Along Came Cookie

Living in a dorm in college was awesome but not being able to own a pet broke my heart. I volunteered socializing dogs and cats at the local shelter but that few hours a week just made me long for a pet of my own even more. So first thing I did after college – and getting a job – was adopt a puppy.

And along came Cookie… and the responsibilities of a very first pet all my own. Even if you had pets when you lived with your parents, you might not realize how much of a commitment – both of time and resources – it is to be fully responsible for one.

First of All, Can You Afford This?

If you are considering getting a pet or adding another pet, make sure you budget for it. Pets are costly and need lots of care. In order to be a responsible pet owner, you need to be realistic about what you can afford. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA)offers a tally of the average annual expenses of pet ownership. Check it out, but I’ll cut to the chase and tell you that a dog will cost you about $300 to adopt (start-up costs) and $1,200 a year to maintain. That’s an average of $125 a month. Do you have that kind of room in your monthly budget? Don’t answer too quickly – sit down and do the math. If not, you might take a look at some of the less expensive pets like a cat, rabbit, guinea pig, hamster, fish or turtle. Beware though, the SPCA didn’t factor in the cost of air freshener and if you keep one of these small pets indoors, you’re gonna need a quality air-freshener in bulk!

Grooming

Yearly expenses for pet grooming can be outrageous, with most pet groomers charging between $50 and $150. Particularly expensive to groom are high maintenance breeds of dog, like the Yorkshire terrier, poodle or Pomeranian, who need a trip to the groomer every couple of months. If you haven’t picked out your pet yet, take this into account – literally, sit down and do the math to see if you really need a fluffy puppy or perhaps a lower maintenance mutt might do. If you already have a high-maintenance breed, consider doing the grooming yourself. By bathing, brushing, clipping claws and brushing your pet’s teeth yourself, you’ll save hundreds of dollars a year. Research the specific grooming needs of your pet’s breed at healthypet.com. They also have an instructional video on how to trim a cat’s claws (raouw!).

If you’ve never used electric grooming clippers before, you might want to practice on a cheap stuffed animal first to see which setting is desired. You don’t want your precious Pooky looking like he’s ready to enlist in the Marines! Another great advantage to grooming your own pet is that I believe it is less traumatic for your pet than a trip to the groomer, where she might spend hours waiting her turn in a kennel cage surrounded by moans and groans of other tortured canine souls awaiting their turn in the dreaded vat of flea dip.

Food

Just as with anything, buying in bulk will guarantee better prices. But just because you have a bunch of food doesn’t mean you should let your pet pig out. Most cats and dogs in the U.S. are overweight, increasing the likelihood of serious health problems such as arthritis, diabetes and cancer. Invest in a large rubber bin with a tight seal and pour a 40- or 50-pound bag of dog food in it to keep it fresh longer than the bag would. Also, a rubber bin will keep anything else from eating the dog food – like rodents and roaches. Or if you’re tight on space or have such a tiny animal that a huge bag of food doesn’t make sense, how about finding a friend to split the bag and bill with?

Buy treats in the largest quantity too and portion out what you won’t use in a couple of weeks into gallon freezer bags to keep them airtight until you need them. Buy canned food in cases, cut your pampered pet to half rations on this expensive food and stick the rest in the fridge for the next day’s treat. Purchase a plastic lid to cover the can of food – they sell these in the pet sections of most stores.

Remember to shop around to find the best prices on pet food. If your pets are flexible about what they eat, check your local pet store for damaged bags. I’ve purchased large bags of premium dog foods for less than the generic brand because the bag was opened and taped shut again. And if your pets aren’t flexible about what they eat, you might try some malleability training. A friend of mine has two picky pups that will only eat bologna and table scraps – so she thought. Then she let her daughter housesit the dogs while she was travelling. She came back to find them eating Old Roy from the dog bowl like common canines! Just like a spoiled child, dogs will eventually eat what you offer them when they get hungry enough.

Lastly, for food on the flip side, always buy kitty litter in bulk. Think you don’t have room to store it? A huge bag of litter fits perfectly under the bed.

Healthcare

Keeping your pet in top shape will prevent costly trips to emergency clinics and chronic diseases that are sure to empty your savings account, not to mention put your pet’s health in jeopardy.

Keep good records of your pet’s medical history in order to avoid duplicate shots, treatments and misdiagnosis. The American Animal Hospital Association used to advise vaccinating your pets yearly, but they have recently changed their guidelines to recommend a number of the core vaccinations to be done every three years. Talk to your vet to find out which ones you can skip this year and save a bundle in the process.

It would be a huge mistake to cut out your pets’ yearly check-up altogether to save a buck. Taking a perfectly healthy pet to the vet may make you feel like you have just wasted $50 or $60, but remember that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That’s Benjamin Franklin-speak for: it costs a lot less to prevent than to cure. And while we’re talking prevention, Girls, you have got to spay or neuter your pet. Vets recommend this because spayed and neutered pets have fewer health problems down the road, such as prostate and ovarian cancer. I recommend it because if you’re living on a budget the last thing you need is six more mouths to feed! This is to say nothing of managing a horny pet!!

Jury’s Still Out on Pet Insurance

Used to be that pet insurance sounded like a ridiculous waste of money, but with the cost of vet care skyrocketing, it’s starting to sound like a good idea. But is it? Plans range in coverage and premiums: from every routine visit and vaccination covered with premiums of $25 to $30 a month, to catastrophic coverage only, with high deductibles and monthly premiums of $10 to $15.

Contrast this to what the SPCA estimates for average annual vet bills for a dog: $120. Those premiums that seemed pretty affordable now seem like a waste of money. Here’s a cold hard fact, if there weren’t a profit to be made from selling you pet insurance, no such product would exist.

On the other hand, if something terrible should happen to your pet, insurance would keep you from having to put a monetary value on the life of your pet – like my friend had to do. Her cat was hit by a car, but lived. It ran off and she couldn’t find it. The next day, it wondered back home looking like another cat entirely. Its eye was hanging out of socket, jaw was broken and it had a high fever. The prognosis was grim. The vet said they could try to reconstruct the face and treat the infection, for $500, but the cat still might not live. It broke my friend’s heart to have to put the cat to sleep because she couldn’t afford $500 for the surgery that offered no reasonable guarantee of success.

Whereas this is a true and touching story, it’s just the kind of thing an insurance company will use to lure you into a financially losing proposition. Be smart, and when it comes to this decision, assess your risk carefully. Is your pet getting old and starting to manifest some symptoms that might require heavy vet care? Despite your efforts to contain it, does your pet roam in dangerous places? Insurance may be a good idea. Is your pet happy inside the house or fenced yard, young to middle-aged and generally healthy? Don’t waste your money.

Medications and Flea/Tick Treatments

If you have a pet with a chronic condition that requires medication, shop around for meds. Just like different pharmacies offer the same human medication at vastly differing prices, you’ll find there are savings to be had in pet meds too. If you normally buy from the vet, check out online vendors for a basis of comparison. For example, 1800PetMeds.com promises to match the price of a lower identical product and offers free shipping on orders over $39 on every non-refrigerated item.

If your pet is indoor/outdoor and you find you need premium tick and flea treatment – like my boss who has three dogs and lives in the woods – you can save a lot of money by purchasing larger quantities and splitting up larger doses. My boss has a large dog, a medium dog and a small dog. She purchases twelve month supplies of Frontline for large dogs and splits it accordingly: the large dog gets one full dose each month, the medium dog gets two-thirds of a dose and she uses the remaining third on the small dog. In doing so, she saves more than $165 a year on Frontline. Her vet recommended this practice, but I bet the folks at Frontline would balk.

The vet also suggested that she could just refrigerate an unused portion of the product for a month, if needed. So if you have only one medium dog, you could purchase an extra-large-dog dose, give half and then refrigerate the other half for the next month. Whereas the medium-dog treatment costs around $87 for a six-month supply, the extra-large-dog treatment costs only $94. You can make that extra-large-dog dose last for 12 months on a medium-sized dog, saving yourself about $80 a year. Don’t put your dog’s health in jeopardy to save a buck, though. Be sure you know your dog’s current weight, and do the math as the dosage for these treatments is based on weight. Err on the side of caution: if your dog doesn’t get enough treatment, the worst that can happen is you have to battle a few bugs. If your dog gets too much, well… ask your vet.

Little Luxuries

We can become so attached to pets that we wish to pamper them with gifts all the time, but the fact is it just doesn’t matter as much to your pet as you might think. Just because we humans have become so addicted to shopping that we need new stuff on a weekly basis, doesn’t mean our pets are afflicted with this disease. In fact, I’m pretty sure they are immune to it. Every pet I have ever known likes an old favorite toy, but even that doesn’t make him or her as happy as just a good cuddle. It is important for dogs, especially puppies, to have chewing toys (and a cheap plastic toy is a much better choice than my expensive shoes!), but they don’t need a dozen of them, or a new one every week. You might want to get a scratching pole for your cat, that is, if you like your furniture, but it doesn’t have to be the $450 six-foot cedar scratching friendly cat tree (no, I am not making this up!). You may care about designer collars, clothes, leashes and pet carriers, but your dog or cat does not. So forget the Swarovski Crystal ID tags and monogrammed bed. If your expression of love for your pet just has to translate into shopping, limit yourself to a Christmas and birthday gift – but even then, know that your pet would probably prefer a good jog in the park or a game of chase the mouse as a special treat.

Being a pet owner is lots of fun but also a great responsibility. Never forget that our pets are 100 percent dependent on us – their well-being is ultimately in our hands. Don’t let these tough economic times deprive your pet of quality care.

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