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Owning a Pet on a Budget: How to Make It Work

Pet ownership can be pricey, but don't let the numbers deter you. Read on for tips on how to welcome a four-legged friend into your home without burning a hole in your pockets. 

How can I save on food, toys and supplies?

Buying pet food in bulk is a good way to save over time, but you'll want to make sure you're buying quality.

"Food isn't an area you want to skimp on," Scott Giacoppo of the Washington Humane Society said. "I wouldn't recommend buying the cheapest food the same way I wouldn't recommend someone to serve Oreos at their Sunday dinner."

Veterinarians and pet supply stores like Pro Feed, Petco or PetSmart should be able to recommend food and other supplies, Giacoppo said.

Also, remember that you don't need to buy everything for your pet all at once. You might be able to start out with just bowls, food, a collar and a few toys, and then learn more about your pet to determine what else he or she needs. Of course, a dog will need a leash, and a cat will need a litter box, but you don't need to spring for top-of-the-line models.

Websites such as Groupon often have deals on pet supplies and services — just make sure you actually need the item; otherwise, you won't be saving money at all. Many pet retailer websites also offer coupons or special discounts.

Learn how to perform basic pet grooming skills yourself, such as nail clipping, to save on grooming fees. If you're able to, bathe your dog yourself in your bathtub or outside in the yard. If you can't, consider visiting a DIY dog-washing business, where you can use their shampoos and professional-grade tubs for about $20 — still cheaper than paying for professional grooming.

What are some preventative tactics I can take to avoid mishaps and large vet bills?

One way to cut costs before you ever see the vet is to adopt from a shelter rather than buy from a pet store or breeder, because "when you adopt, the animals are sterilized, they're up to date on vaccinations and they've been house trained," Giacoppo said.

If you buy a puppy or kitten from a breeder, you'll pay for these costs out of pocket. Sure, they're cute, but they can end up much pricier in the long run than adopting an older dog — and by adopting from a shelter, you'll actually be saving two lives, not one.

Make sure to "pet-proof" your home so any hazards or harmless substances are kept out of your new pet's reach. And remember that what's safe for humans might not be safe for dogs or cats. See the Pet Poison Hotline's list here.

Which breeds tend to be cheaper to care for?

The cost of care for cats and dogs doesn't vary much based on breed (unless you have a breed that requires extensive professional grooming), but smaller animals simply tend to consume less food than larger animals. The same goes for items like toys, treats and beds — larger ones usually cost more.

The best way to reduce costs, however, is to take care of your pet well, both physically and psychologically. The parvo virus, for example, is a life-threatening disease that can cost thousands of dollars to treat, but can be avoided for a small price, Giacoppo said.

"Take a Saturday once a year, wait in line for an hour and pay $10 for a shot that can save your pet's life," he said.

Also, be sure your pet has a social life and gets plenty of exercise. Leaving pets tied up or alone often results in psychological problems and boredom, which can cause behavioral issues, damage to your home or property and ultimately health concerns.

Where can I find affordable pet insurance, and is it worth it?

Pet insurance can be tricky because there are a few different kinds, and it's not necessarily about what injuries or illnesses your pet could endure, as dog owner Sarah Kliff noted in an article published by Vox.

Kliff pays $40 to $50 a month for pet insurance and says the real question is actually "How much are you willing to pay to spend to save your pet’s life?"

For her, it would be a lot.

"If I got a very large bill, I would likely pay it," Kliff wrote. "I would pay bills big enough to make it difficult for me to put a down payment on a house."

To sum it up, you might pay a premium for pet insurance that you never use to make a claim. But a few $400 trips to the vet or an unfortunate $3,000 surgery to remove your pet's favorite toy from its stomach could eventually surpass the price you paid for the insurance. Kliff also points out that many people pay renters' insurance and never file a claim, but the peace of mind can be worth it.

The website PolicyGenius, an online insurance marketplace, advises pet owners on which types of insurance they should buy, urging some not to invest in insurance at all.

According to the site's co-founder, Jennifer Fitzgerald, the right consumer for pet insurance has "low ability to pay [to save their pet's life] but high willingness," so it's not for everyone, Kliff writes.

Alternative options include pet wellness plans. For instance, PetSmart's Banfield Pet Hospital chain offers a wellness plan focusing on prevention and early diagnosis, with potentially lower costs than traditional pet care services. Plans include a set number of wellness visits per year, may cover the cost of shots and offer discounts on other forms of care.

If I need to travel, should I take my pet, hire a sitter or board at a kennel?

It depends. The cost of a travel crate can range from $30 to $100, and overnight care can be costly, too. Your best bet: Find friends or family member willing to do watch your pets. Or get to know a pet-owning neighbor and offer to trade pet care: You'll watch their dog or cat for a weekend if they'll do the same for you another weekend.

If you're thinking of boarding your pet, check business reviews on a site such as Yelp. If you find several well-reviewed spots, call around to get the best rate. And don't be afraid to ask about any special deals: Will they give you a discount if you pick up your pet before a certain time, for example?

If you hire someone to watch your pet at home, beware of an apparent "bargain." Giacoppo said it's best to use a referral.

"You don't want to hire someone who says they will just come over for five dollars," he said. "You have no idea how they will treat your pet."

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