It's 6 a.m. I'm sound asleep. Then, a dog paw hits me in the face. It's my boxer pup, Holly, demanding breakfast for her and the other one, Daisy, who whimpers as if on cue. I stumble out of bed, head to the kitchen and notice the dog food bag is almost empty. • That's $20 I wasn't planning on spending, I think to myself. Maybe I'll skip lunch out today. • Soon, the cats are at my feet. Their bowl is empty, too, and the big one is scratching as if he needs a dose of those $30 flea meds. • Pet people know what I'm talking about. Our furry children need things, and those things cost money. Americans spent more than $48 billion on pet care last year, and not many are decreasing pet care spending despite today's economic concerns. • So, how does a good pet owner cut costs? You have to play it smart.
Don't let commercials fool you. Your cat is not a crowned prince. Your dog doesn't know if its dinner is shaped like vegetables. It can live happy (and healthy) without all the fluff. And premium pet foods sold in veterinarian offices aren't the only nutrient-rich options.
Experts say choosing less-expensive yet nutritious food is as easy as comparing labels. A nutrition adequacy statement from the Association of American Feed Control Officials ensures the food meets health requirements and you can always research brands to learn more about specific ingredients.
Look for ones with protein high on the ingredient list and with fewer fillers such as grains, says Pamela Borres, founder of SPOT animal clinic in Pinellas County.
If your pet has special dietary needs, there are ways to make speciality foods more affordable. Smaller pet stores (my favorite is Pet City in Land O'Lakes) offer special deals on all-natural products. Websites including MyPetSavings.com provide links to great coupons, including BOGOs. There are coupons for everything from name brands and treats to organic food. If you're lucky, you can stack them.
Also, try these tips. I mix cooked meat with dog food to make it last. I substitute carrots, crackers or a spoonful of peanut butter for dog treats, and I measure my pet's meals to avoid overfeeding. Because my cats love wet food, I make it an occasional treat. I grabbed Friskies brand tuna on sale for 49 cents a pouch at Target and made it last.
Dreading that yearly trip to the vet? I do. My last bill topped out at about $400. But you don't have to spend top dollar to keep your pet healthy. Most pet medications are available for less online at sites such as petmeds.com, and nonprofit organizations offer ways to cut costs on everything from vaccines to nail trims.
SPOT Low Cost Spay and Neuter Clinic in Pinellas Park offers annual shots and surgical procedures at a discount.
Anyone can visit SPOT's clinic, and in most cases, no appointment is necessary. While long wait times are typical, emergency situations are taken into account.
"We have people come from all over the bay area because our prices are so good," Borres said. "It's usually hundreds of dollars that (SPOT clients) are saving."
C.A.R.E. animal shelter in eastern Hillsborough County and Pasco County Animal Services also provide spay and neuter assistance to residents who qualify.
If you are happiest going to your regular vet, look into pet insurance plans, especially if you have an animal that requires frequent visits. But make sure the benefits outweigh the costs before signing up.
Grooming, hygiene and play
Not every family pet will put up with the owner as a groomer, but if you can muster the courage, animal upkeep is cheapest when you do it yourself. Regular maintenance makes it easier and prevents health problems that might require a vet visit.
I comb my cats two to three times a week, and the dogs get a monthly bath. I give them dental chews to keep their teeth healthy, and keep their nails trimmed.
Borres suggests doing a little bit every day to make grooming less of a chore.
"I have two long-haired dogs, so I spend five minutes a day instead of waiting until the end of the week," she said.
Shampoos, combs and other pet necessities are available at petsupplies4less.com, and it's not uncommon to find these items on sale at area pet stores. Check out the bargain bin at dogsupplies.com for toys, treats and grooming products for less than $4.
As for potty time, buy cat litter in bulk. If you are a one-cat household, try using newspaper strips in the cat box instead of litter. Newspaper is also a great substitute for puppy pads during house training. And, as always, look for coupons.