Walking dog

Everyone has tips and ideas about saving money, but when it comes to pet care, a lot of the ideas that are out there just make me worry about their impact on the health and happiness of our animal companions. I’ve seen advice in (otherwise) respected publications that suggests vet-shopping for price, or skipping veterinarian visits entirely in favor of feed-store vaccine clinics and at-home medical care. Other articles say there’s “no difference” in pet foods, so buy the cheapest.

Much of this advice couldn’t be more wrong. That’s even true of much of the “expert” advice, when it doesn’t draw from the expertise of the only true experts in pet care: veterinarians.

Make Health Care a Priority

Instead of worrying about saving money when treating a severe illness or an injury resulting from an accident, work on preventing those problems instead. Prevention is almost always less expensive than treatment, and that’s where your investment should be.

But do you know what prevention means? There are still many well-meaning pet lovers who think “wellness care” means vaccinations every year from the feed-store clinic, and that is simply not correct. Today, vaccines are tailored to a pet’s lifestyle and commonly given at far less frequent intervals, so if you think your pet is covered by a yearly combination shot — without getting a veterinary exam — you’re well off the mark.

Saving money by getting “shots” every year puts pets at risk from overvaccination, and — more important — means that potentially serious health problems go unnoticed and untreated. That’s why saving money means investing in wellness care, with a complete veterinary wellness check at annual or even semiannual intervals. Health problems that are caught earlier can usually be treated more easily and less expensively.

A Healthy Lifestyle Costs Less

If you’re trying to save money and your pet is overweight or obese, you’re already missing one of the most important items on your pet care to-do list. Obesity in pets has been implicated in many health problems, from diabetes to arthritis to cancer, and trimming your pet to a normal weight should be your top priority. Your veterinarian can help with that, with tips on making slimming down easier for you both.

Exercise will be part of that equation, and that’s actually a good thing for you both. A half hour of heart-pumping aerobic exercise each day is important for your dog’s health, both physically and mentally (check with your vet first, and make sure your dog doesn’t have any physical limitations that would keep him from exercising). Taking a walk? Now there’s a real money saver; after all, it’s free!

As for what you feed your dog, I am confident in saying that your veterinarian can recommend a good food no matter where you buy or how much you spend. That doesn’t mean, however, that all foods are the same — they’re not. Buy the best food you can afford from the list your veterinarian recommends, and then buy in bulk to save even more.

Work With Your Veterinarian

Your veterinarian knows many of us feel pinched these days — and he’s more than willing to help in any way that doesn’t compromise your pet’s health. Ask your veterinarian to give you prescriptions for medications to be filled elsewhere — but do be fair and offer him a chance to match prices before you go. Ask about short-term promotions such as for Dental Health Month, or for ongoing discounts such as for multiple-family pets or for senior citizens. And consider pet health insurance as a backup in case of emergency — it can help save your pet’s life when money is an issue.

Be a Competent Do-It-Yourselfer

While you need a veterinarian to oversee your pet’s health care, there are some things that you can easily — and cheaply — manage at home. Most people can learn to handle basic pet grooming at home, from bathing to nail trims. If nothing else, you can probably stretch out the time between professional grooming for high-maintenance pets with some at-home care. Check your library for grooming guides and search the Internet for breed-specific tips.

Once your pet has had any dental issues addressed and had his teeth cleaned under anesthesia, get in the habit of brushing your pet’s teeth at home. That can lengthen the time between necessary but expensive cleanings at your veterinarian’s.

And while you’re at it, turn your DIY spirit to minimizing risks at home. Saving the life of a pet who has been hit by a car or poisoned can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars — and these tragedies can often be prevented. Keeping cats as indoor-only pets will prevent injuries and protect them from communicable diseases; a sturdy fence and the use of a leash will do the same for dogs. And learning to prevent poisonings around the house will keep you and your pet out of the E.R.

But again, don’t be a do-it-yourselfer when it comes to medical care. Start with a wellness check, and work with your veterinarian to prevent health problems. That’s where the true savings are, and it’s about going to the source of the best information: your pet’s own “family doctor.”