Shopping for Your Dog: When to Splurge and When to Save
Every year I attend the world’s largest pet-industry trade show, Global Pet Expo. Thousands of pet products are on display in a hall so large that if it weren’t for the aisle numbers hanging from the ceiling, you might need your smartphone’s GPS to keep from getting lost.
While you can find the latest in products for hamsters or snakes — or even chickens — at Global Pet, the majority of products are aimed at people who share their lives with dogs and cats. Cats get a lot of attention at Global Pet, but the real top dog when it comes to the retail pet industry?
Dogs, of course.
We’ve come a long way from a bowl, a collar, a leash and maybe an outdoor dog house, haven’t we? Some of the things we buy for our dogs are so silly that we don’t even try to pretend they’re necessities. But a lot of products really could go either way. How do you know what’s necessary and what isn’t — and when to splurge and when to save? Are there alternatives to high-end options that are at least as good at a fraction of the cost? My answer: Sometimes yes, sometimes no — it depends on what we’re talking about. Here’s a quick rundown of basics for your dog and some advice about when you can — and cannot — cut corners.
Many pet owners wonder if their dog needs “organic,” “natural” or even “kosher” food. The answer: probably not. As a veterinarian, the words I look for are “complete and balanced." And then I look for high-quality ingredients, primarily meat with a name, such as “turkey.” And while “natural” is just a marketing term, “organic” is a specific label, legally defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Be sure you understand what you’re buying so you can determine how much more you want to pay for something that may not add anything to the food’s nutritional value.
When people ask me to recommend a food for their dog, I tell them that there has never been a greater variety of outstanding choices. And then I ask questions to see what’s the best fit, both financially and in terms of meeting the health needs of the individual dog. Regular wellness checks, with routine diagnostics, are essential to knowing what your dog’s true health status is and what food is best for him. In the end, the best food for your dog may be the one sold only by your veterinarian, particularly if your pet has any chronic health problems. It’s important to have a discussion with your veterinarian: Whether you shop at a pet supply store, a grocery store or a bargain center, your veterinarian can recommend a product in your price range with high-quality ingredients.
Verdict: Worth spending more for better-quality ingredients. Discuss with your veterinarian.
How much bling does a dog need? From colorful collars and cute ID tags to designer sweaters with matching purses (to ride in, not to carry), there is virtually no end to the wardrobe your dog can have. But if you’re tight on funds, this is one area where it pays to pick and choose. What are the necessities? A well-made collar with a snap-together connection, a simple ID tag to go with your pet’s microchip and a comfortable 6-foot leash. As for sweaters and other canine clothing, some dogs actually do benefit, but these items are optional for most pets.
Back to that collar: Make sure it fits properly (you should be able to fit a couple of fingers between your dog and the collar, one for small dogs and three for the biggest). Also be sure that your dog’s everyday collar isn’t a “slip,” “choke” or “prong” type. I don’t recommend those collars, even for training (there are better options), but trainers who do use them only advise doing so when you’re actually working with the dog. As for the leash, unless your dog is well-trained and walks without pulling on a 6-foot leash, you have no business clipping on a retractable leash. If walking is an issue, a head halter or front-clip harness may be a good investment, but a better one? An obedience class.
Verdict: Stick with the basics — one properly fitted flat collar with ID tag and 6-foot leash.
You may be surprised to find that toys are a basic, not a splurge. A good selection of quality toys are a must-have for dogs and a good investment for you. Sturdy chew toys not only protect your shoes, furniture, remotes and Barbie dolls from being gnawed to pieces, they can also keep your pet out of the emergency clinic by deterring him from eating something that could make him sick — or possibly kill him.
Toys are also one of the absolute best ways to fight flab on your canine. Instead of putting his kibble in a bowl, make your dog work for his meals by using food puzzles or stuffed Kongs. There are many of these on the market now, and they’re durable and not terribly expensive. You put kibble (or treats) in these toys, and your dog has to use his body and his brain to get the food out.
Verdict: Go crazy! Ask your veterinarian to recommend toys that are safe for your dog, and choose those that best fit his size and chewing type — is he a nibbler or a power-chewer? Puppies and young dogs have to chew, and adult dogs often enjoy chewing. In the end, it’s better to spend your money on chew toys than on replacing what your dog destroys.
Beds and Crates
My entire career I’ve been recommending that dog owners use crates, and I’m certainly not going to stop now. Crates make house training easier and help you teach your dog to accept confinement and be comfortable in a small space. Everyone gets the house training part, of course, but what’s the advantage of accepting confinement? As a veterinarian, I can tell you that dogs who know how to chill out in a crate are more likely to be relaxed in other confined spaces, like a cage at the veterinarian’s office or the pet hospital. Being in the hospital, particularly for a medical procedure, is stressful enough; dogs who accept confinement tend to be less stressed. Crates are also important to have during emergencies, when you need to confine your pet for safety or transport.
Beds aren’t optional for your dog, either. A good bed, along with exercise and weight control, can make an older dog’s life much more comfortable, easing the pain of osteoarthritis. Thick padding with “give” — think thick egg crate or memory foam — really helps these dogs. But your dog doesn’t have to have a hardwood frame and upholstery that matches your living room furniture if you can’t afford it. A simple bed in the living room and one in the bedroom (unless your dog calls your bed his own) is plenty. You can purchase a comfortable bed at a pet supply store, or, if you’re handy, you can craft your own. Dog beds are easy to make, for anyone who knows how to sew.
Verdict: A crate is one of the best advances in dog care since our kind hooked up with theirs. Buy one. And beds really do make an older dog’s aching joints feel better. Pay more for padding, and keep the design simple (or DIY it) to keep the cost down.
A crate is so great it gets mentioned twice! Not a surprise, really: Before it became a popular component of house training, the standard-issue hard plastic crate was used to ship animals by air. A crate is also great for travel by car; it keeps your dog safe in a vehicle and provides him with “a room of his own” in hotels or friends’ homes. If you can’t fit a crate in your car, harness restraints are another good way to keep your dog secure on the road.
Beyond that, you’ll find all kinds of gear for going places with your pooch, but a lot of it is more “nice to have” than necessary — like travel dishes. The exception: the humble baggie, for picking up after your pet when he does his business. If you don’t save plastic grocery bags or you live in a community that has done away with them, invest in a roll or two of poop bags for the car.
Verdict: Crates are great, and so are harness restraints. Make sure you have something to pick up the poop, and that’s pretty much all you need, since most of the at-home gear can double as travel gear.
Did you notice I didn’t suggest cutting any corners on your pet’s health care? That’s not because I’m a veterinarian, and it’s not because I’m trying to protect veterinary income. Those wellness exams and routine care are not an area you should ever cut. You truly can save money (not to mention eliminate suffering) by catching disease early. So see your veterinarian regularly!