How to Save Money on Pet Costs

Follow these tips to spend less on food, toys, supplies, grooming and medical care for your pets.

Pet ownership doesn't come cheap. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans spend just over $500 a year on their pets, on average. Figures from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals put the costs even higher for dogs and cats. The ASPCA estimates that cat owners spend a minimum of $1,035 a year on food, supplies, medical care and other items. Owners of medium-size dogs spend an estimated $1,580 annually.

Some pet owners easily top those amounts. However, you don’t have to go broke caring for your pet. There are several ways you can cut costs without sacrificing quality. Here’s how:

Food

Look for lower-cost alternatives. Liz Hanson, a veterinarian in Irvine, Cal., says that not all pets need organic or specialty food that’s sold at a premium. She had a client who was spending $800 a month on food from a boutique home-made pet food store for her 160-pound dog with skin allergies. She switched to food made by a larger manufacturer with the same pure ingredients at one-third of the cost, and the dog is doing just fine. To keep the costs under control, Hanson says that pet owners should look for brand-name pet food (not generic) with ingredients recommended by their vets.

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Buy in bulk. You can save money on pet food and treats by buying in bulk at a warehouse club or online. Money-saving expert Andrea Woroch says that she buys large bags of dog treats with natural ingredients at Costco for 30% to 50% less than at specialty retailers. When shopping online, buy the largest bag -- or multiple bags -- of pet food to qualify for free shipping on larger orders. If you set up auto delivery, you may qualify for 10% off or other discounts, Woroch adds. As with any bulk-food purchase, be sure you'll use it all up before the expiration date.

Be loyal to a retailer. You can score savings by signing up for a pet retailer’s rewards program. Woroch says that you’ll typically receive an initial coupon for registering for a rewards card, and you’ll earn rewards points with your purchases that can be redeemed for discounts. Rewards program members also receive exclusive coupons, she says.

Sign up for manufacturers’ newsletters to get special offers, coupons and sale notifications by e-mail for the brand of pet food you typically buy. You can score even more savings by pairing manufacturers’ coupons with store coupons and sales, says Karen Rodriguez, founder of SavingTheFamilyMoney.com (opens in new tab) and a savings expert for Savings.com (opens in new tab) .

Make your own food and treats. You might save money by using ingredients from your refrigerator and pantry to make food or treats for your pet -- and the quality can be better because it’s not mass-manufactured, says Colleen Demling, founder of dog-training company Pawtopia in San Diego. She says that frozen baby carrots and broccoli are great treats for puppies that like to chew. And you can find plenty of recipes for pet food online. Try doing an Internet search for "homemade dog food" or "homemade cat food," or check celebrity chef Rachael Ray’s site (opens in new tab), Demling says.

Supplies and toys

Shop online. Demling recommends shopping at PetEdge.com (opens in new tab). The Web site markets wholesale grooming supplies and discount pet products to pet-care professionals, but the general public is welcome as well. Amazon.com (opens in new tab) and Wag.com (opens in new tab) are other sources for deals on pet supplies and toys, she says.

Head to discount retailers. Chains that you might associate with affordable clothing and items for the home, such as Marshalls and HomeGoods, carry lots of pet items at deep discounts, Woroch says. She’s found pet shampoo, water and food bowls, beds, toys and other items at these retailers for up to 60% less than at other stores.

Use discount gift cards. Stock up on discount gift cards to your favorite retailers of pet supplies from sites such as Cardpool (opens in new tab) and Gift Card Granny (opens in new tab), where you can find gift cards for up to 35% off face value. You’ll score instant savings when you use these cards to pay for purchases.

Don’t buy pet-specific toys. You’ll pay a premium for toys marketed as “pet toys,” Demling says. Instead buy similar items that aren’t labeled as pet toys or use what you already have at home. For example, you can find a bouncy ball for a child at a dollar store to entertain your cat. Or just wad up a piece of paper or foil, she says. For dogs, put an empty water bottle in a tube sock to create a great chew toy. Soak an old wash cloth in water or chicken broth, roll it and freeze it to make a soothing toy for teething puppies, she says. And both cats and dogs love empty boxes with treats or toys hidden inside them.

Grooming

Learn how to DIY. Grooming your pet yourself can help you extend the time between trips to the groomer or avoid going to a professional altogether. Books such as DIY Dog Grooming, From Puppy Cuts to Best in Show (opens in new tab), by Jorge Bendersky, can help. Bendersky, who is a dog groomer in New York City, says that the best thing dog owners can do is brush their dog daily (and, yes, an inexpensive brush will work just fine). It will reduce shedding and help owners detect scratches, bumps or any other problems early when they are less expensive to treat, he says.

Medical and dental care

Invest in preventive care. Annual exams can save pets’ lives by ensuring they're healthy and save pet owners money by reducing or eliminating the risk of health problems that can be more expensive to treat, Hanson says. And preventive dental care can be a big money saver. Treating a dog or cat for periodontal disease could quickly add up to hundreds of dollars in dental x-rays, teeth extractions, anesthetic costs and more, Hanson says. So brush your pet’s teeth and use dental chew treats. Hanson recommends Minties brand dental treats as a lower-cost alternative to products such as Greenies.

Buy medication online or at a discount pharmacy. You don’t have to get your pets’ prescription drugs and flea and tick medications through your vet. In fact, you’ll save if you purchase these items elsewhere. Online pet pharmacy PetMeds (opens in new tab) is a good source for discounted medications, Demling says. And Hanson says you can save by having your pet’s prescription filled at low-price pharmacies such as the ones at Walmart.

Ask your vet for free samples. Just as humans can take advantage of free prescription-drug samples from their doctors, pet owners can get free meds. Hanson says that you should ask your vet if she or he has any sample products, coupons or manufacturer rebates whenever medications are prescribed for your pet.

Consider pet insurance. Although there is no guarantee that pet insurance will turn out to be a wise investment, it could save you thousands of dollars if your pet ends up requiring extensive medical treatment, Hanson says. If you choose to purchase coverage, carefully compare policies because some will not cover conditions that may be common to your breed. For more about pet insurance, see How to Manage the Costs of Owning a Pet. Alternatively, Hanson says you could contribute the same amount you would spend on pet insurance premiums every month to a savings account earmarked for emergencies. If one arises, you'll already have money set aside to help cover the cost.

Cameron Huddleston
Former Online Editor, Kiplinger.com
Huddleston wrote the daily "Kip Tips" column for Kiplinger.com. She joined Kiplinger in 2001 after graduating from American University with an MA in economic journalism.