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Nurture your pets without breaking the bank

Caring for a pet can be a costly enterprise. Here are some tips for nurturing your animals without compromising the quality of their pets’ care.

My husband and I have not one, not two, but three beloved pets: A Rhodesian ridgeback named Frida, a Labrador retriever named Manny and an enormous cat named Diego. These critters occupy huge importance in our lives, and they’ve done a masterful job training us to understand their every need, want and whim.

I can promise you that we would do almost anything in our power to keep our four-leggeds happy, safe and alive. That said, anyone out there who’s been reading this column for any length of time knows how much I hate being a chump.

For these reasons, I’ve put this particular column together so other animal lovers out there can be savvy consumers without compromising the quality of their pets’ care.

1. Pound pets are penny wise. One way to save money right out of the gate is to adopt a dog or cat from the pound. Pets from animal shelters cost much less money than purebred animals, and they often have been spayed or neutered and have received their shots.

2. Research breeds ahead of time. If you know you want a purebred animal for whatever reason, do some homework ahead of time so you can know whether to expect any specific health conditions or issues. (For example, I can tell you right here and right now that Labrador retriever puppies chew EVERYTHING. If we had understood the magnitude of this single issue from day one, we could have been much more disciplined about crate training and dog-proofing the house when we weren’t home – and those two steps could have saved us hundreds of dollars in destroyed couch cushions, pillows, dining room chair legs, remote controls, phones, books and too many other household items to list here. Am I embarrassed to be admitting any of this to you? You betcha. But I also can’t resist the urge to share such a bona fide tip!) On a related note, it’s also a good idea to know what you’re getting into when it comes to grooming. It can cost $40 to $100 every six weeks or so to keep some high-maintenance breeds well-groomed.

3. Spay or neuter your pet for less. If your pet hasn’t been spayed or neutered yet and you plan to have this done, look into cost-effective programs run by your local Humane Society or branch of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Another resource, SPAY/USA, also can refer you to low-cost spay and neuter services in your area. Some of these services are available to people with low incomes, while others are open to anyone regardless of income.

4. Comparison shop before choosing a vet. Before a medical emergency hits, call three or four vets and ask about the price of annual exams, rabies shots and other vaccinations. Find out how often and under what circumstances “exam fees” in the $35 to $50 range get charged. Will you face that fee every single time a veterinarian – rather than a nurse – sees your animal, even if only for a couple of minutes? Are the vets you contact remotely open to the idea of speaking with you over the phone from time to time and giving you pet-care advice at no charge? (Note: Other pet owners in your neighborhood can tip you off to vets who are willing to provide such over-the-phone help when you need it. Ask around for recommendations.)

5. Seek out discounts. Veterinarians sometimes offer discounts to senior citizens and people with three or more pets, and Humane Society and SPCA offices sometimes provide a wide variety of free or reduced-price services to low-income pet owners and seniors. If you’re in a real pinch financially and your pet needs medical help, find out whether your vet can submit an assistance request to the American Animal Hospital Association’s AAHA Helping Pets Fund. The national clubs for some breeds offer veterinary assistance funds as well.

6. Don’t get stuck when it comes to shots. Contact your city’s or county’s animal control office and ask about free or low-cost rabies shots and other vaccines. You also can ask your vet about the feasibility of giving your pet booster shots every three years instead of once a year.

7. Know when to go on high alert. If your vet recommends an extremely expensive procedure, don’t simply say yes. Get a second opinion. Also, if you must go to an expensive emergency veterinary hospital in the middle of the night, arrange for follow-up visits to be handled by your regular vet during normal business hours. Because this whole process of visiting different vets on the fly can be very stressful – and eye-opening – it’s a good idea to keep all of your pet’s records in one handy folder so you can access everything quickly. This also will make it easier for you to switch vets if you must.

8. Strike mutually beneficial pet-sitting deals. Skip the potentially sky-high expense of boarding your pet or hiring a pet sitter by trading pet care with a friend or neighbor when you go out of town. If you must board your animal for more than two weeks or so, ask about long-term boarding discounts.

9. Focus on diet and exercise. Be sure your pet gets enough exercise on a regular basis and eats the right kind of food. Ask your vet for dietary recommendations, and don’t get carried away with too many treats or human-food handouts. Your vet is likely to recommend premium foods, which cost more than store-brand foods but which generally offer more bioavailable nutrients so your pet needs less food. If you decide to go this route, you can save money by purchasing dry premium food instead of moist or canned, which can cost 10 times more than dry. Another option to consider: Check the labels of the dry pet foods sold in bulk at warehouse stores such as Costco and Sam’s Club. Compare those ingredients against the ingredients in premium brands, or ask your vet about them. By doing this little bit of sleuth work, you may find a pet food that provides quality nutrition and costs significantly less money.

10. Should you buy pet insurance? More and more people are buying pet policies, which can cost $500 or more per year. If you’re convinced you need such coverage because of your pet’s breed or health history, try opting for a catastrophic policy only so you don’t pay too much. Or, you could simply start a pet emergency fund of your own by stashing away $400 to $500 a year into an interest-bearing account. By the time your pet is 10, you’ll have more than $4,000 to $5,000 set aside for any medical emergencies.

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