Budget pet care: 37 low-cost ways to keep your pet healthy


There's no such thing as a free puppy. Or kitten. Or hamster, lizard, fish or rabbit. Even if someone hands you a critter outright, you can expect to spend between $580 to $875 a year for basic expenses, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Oh, and that doesn't count things like purchase price/adoption fees, collar, leash, crate, spaying/neutering and other “capital costs.” Or for any of the myriad (and sometimes silly) ways we profess love for our animals. The American Pet Products Association says that U.S. pet owners spent a little over $58 billion last year on our critters; this year the estimate is $60.59 billion.

Who says you can't put a price on love? But keep in mind that:

  • Not everything has to be new.
  • You may already have some of this stuff, or know someone who does.
  • You don't need nearly as much as pet retailers would have you believe.

You should never compromise your pet's health or safety just to save a few pennies. But you can use some (or all) of these tips to save money without cheaping out.

Taking care

1. Annual vet visit. Yes, even if your animal companion seems to be doing just fine. Catching a problem early means less pain to your pet and your wallet.

2. Vaccinate intentionally. Some shots are required by law, but not all pets need all available vaccines. The ASPCA website notes that veterinarians are now told to assess a pet's true risk of exposure vs. giving shots willy-nilly. Talk to your vet about this.

3. Buy good food. Talk to the vet about which brands are right for your pet. Some owners make all their own chow, but that's asking a lot of a busy person. A better-quality food may cost a little more than you would think — but maybe not much more — and it will keep your pet healthier overall (which means fewer expensive-to-fix health issues).

4. Don't overfeed. Some people ban pets from the dining room because of the soulful-eyed “but I'm so hungry!” looks they give. Don't feed them from the table and ask your vet about the right amounts of food (some large breeds need surprisingly little). This tip saves you twice: in the buying and by forestalling problems that arise from pet obesity.

5. Exercise! Your dog needs it and you do, too. Once again, talk to the vet about how much is too much (especially if Bowser is limping after a long run). If you're a cat owner, provide something like a ball or one of those feathers-on-a-wand toys to encourage friskiness. A cat that has something to do and gets regular attention might be less inclined to shred, urinate on or otherwise damage your household.

Best money practices

6. Shop online. That could be through the online version of Petsmart or PETCO, or at retailers like Amazon and Wag.com. Sales happen online too, as do coupons and free-shipping codes. (You might even get free shipping on those jumbo economy sizes.)

7. Buy a lot. Get the biggest size of food or litter if it's noticeably cheaper per pound (especially if someone is delivering it). Maybe Costco or Sam's carries your pet's favorite tartar-banishing chews.

8. Get the best deals. You don't have to do the legwork thanks to sites like PriceGrabber and NexTag. Type in the name of the cat food or heartworm medicine you need, and the site will tell you the lowest price.

9. Go through cash-back sites. Don't just head straight to PETCO or Wag.com, though. Start at a site like Ebates, FatWallet, Extrabux or Mr. Rebates and get a rebate every time you order; cash-back sites offer coupons and specials too.

10. Avoid impulse purchases. Train yourself to resist the squeaking plush hot dog or the catnip mouse every time you're in the store. It's no accident that such items are displayed in the checkout line.

11. Don't buy from the vet. Flea/tick nostrums and other prescription drugs are more affordable through an online pharmacy like PetMeds or PetCareRX. (Some of these companies are accessible through cash-back sites.)

12. Start a pet emergency fund. Sooner or later your pet will likely need extra care, especially as it ages. Not everyone is eligible for one of those low- to zero-percent financing deals, so set aside a certain amount each month right from the start in an online savings account. This could save you money in two ways: You'll have to put less (or maybe none) of the cost of care on a credit card that you might not be able to pay off right away, and you might be able to negotiate a discount for cash.

Excited couple shopping for dog toys

How — and why — to buy

13. Improvise! Your preschooler has outgrown the need for the baby gate, but it would be great for keeping your not-quite-housetrained pup out of the carpeted areas. No need for a dish that says “food my cat won't eat” when a small soup bowl from your cupboard will hold that can of guts ‘n' gravy just fine.

14. Check the garage/attic. Your own, or someone else's. Maybe your parents still have that dog crate even though the last family pooch died five years back. Could be that Grandma kept the cat carrier long after the kitty's nine lives were used up. Also on that topic…

15. Ask and ye may receive. Put it out on social media that you're adopting a pet and would appreciate advice and/or unused items. Perhaps you'll luck out.

16. Hit the secondary market. Yard sales and thrift stores could yield very affordable finds. A veterinarian told me that a good wash and a spray of Lysol will do away with any lingering cooties.

17. Suggest a swap. So that bicycle-dog-leash contraption didn't work out because your dog is a powerful tugger and keeps pulling you off balance. Meanwhile, your neighbor spent big bucks on a cat tree that the feline won't touch, and a co-worker is looking to unload a jumbo Habitrail. Put it out through the grapevine and social media that a pet-products swap will take place at your house next Saturday afternoon. It could be that the former skijorer whose knees are shot will want to trade the harness for a reptile heat lamp and settle down to raise critters that don't need exercise. (Note: You can also do the swap entirely online.)

Why pay at all?

18. Check the Freecycle Network. It's the luck of the draw, obviously. Yet I've seen everything from food to crates being given away absolutely free. After a relative's cat died, the Freecycle notice for “free food and litter” lit up her inbox.

19. Check Craigslist, too. There's a “free” section there (again, your mileage may vary) and also a “wanted” section. Maybe the day you post “Wanted: Cat carrier and other feline-related items” will be the day someone finally decides to de-clutter the garage.

20. Seek samples. Google the phrase “free pet food samples” and you'll get hits on free pet food, chews and other items, and probably coupons as well. Kiplinger's Personal Finance suggests asking your vet for pet-med samples; the vet may also have coupons or manufacturer rebates for certain prescriptions.

21. Follow a freebie blogger. Yes, that's a thing. Reputable sites like Bargain Babe and The Freebie Blogger send daily e-mails with all the stuff you can get for free, including pet products.

22. Help when you're down. Suppose your household experiences illness, layoff or some other issue. The PETCO chain maintains a state-by-state database of pet-food banks that might be able to assist you. Look online for vaccination clinics in your area, too. When times are better, you can make a donation.

The DIY route

23. Groom at home. Some breeds need very specialized bathing and clipping, but many owners can handle a dunk in the tub and a good brushing. My sister bought nail clippers that paid for themselves the second time she didn't have to pay the vet to trim her golden retriever's toes.

24. DIY exams. The ASPCA recommends a weekly home check-up to look for developing issues. Check under the animal's fur for scabs, lumps, bumps or skin flakes. Look in eyes and ears for redness or discharge; you should also learn to clean the animal's ears. Should the pet's breath smell particularly bad, this could mean a digestive problem is developing — and if the animal's eating/drinking habits change, you need to call the vet.

25. Make pet toys. Some dogs are never happier than when they're chasing a stick or Frisbee. We once had a cat that loved to chase a piece of crumpled-up foil down the stairs; she'd bring it back up for us to throw again and again and again. Look online for pet toy suggestions, paying particular attention to those that come from veterinarians, licensed breeders and professional animal trainers.

26. Make cat litter. It is not something everyone wants to do, but it is an option. Look for recipes online. Generally, they use ingredients like shredded newspaper and baking soda.

27. Make pet snacks. Do an online search for “homemade pet treats” and you'll get an eyeful. It's also possible to convince dogs that raw carrots are delicious and treats don't get much easier than that.

28. Brush your pet's teeth. Easier said than done when it's a cat, I know. Puppies are more malleable. According to the ASPCA, regular brushing may eliminate the need for a professional cleaning — and that can save you up to $200 per year. Start when the pet is young and hope for the best. A trip to Biscuit Land afterwards might improve the experience.

Other money-saving tips

29. Be loyal. Pet supply stores have rewards programs just like supermarkets do. You'll probably get a coupon just for signing up and then accrue points every time you buy. Members may also get proprietary coupons now and then.

30. Sign up. Got a favorite brand or two? Sign up for the manufacturer's newsletters and you'll get coupons, special offers and advance sale notifications.

31. Engineer a discount. If you shop at Petsmart, PETCO, Pet Supermarket and certain other retailers, look for a discounted gift card. You'll save up to 20 percent (or maybe more) by using these cards like cash. (For more on this, see “Discounted Gift Cards: The New Coupon.”)

32. Cash in rewards points. If you have a rewards credit card or belong to sites like My Coke Rewards, Swagbucks and MyPoints, trade your points for gift cards to places like PayPal, Amazon, Home Depot or Target.

33. Subscribe and save. Sites like Amazon and Wag.com will arrange for regular deliveries of items like food and litter. You'll likely get a discounted rate and won't have to spend time and/or gasoline shopping. (Bonus: No more hauling those heavy bags and boxes.)

What Fido or Fluffy DOESN'T need

34. Reproductive capability. Unless you're a licensed breeder or have a specific plan to breed your pet and deal with all the offspring fairly, spay or neuter your new pet. The ASPCA has a database of low-cost sterilization programs in the United States and Canada. Hobbyist breeders need to remember that the results could be costly, e.g., a traumatic birth that requires expensive medical intervention. Or suppose your cat pops out seven or eight kittens instead of the expected three or four and you're not able to find homes for all of them?

35. A Halloween costume. Or reindeer antlers at Christmas. Or a sweater. Or a T-shirt. Don't throw your money away on silly stuff, or at least don't do it until you've got a nice cash cushion.

36. Multiple collars. It's for safety and identification. It's not a fashion statement. I once knew a woman who made pet collars out of colorful grosgrain ribbon. They flew off the shelves, because apparently single-hued neoprene and nylon isn't interesting enough.

37. Pet insurance. Yes, it works out in some cases. However, Consumer Reports says it's “rarely worth the price.” Go ahead and get a quote, then bank the monthly premium amount in that emergency fund.

Readers: What are some of the ways you save money on pet supplies without negatively affecting your pet's quality of life?

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