I have a small tank and bought a bulk set of filters for $20 bucks and a larger food and chemicals for another $20 which basically last the whole year. Fish is cheap and nice decoration.

  10. 10
    Patty Says:

    I adopted my cat from the shelter here in town about six months ago. Someone had adbandoned her in the middle of our very cold winter. I asked them to give me their worse case as I couldn’t decide. She’s nine years old – a senior kinda a girl. She has been getting use to the place and all that goes on here. It’s been amazing to watch her unfold and become a kitty once again.

    If you are looking for a pet, consider adopting an older pet. I like kittens – but I’m glad not to have to go through the kitten stage again!

    And yes to the financial concerns – set up a line item in your budget for the routine things and also set up “emergency funds” for the non-routine events that may happen. Buying bulk is also very good way to get a better price.

  11. 11
    Laura Says:

    Thanks for sharing your take on being pet owners. I know costs can vary, but the ASPCA can give you general idea of the costs.

  12. 12
    kitty Says:

    My first year costs for a kitten were much higher: not only do I live in an expensive area where routine spaying costs $170; but my kitten had a nasopharengeal polyp which was growing from her middle year into her nose and required a specialist to remove. Not only that but the first vet recommended by a shelter couldn’t diagnose her for months which resulted in additional expenses on visits and useless (for her) antibiotics. I ended up taking her to another vet in my area – by that time I figured out myself that she had had a polyp – who confirmed it.

    The surgery to remove the polyp was $2100 – because there are so many nerves in the area and high risk of complication, the vet invited a specialist to do it. If I add other expenses including X-ray, spaying, and all the months of mis-diagnosis, it’d be close to $3000.

    In case you are wondering if a shelter gave me a coupon for free spay – yes, but it was to the first vet. Initially we postponed it because she was sick, by the time she was healthy I no longer trusted the first vet, so I choose to pay $170 and donate the coupon back to the shelter.

    Now, I was fortunate that I could afford the expenses without any need for any kind of special “pet emergency fund”. People who couldn’t would’ve had a choice to make – how much their cat is worth to them.
    After all, if a cat stays in the shelter, it’ll likely to either be killed or spend its life in a cage. If someone with less money takes it, the cat may not survive a rare illness that requires large expenses, but it’s likely to still be better off. To me the expenses are worth it because of all the joy and companionship I get.

    A few things I’d like to add in terms of cost control:
    1. Keeping a cat indoors is safer for the cat, but it also saves money. You don’t need to worry about fleas and such, the cat is likely to be healthier, and the number of recommended vaccination is smaller.
    2. Brush your cat’s teeth. I didn’t. It was OK for the first few years, but after a few years my cat got dental disease. Dentals and extractions (when needed) are expensive.
    3. Depending on how up-to-date your vet is, he may suggest more vaccinations than are recommended, especially for indoor cats. Also, the current guidelines recommend vaccinating less often than once a year. With rabis you need to also follow the requirements of the place you live, but with other vaccinations check the guidelines of AAFP (American Association of Feline Practictitioners) yourself (also check recommendations for vaccine-associated feline sarcoma task force). After the guidelines were relaxed to recommend once/three years for some vaccines, not every vet agreed and there was some controversy. If your vet is one of those who disagreed, look up the guidelines yourself.

  13. 13
    CB Says:

    Look at the Cornel Vet guidelines for cat vaccination. Many shots are not needed for an indoor cat, and every three years is enough for the basic ones.

    In states where outdoor cats are required to have a rabies shot every year, they usually get the same dosage as in states where cats have to have them every other, or every third year. The rabies shots were effective for many more years in testing than the testing lasted (as least four), but weren’t as profitable if not prescribed more frequently.

    Over-vaccination of cats has been exposed. Good for the vet’s bottom line to have the yearly shots, not so good for the pet.

    Buying high-quality food saves money in the long run, just as eating healthy food does for us. My cats do like dry food, but I mix it with wet food, and add filtered water. Cats are desert-adapted animals that didn’t evolve to rehydrate their food during digestion. Also, dry food usually has more grains, and cats are not really meant to eat much corn. The contents of prey’s stomachs is enough vegetables/carbs for them. Avoid pet foods that contain by-products.

  14. 14
    amyt Says:

    What a timely post for me. I’ll share the story about how my “free” dog has cost me more than my car payment this month.

    I already had one large dog at home(Shepherd/Collie mix) and three cats. My dog was just passing his one-year birthday and was the center of my universe. At a routine vet visit one of the vet assistants mentioned that they just had a call from another client. This client had a purebred Shepherd puppy but needed to find a home for her because her husband had fallen ill and she didn’t have time for it anymore. Long story short, I got myself a beautiful second puppy for free (a $1800 value!).

    The initial costs were expected, as I had paid them all for my first puppy the year before. $100 for a kennel, and $500 for the “puppy wellness” plan with my vet. The ongoing costs are about $70 in food a month, and $30 a month for the “sentinel” pill that protects against some parasites and such.

    Tika is now ten months old, I’ve had her for five months. I had noticed that she almost always has diarrhea, so I took her in to “talk” to the vet. Well, when I walked out of the vet I was $345 lighter! Stool tests, blood tests, a special food, probiotics, and medicine all added up within minutes. To top it all off, I still don’t know if there’s actually anything wrong with her!

    I should have been smarter, I should have had an emergency fund for animal care. Just to pay for this I had to take $200 off of my line of credit, and the rest will be deducted from my Christmas present fund.

    I love my dog.

  15. 15
    Jon Says:

    Thanks for mentioning that shelter animals can make great pets. One other thing about them though – they can also save you money!!

    Here in Minnesota, the Animal Humane Society spays/neuters and microchips every animal prior to adoption, plus they also receive a lot of their vaccinations. This saves you a lot of money upfront while also helping a great cause.

    PLUS – a lot of shelter animals come from homes where their owners could no longer afford to care for them, family moving, children’s allergies, etc. These animals come to the shelter already trained and well behaved – saving you from having to take training classes or deal with an unruly pet!!

  16. 16
    Des Says:

    I also think these numbers are a bit high. I have two Pomeranians, a Yorkie, and two cats and our estimated expenses for the lot are $1120 per year. That includes professional grooming for the Yorkie and one of the Poms (though, I do their nails myself) and a savings account for Vet emergencies and end of life procedures. My expenses would be higher if I had, for example, a large dog with prescription food, but I don’t think that is typical for most pet owners. Also, my expenses would be significantly lower if I had selected short-haired breeds which didn’t require professional grooming.

  17. 17
    MLR Says:

    I have an American Pit Bull / American Bull Dog mix and my girlfriend has a Lab / Hound mix. We got both of them from the shelter, and they are both amazing dogs. They, as Jon mentioned in #15, came mostly trained and were just looking for a family.

    I can’t stand the thought of puppy mills when excellent dogs like ours were sitting at the SPCA for months.

    As far as costs are concerned: Definitely plan for them, but don’t be one of those people who sets a maximum to spend before you euthanize your dog. Pets aren’t big screen TVs, you don’t just dispose of them when you get tired of them.

  18. 18
    Chelle Says:

    Having a pet sure can be expensive, it’s the main reason we don’t have one – my hubby has sever allergies and a hypoallergenic dog is several thousand dollars! We’ve tried shelters, went on waiting lists, etc. but no such luck on that either. It’s okay though, it does save us quite a bit!

  19. 19
    K at Resqdebt Says:

    Pets are among the hidden losers in a bad economy. Some are abandoned due to cost. I am glad you are writing this article to make people aware of the issue.

  20. 20
    Funny about Momey Says:

    Like cats, dogs also are over-vaccinated. Some of the shots given every year actually confer immunity as long as seven years. Look it up online, but be sure to check legitimate sources, such as Cornell and other .edu sites, as a lot of woo-woooo is out there.

    The truth is, demanding that you bring your pet in once a year for unnecessary vaccinations is a ploy to get people in for an unnecessary annual exam, which costs a lot more than the shots themselves and gives chain veterinary clinics an opportunity to sell you a few products you could buy cheaper elsewhere and that you probably don’t need. Most pet owners can recognize if their animal is healthy or under the weather. Take your pet to a shot clinic and skip unneeded exams!

  21. 21
    Jack Says:

    In the summertime our local vets offer rabies clinics all around town. They just charge for the shot itself. You save on the office visit. Our vet also has Sat clinics that are walk in with no office cost.

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