It’s proven: adopt a dog or a cat and you’ll have lower blood pressure, fewer headaches, a stronger heart, more friends and less stress. (Just ask the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
But all that health and happiness is shot if your pet drains your bank account.
Care can be expensive. According to the American Pet Products Association, two-thirds of us have pets, and we’re spending more than $50 billion on them every year. The average pet owner will shell out up to $600 on vet visits, $350 on food and vitamins, $250 on boarding and another $250 for toys, treats and trinkets every year. (Find an even better breakdown at aspca.org under “Adoption.”)
The numbers can be shocking, especially for those of us already biting our nails over groceries, car payments and kids’ college accounts.
But there are plenty of ways to provide loving care while keeping your costs on a leash. Read on.
If you’re adopting a new dog or cat, save money right out of the kennel by choosing wisely. With a little research, you can find breeds that need less medical care, less grooming, even less food.
Some dogs, for instance, are genetically prone to illnesses or injuries. “Absolutely before you choose you have to know the risk factors,” said Dr. Peter Weinstein, executive director of the Southern California Veterinary Medical Association. “And a mix-breed is not immune,” he warns. “Sometimes they’ll have the best of both worlds or the worst of both worlds.”
Pet insurance company Trupanion issues an annual list of the most expensive breeds, based on policyholders’ claims. For dogs, that includes English Bulldogs, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Rottweilers, Great Danes and French Bulldogs. For cats, Siamese, Bengals, Himalayans, Maine Coons and Ragdolls are high-dollar. Do a quick Google search to find the hardiest specimens.
Be selective and you can save on food and grooming, too. A St. Bernard, for instance, will have you hauling kibble from Costco, but a teacup poodle will barely nibble at your budget. Short-haired pets, like beagles, pugs and terriers, will glow with a (free!) daily brushing, while a Bichon Frise needs more primping than a Kardashian.
Keep the breed’s habits in mind, too. That lovely Labrador might not need much grooming, but your savings will be blown when you have to replace your (chewed-up) shoe collection.
And the best tip of all: adopt an older pet who’s already been spayed, neutered, vaccinated and trained, saving you a couple hundred dollars. The perfect place is your local shelter (see “Shelters“) or rescue agency (see “Adoption and Rescue“), where you’ll find loving, low-budget pets of all ages and varieties.
Stick to the Basics
Walk into any pet superstore, and you may come to believe your dog needs a Swarovski crystal collar and personalized poop bags.
“You don’t have to feel like you’re not a good pet parent if you can’t afford these expensive accoutrements,” said Ana Bustilloz, director of communications and marketing for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles (spcaLA). “Just loving them will make you a good pet parent.”
Loving them means providing the basics: a bed, a brush, a toy or two, a leash for your dog, a scratching post and litter box for your cat. Ask friends and relatives if they have any hand-me-downs, or browse sites like craigslist.org or freecycle.org for deals on big-ticket items like training crates, dog houses and kitty condos.
Invest some of your savings in good quality food and you could cut your future vet bills, Bustilloz advises. Premium brands “may seem like they cost more,” she said, “but (pets) eat less, they get better nutrition, it’s less fatty, there’s less waste. Spring for the extra five or ten dollars—it’s a much better plan.” Buy in bulk, she suggests, and stretch your supply by following the dietary guidelines on the package. Like Italian grandmas, most people overfeed.
Cut down on grooming (it’s 40 bucks or more a pop!) with a preventive daily brushing. Wash your dog in your bathtub or try a self-service spa like Soggy Dog in Long Beach, where you’ll find all the shampoo, conditioner, towels, brushes and blow dryers you need for just $15. While you’re there, a pro can handle the tougher jobs, like cleaning your dog’s ears or trimming his nails, for $5. “There are always options for every budget,” said owner Lawrence Cassel.
Or check out the spcaLA Grooming Salon in Long Beach, where you can take matters into your own hands at their self-service station for just $12. Read the details, make an appointment and print out coupons at spcala.org/grooming. Find even more do-it-yourself options under “Grooming/D.I.Y.”
An Ounce of Prevention
Unexpected medical bills are by far a pet owner’s biggest blow. But just like us humans, you can ward off a long list of ailments (and expenses) with a healthy lifestyle and preventive care.
Most important is to have your pet spayed or neutered. Not only will this prevent unplanned babies, you’ll protect your pet from reproductive cancer, fights and running off while they’re in heat, said Judy Williams of the Pet Assistance Foundation.
Founded in 1955, the volunteer agency has referred thousands of pet owners to Southern California veterinarians who provide low-cost sterilization surgeries—usually $25 to $60 for cats and $60 and up for dogs. Call their hotline at (877) 772-9738. You can also run a zip code search at spayusa.org or check our “Pet Assistance” section for even more low-cost spay and neuter programs.
Just as important are diet and exercise. “Obesity has as many side effects in pets as it does in people,” Dr. Weinstein said. “By not being aware of your pet’s weight as a concern, you’re probably decreasing their life expectancy and putting them through more discomfort and pain.”
Walk, run and play with your pooch, he advises, keep the water bowl full, don’t overfeed, and match the food to your pet’s lifestyle. (A younger, spunky pup needs more calories than a senior.)
For medical care, you can handle over-the-counter treatments for fleas, ticks and heartworm yourself, but leave the yearly vaccines to the pros. Pet stores, animal shelters and vets offer low-cost clinics, where you’ll pay just a few bucks and avoid the cost of an office visit. (Check our Calendar or the “Pet Assistance” section.)
Or check out mobile clinics like vaccinationstation.com or the year-round Animal Discount Clinic in Garden Grove. With a lean staff and less overhead, the facility’s able to offer a menu of preventive care for “at least half the cost of what normal veterinary hospitals are charging,” said manager Mary Thompson. Call (714) 537-0570 for information on spay and neuter surgeries, vaccines, flea products, dental cleanings and microchips—no exam required.
But don’t put off Fido’s annual check-up. “Even the best pet owners may not realize their dog or cat has a health problem until there’s a crisis,” said Heidi Lobprise, DVM, of Virbac Animal Health. “Regular visits help detect problems early, which can spare a pet from pain and also be easier on the family budget in the long run.” Delaying care can also lead to chronic conditions, she noted, which are costly to treat.
Before an emergency hits, it’s smart to build a relationship with one veterinarian who knows your pet. To find a good one, ask friends and relatives for recommendations. Compare pricing, ask whether exam fees are required every time, make sure the vet writes prescriptions that can be filled elsewhere, and see if they offer any discounts or payment plans. Look for vets that are open late and on weekends, ask how they handle after-hours emergencies and see how receptive they are to answering your questions over the phone.
Many vets, like Tri-City, Surf City and Katella veterinary hospitals offer a free exam to first-time customers. It pays to ask.
The 4-1-1 on 9-1-1
Your cat just tangled with a raccoon or your Doberman ate your mud flaps. Accidents and illness happen, even with the best of care. But it’s possible to watch your cash, even in an emergency.
Round-the-clock animal emergency rooms are generally pricier, because they need to pay staff to cover the wee hours and holidays. When your pet is hurting, take a deep breath and decide whether he needs immediate care or if he can wait until morning. Flip to our “Emergency” section to find out which symptoms should be treated right away, along with a list of 24-hour hospitals.
If your pet is facing a health crisis—emergency or otherwise—it pays to keep your cool and ask questions.
Money “is really a common discussion in every exam room we go into these days,” said Dr. Robert Murtaugh, medical director for VCA All-Care Animal Referral Center, noting that pet owners shouldn’t be embarrassed to question a proposed treatment plan. “In general, like anyone in the service industry, we would recommend the very best treatment approach, but we recognize that some people can’t go that route.”
“There are going to be times there is no way around the expense,” he added, “but there are often in-between options.” Ask if there’s something else you can try first, if you can go at the treatment step-by-step or if there’s a specialist who can make a diagnosis more quickly.
“The treatment plan should be a cooperative discussion between the veterinarian and the pet owner based on what’s in the best interest of the pet,” said Dr. Weinstein, “and the pet owner should make their decision with full knowledge about their options.”
Just don’t do your research on the ‘net, he warns. “Misdiagnosing, waiting too long for treatment or initiating treatment with over-the-counter suggestions might put your pet at greater risk than if you were to pick up the phone and make the call.”
Pay Up (Nearly) Pain-Free
A big bill from the veterinarian’s office is almost inevitable for any pet owner, but don’t let it send YOU to the ER with heart palpitations. There are ways to manage the expense.
While your pet is still young and healthy, look into pet insurance. The pros? For one, you’ll likely take your pet in more often for preventive care. And in the event of a devastating illness or injury, you won’t need to make the painful choice of putting your pet down. The cons? Policies vary. Some cover cancer, some don’t; some cover accidents, but not illnesses. And pre-existing or hereditary conditions—even some breeds!—are not covered, so read the fine print.
You can compare plans at petinsurancereview.com. Check for exclusions, age limits or waiting periods, find out how each company handles claims, and call their customer service line to see if you’re impressed.
If you’re not up for spending about $500 in premiums each year, look into a “catastrophic” (high- deductible, low-premium) policy, Dr. Murtaugh suggests, or simply start stashing away $500 a year in an interest-earning savings account. By the time your dog’s 10, you’ll have more than $5,000 for emergencies.
If you don’t have insurance, ask your vet’s office if they accept promissory notes, or offer cash discounts, low-interest payment plans or other breaks. The standard offering is CareCredit, a company that offers monthly payments, no up-front costs and no pre-payment penalties on everything from checkups to emergency surgery. Learn more at carecredit.com. (If you have a better interest rate or can earn reward points, you may be better off paying the bill with your credit card.)
If your pet needs meds, ask your veterinarian for samples first. For long-term treatment of chronic illnesses, ask for a prescription (and whether there’s a cheaper human-drug equivalent) and then shop around at sites like 1800petmeds.com, petcarerx.com and drsfostersmith.com. If you have your own discount card through a drugstore, Auto Club or AARP, see if veterinary drugs are covered.
In spite of your cost-cutting, if you ever find yourself forced to choose between your pet and your electric bill, turn to page 21 for help. Many agencies, including Actors and Others for Animals, the Animal Assistance League of Orange County and Friends of Long Beach Animals, provide medical, financial and legal help to low-income, elderly and disabled pet owners.
And as hard as it might be, you can also give your pet the gift of a new home—one with more disposable income. Many local shelters and rescue agencies will allow you to surrender your pet for adoption, as long as you live in their service area. Look for a non-euthanizing pet rescue operation, under “Adoption and Rescue,” “Pet Assistance” and “Shelters.”
Taking great care of a pet isn’t always cheap or easy, but the rewards can be worth all the money in the world.