Family Finance


Keep Pet Costs on a Tight Leash

Over the past seven years, Anna Meyer has gone through many life changes. She earned her doctorate in immunology at the Medical College of Georgia, moved to Maryland, got married, had a baby and moved to Charleston, S.C. Through it all, her dogs, Boss and Spud, have been at her side (and at her feet). “They’re my family,” says Meyer. They also chew up a big slice of the family budget -- a whopping $1,350 per dog per year. But, she says, “they’re worth it.”

She’s in good company. Pet owners spent $43.2 billion on their animals in 2008, according to the American Pet Products Association. This year, despite the recession, they are expected to spend 5% more. But your furry (or scaly, slimy or feathery) loved one’s health and happiness doesn’t have to cost a fortune.

To see how your pet fits the bill, click here.

An Ounce of Prevention

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Veterinary bills are one of the biggest budget busters, and they’re rising much faster than the average overall cost of owning a pet. In 2009, spending on vet visits is expected to increase by 10%, to $12.2 billion.

But don’t be tempted to pinch pennies by cutting back on preventive care, advises Dr. Louise Murray, author of Vet Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to Protecting Your Pet’s Health (Ballantine Books, $25). Says Murray, who is director of medicine at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital in New York City, “Contracting an illness could be far more costly.” For example, immunizing your dog against the parvovirus costs $15. Skip the shot and you could wind up paying up to $5,000 for treatment in a veterinary-hospital intensive-care unit.

Buy a wellness plan? To save money on routine vet visits, vaccinations and preventive medications, consider purchasing a wellness package, which many veterinary practices provide at a discounted rate. Talk to vets in your area to see what kinds of deals they offer, or look into a plan that’s offered nationwide. For example, with the Pet Assure program, an annual fee of $59 per year for a cat or $99 for a dog entitles you to 25% off visits to veterinarians in the company’s network, plus 5% to 50% off pet supplies and services from participating retailers.

Meyer always asks vets about possible discounts. Her current vet, for example, gives her 20% off her second dog’s first annual visit. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of asking,” she says. “A lot of vets will give you a deal, especially when you have multiple pets.” Enroll Fido in obedience school. A trained pet is less likely to roam and rack up medical bills by becoming the victim of accidents. Plus, says Stephen Zawistowski, executive vice-president of the ASPCA, “a well-trained pet is going to help you save on other costs,” such as replacing damaged furniture or cleaning stained carpets.

In addition, routine grooming can stave off infections and other costly problems. For example, Zawistowski’s 11-year-old beagle, Morgan, has seasonal allergies and is prone to ear infections -- an ailment common to the breed. After consulting with his vet, Zawistowski began a regular regimen of washing Morgan’s ears to keep infections at bay. He also routinely shampoos Morgan’s feet to get rid of itchy pollen that makes the dog chew at his paws, which could cause significant skin problems.

Order medications online. Meyer estimates that she saves about $180 a year on flea and heartworm meds by ordering supplies in six- and 12-month batches from 1-800-PetMeds (800-738-6337; www.1800petmeds.com). For additional savings, she signed up for the company’s e-mails, which alert her to special sales and coupon codes.

Maintain a healthy diet.

“We have a massive obesity problem among pets in this country,” says Zawistowski. And just as with humans, obesity can lead to costly health issues. Treating diabetes, for example, can cost $50 a month for standard supplies, including insulin and syringes. More-serious diabetic cases could lead to a trip to the ICU, which costs up to $3,000. In fact, maintaining a proper diet for your pet may not only prevent diabetes, it might also cure the illness in cats when combined with insulin treatments. Unfortunately, says Murray, “diabetic dogs are diabetic forever.”

In addition to diabetes, cats are especially susceptible to diet-related ailments. They are “pure carnivores who don’t drink much water,” says Murray. So feeding your cat dry food, which is typically carbohydrate-heavy, can lead to a range of diseases, including urinary-tract problems and kidney failure. Dry food might seem economical, says Murray, “but it’s not when your cat develops an illness.” As long as pet food meets guidelines set by the American Association of Feed Control Officials, it will provide proper nutrition. Says Murray, “Just because it’s more expensive doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better.” Meyer, for example, sticks with Costco-brand food for her dogs, which go through two 40-pound bags each month. Trading down from brand-name kibble saves about $240 a year.


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