Keep Pet Costs on a Tight Leash

Four-footed family members don’t have to cost an arm and a leg.

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.

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An Ounce of Prevention

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; 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.

Pet-insurance option.

Even if you provide all the proper preventive care, you still can’t protect your pet from everything. “Almost every animal at some point in its life is going to have at least one serious medical issue,” says Murray. “The most important thing is for pet owners to have a backup plan.”

If you don’t want to pay out of pocket, you have two choices: Set up a special savings account or buy pet insurance. Murray recommends maintaining a fund of $1,000 to $2,000 for a typical animal emergency, such as a stomach problem. But if you want extra protection in case you face a more serious situation, such as a car accident, you should bump your budget up to $3,000 or $4,000. Either way, an emergency-savings fund has one big advantage: If your pet never needs it, the money’s still yours.

Most people prefer to skip pet insurance. The ASPCA estimates that just 5% to 10% of pets in this country are covered by health insurance. Murray says insurance makes the most sense for “very vigilant owners who want to give their pets top-level care.” As a result, she says, “owners get a lot back from their coverage because they use it often.”

Pet insurance may start to look more attractive as sophisticated treatments become more expensive. Over the past few decades, the veterinary field has advanced rapidly, with high-priced procedures that range from $600 biopsies to $3,000 orthopedic surgeries to $7,000 kidney transplants.

Meyer insures both of her “boys.” When her 92-pound boxer, Boss, was a wee pup, he suffered fainting spells. Meyer worried that the symptom was a sign of bigger problems to come, especially because heÕs a purebred and therefore more prone to hereditary disorders. So she signed him up for insurance and did the same a year later when she got Spud, a 66-pound Dalmatian-Labrador retriever mix.

On average, reports the ASPCA, a basic pet-insurance plan costs $19 a month for a dog and $15 a month for a cat. At, you can compare the policies offered by major insurance companies and read reviews from animal owners. Users currently rate PetPlan’s Bronze policy best in show. Monthly rates start at about $8, and the policy covers all accidents, injuries and illnesses, including those caused by hereditary conditions (there’s a $200 deductible, and claims are reimbursed at 80%).

What’s not covered

Unlike the PetPlan policy, many policies do not cover congenital problems to which your pet’s breed may be susceptible. Boss’s coverage, for example, excludes cardiac arrhythmia, to which a purebred boxer is predisposed. In fact, Meyer’s insurer excludes narcolepsy for beagles and exercise-induced collapse for Labrador retrievers because the conditions are common to these popular breeds. Such exceptions make buying tricky, says Murray. “The condition that you’re going to need insurance for is often the one you’re excluded from.”

But that doesn’t make all pet policies a bad deal for purebred dogs. (Purebred cats are rare in this country and don’t often have problems with insurance exclusions. Mutts, such as Spud, don’t face coverage exclusions, either.) You just need to sniff out a plan that doesn’t exclude genetic conditions. Preexisting conditions are also an issue. Any visits or treatments directly related to Boss’s fainting are excluded because it preceded his coverage. Purchasing pet insurance from the get-go might help you dodge the problem. Plus, says Zawistowski, “like anything else, you’re going to get the best price when your pet is young and healthy.”

But there are no guarantees. An ailment that your pet is treated for this year may be labeled a preexisting condition when you go to renew the plan next year. “You don’t want a policy like that,” says Murray. “Animals, like humans, get the same illnesses over and over again.” A couple of years ago, Boss was plagued by prostatitis, a disease of the prostate gland, and his treatment cost more than $1,400. But Meyer was reimbursed by her insurer for 90% of eligible expenses, minus a $50 deductible -- a total of more than $600. “Even though I’m paying every month, it’s easier to spread out the money rather than face a big lump sum,” she says. “It gives me peace of mind knowing that I’ll be getting some of that cost back.”

Stacy Rapacon
Online Editor,

Rapacon joined Kiplinger in October 2007 as a reporter with Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine and became an online editor for in June 2010. She previously served as editor of the "Starting Out" column, focusing on personal finance advice for people in their twenties and thirties.

Before joining Kiplinger, Rapacon worked as a senior research associate at b2b publishing house Judy Diamond Associates. She holds a B.A. degree in English from the George Washington University.