Despite the economic downturn, Americans have not cut back on spending on Fluffy and Fido. According to a survey from the Consumer Reports National Research Center, during the darkest days of the recession in 2009 and 2010, only 16 percent of Americans said they reduced the amount they spent on their pets.
On top of this, the price of pet food, veterinary care and other pet-related products and services has risen 4 percent since 2008.
To help consumers keep more money in their pockets during these tough times, Consumer Reports compiled six ways for pet owners to curb expenses and still provide the best of care.
“It’s still possible to save hundreds of dollars a year on pet care without shortchanging your furry, finned, or feathered friends,” said Greg Daugherty, Executive Editor, Consumer Reports.
The full story is available in the August issue of Consumer Reports on newsstands July 5 th and to subscribers of www.ConsumerReports.org.
1. Don’t pay a premium for pet food. Food is the biggest ongoing cost of owning a cat or dog. CR’s survey respondents spent an average of $36 a month on food for dogs and $20 a month on food for cats. A significant part of the national pet-food bill goes for so-called premium and super-premium varieties. But “premium” has no legal definition in terms of nutritional quality. Pets with problems such as sensitive skin, digestive difficulties, or obesity might do better on special types of food, so talk with your vet. Even in those cases, you’re likely to find significant price differences among equally appropriate foods.
Other ways to save: Hit the big box stores. CR sent secret shoppers around the country in search of the same list of pet-food brands and package weights. Target and Walmart had the lowest prices most of the time, cheaper than supermarkets and specialty retailers. Consider store and private–label brands. Among the least expensive pet foods CR found (on a unit-price basis) were Costco’s Kirkland Signature, PetSmart’s Grreat Choice, Safeway’s store brand, and Walmart’s Ol’ Roy.
2. Consider new options for flea and tick protection. The big news on the flea and tick protection front is that the patent has expired on fipronil, one of the active ingredients in Frontline Plus, a leading brand, opening the market to competitors. CR found two that were new to the market, SentryFiproGuard Plus at Petco and PetArmor Plus at Walmart. The savings can be sizable. PetArmor Plus was the best deal CR saw: A three-month supply cost $28, compared with $50 for FiproGuard Plus and $62 for Frontline Plus at Petco.
Other ways to save: Shop online (mostly). CR found cheaper prices at 1-800-PetMeds, Drs. Foster & Smith and PetCareRx than at Petco or PetSmart. But the internet sellers didn’t sell PetArmorPlus, and only two of the three carried FiproGuard Plus when CR checked in early June.
3. Comparison shop for your pet’s veterinary care. Survey respondents spoke glowingly of their vets in general, but they were far more critical of the vets’ efforts to keep costs down. Because veterinary care is an infrequent, sometimes emergency expenditure, it’s difficult for consumers to gauge what constitutes a fair price for any of the hundreds of services their pet might require. The best time to comparison shop is when your pet needs a routine checkup, not when you’re stressed out by a sick or injured animal.
Call at least two or three nearby vets and ask what their physical-exam fee is. Nationally, it can range from roughly $35 to $46. That difference might seem like small change, but the exam fee forms the cornerstone of every vet bill, and vets often set their other fees as a percentage or multiple of that charge. Consequently, the range of fees to, say, repair a midsized dog’s tibial fracture can grow significantly wider: $726 to $1,207.
4. Don’t automatically get pet medicines from the vet. About two-thirds of the pet owners CR surveyed for this report said they buy their pet medicines from the vet who prescribes them. That’s often a mistake because vets’ markups over wholesale start at 100 percent and frequently hit 160 percent, plus a $5 to $15 dispensing fee. If your pet is taking a medication that’s also prescribed to humans, as is often the case, you might be able to have the prescription filled inexpensively at a chain drugstore, supermarket pharmacy, or big-box retailer. Walgreens, for example, allows customers to enroll their pets as family members in its Prescription Savings Club. Another option is to shop at one of the Veterinary-Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites accredited by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. Eleven such sites currently exist, including 1-800-PetMeds, Drs. Foster & Smith, KV Vet Supply, and PetCareRX.
5. Think twice before you buy pet health insurance. If you’re the kind of person who would do almost anything for your pets, insurance can seem like an attractive option. For monthly premiums of less than $10 to more than $90, the insurers promise to pay a portion of your pet’s bills for medical and surgical treatment, and depending on the policy, some other types of care. You pay the vet up front, file a claim, and wait for reimbursement. CR analyzed policies marketed by insurers representing roughly 90 percent of the pet-insurance market. None would have reimbursed more than the premiums they charged for a basically healthy dog over a 10-year life span. Only when CR looked at extreme and uncommon situations involving two very sick cats did all the policies pay out more than a pet-owner would have paid in.
For most people, CR advises they budget for routine care and put a few hundred dollars each year for more serious health problems into their household emergency fund.
6. Take simple steps now to prevent costly health problems. Brushing your dog’s teeth with chicken flavored toothpaste or your cat’s with the fish-flavored variety might seem silly, but it’s a preventive measure that can be beneficial. Tooth plaque can lead to periodontal disease in pets, which, in turn, can cause kidney and lung disease.
Other smart preventatives: Spaying reduces mammary tumors in female animals, and neutering might reduce aggression as well as some diseases in males. Keep shots current, but don’t over-vaccinate; the core vaccines are needed every three years, not annually. Keep dogs leashed and fenced in for the protection of the animals and your neighbors. Try not to overfeed your pet: Obesity rates in cats and dogs mirror those of humans these days. Being significantly overweight can lead to arthritis and diabetes for your pet and huge prescription bills for you.