The Dog Ate Your Wallet? How to Cut the Costs of Pet Ownership

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dog financesIn 2012, Americans will spend $52.87 billion on their pets, the American Pet Products Association calculates.

To put that figure in perspective, let's break it down: The average dog owner spends about $248 a year on routine vet visits, $407 on surgical vet visits, $419 on food, treats and vitamins, $274 on boarding, $78 on travel expenses and $73 on grooming.

Add it up, and you get $1,251. That's close to what we spend on electricity to run our homes ($1,413), telephone services ($1,178) or household furnishings ($1,467) each year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' latest Consumer Expenditure Survey.

If you're surprised, you must not own a dog. Or a cat, fish or turtle. Keeping one of these friends under your roof adds up fast. Trust me. I've been to the emergency vet in the middle of the night, and my wallet has the battle scars to prove it.

I don't think there's a pet owner out there who isn't looking to cut costs. Here's how to do it:

• Don't pick a pricey pooch. For some of you, it's too late, so file this away for next time. But if you're in the market for a pet and you're undecided about what to get, remember: As a general rule of thumb, the bigger the animal, the more expensive it is to shelter and care for. So, if your budget is tight, a cat or small dog may be your best bet.

According to APPA's latest survey, cats are cheaper than dogs in nearly every category, including boarding, vitamins, grooming, food and routine vet exams. Large dogs come with large expenses: They cost more to feed. They cost more to board. You may have to pay a heftier pet deposit if you rent, or more in homeowners' insurance if you don't. Consider breed, as well, says Dr. Douglas Aspros, a Westchester, NY-based vet and president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. "It's worthwhile to do a little research and find out what problems the breed you're interested in is prone to. Breeds that have more arthritis, for example, may mean x-rays, anti-inflammatory drugs, even new hips."

• Fido doesn't need the fanciest food. Of the expenses that come with owning an animal, food is one of the biggest. And feeding your pet high-quality food may save you money on medical care down the road. But don't be fooled by shiny packaging and flashy slogans. "It's important to be critical here; some brands spend a lot more money on marketing than they do on the food itself," explains Aspros. Pick one that is made by a manufacturer you trust, and lists animal protein high on the list of ingredients. Then save some cash by clipping coupons and stocking up when the brand your pet likes is on sale. Finally, don't overfeed. It will save you money on food now, and on pricey medical bills due to obesity later.

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• Put preventative care in your calendar. This can really cut costs in the long-run. Spay and neuter early on, shell out the cash for necessary vaccines, and subscribe to regular check-ups. And you can save here, too, mainly by calling around and comparing prices among vets. Other tips: Keep an eye on the calendars of local animal organizations -- many host events with free or low-cost shots. And ask your vet if her or she has samples of medications or manufacturer's rebates.

• Consider pet insurance. I like Aspros's rule of thumb: "Pet insurance makes the most sense for people who know that when a problem occurs, they're going to want to do the best thing for their pet, and yet they're going to have a hard time saving enough money to handle that calamity when it happens." In other words, if you would drain your bank account and max out your credit cards to save your pet's life, it's probably worth getting insurance.

• Shear the grooming expenses. When it comes to grooming, it goes without saying that I'm for DIY. Regular brushing will cut down on visits, and when you do visit the groomer, get their fur cut short -- it will take longer to grow out, thus pushing off your next visit. And if you board your dog, it's time to make friends with other pet owners, so you can swap care instead: They watch your pup while you're out of town this summer, you return the favor when they travel for business in the fall.

• Don't buy supplies new. Both Craigslist and yard sales are overflowing with leashes, bowls, collars and other items you need for less.

-- With Arielle O'Shea
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