While Americans endured all sorts of budget cuts – from food to entertainment – expenses for the family’s pet were never on the recession chopping block.
In fact, purchases for Fido have consistently increased each year, including a 5.3 percent spike from $48.4 billion in 2010 to $51 billion in 2011, according to the American Pet Products Association. And this year, it’s projected pet owners will spend more than $52 billion.
“It’s amazing,” said Bob Vetere, president of the national trade organization. “The pet industry was probably the most resilient part of the economy.”
Experts say savings can be found in food, veterinarian care, services and supplies. And a downsized pet care budget won’t compromise the health or quality of life of your animal.
While owning a pet is a financial undertaking, the thriving industry is fueled largely by the expansion of pet-related services and health care and owners choosing to indulge their pets.
“There’s nothing inherent in having a pet that is prohibitive in cost all of sudden,” Vetere said.
But the pet marketplace is brimming with all sorts of services and products – from designer accessories to hip replacement surgery to car seats.
“I don’t know if every dog needs a collar from Cartier. Not every dog needs that,” Vetere said.
Basically, a pet needs nutritious food,
protection, housing and care. And if owners are overwhelmed by pet care expenses, providing just the fundamentals will cut costs.
Vetere said pet owners should shop around and do research to find cheaper or alternative products and services. With the growth in the industry, there’s competition, so savings abound – from health insurance to pet sitting.
“There’s so much competition, you can be selective,” he said. “Don’t randomly make these choices. Consult with people who know and do some research. The smart shopper will be able to find ways to cut costs and keep their pet happy and healthy.”
Locally there are programs and agencies that make pet ownership more affordable. The Buffalo Companion Animal Network has a food pantry for income-eligible owners; Erie and Niagara counties offer free rabies vaccinations throughout the year; the Niagara Frontier Veterinary Society provides free first exams; and the Pet Emergency Fund gives money to cover costs for one-time, life-threatening conditions.
A change in mentality is the first step in changing spending habits, though.
“A big challenge for me was to stop thinking of my dog as a child,” said Vanessa Boone, owner of a 3-year-old Jack Russell Terrier. “Things got really expense when I viewed her as a child.”
The tendency to humanize pets can create spending patterns comparable for humans, leading to excessive purchases. While a dog would be content chewing on an old tennis ball, an owner buys a toy from a pet store. In the case of food, there’s a tendency to purchase different and expensive brands to add variety to their animals’ diet, but pets are typically satisfied and are healthier with one brand. Last year, pet owners spent $19.9 billion on food and are expected to spend $20.5 billion this year.
“I spent a lot of money on food that my dog would not eat,” Boone said. “I was trying to give her an assortment – dry food, wet food, high protein, vegetable, gourmet. But a dog does not know what gourmet is.” Boone has found a premium brand and is sticking to it, and she notices savings. Opting for higher quality food does a better job filling the animal and meeting its nutritional, leading to less consumption.
Buying dry pet food in bigger bags also is much cheaper than going with small bags. Store it in a bin with an airtight lid to keep it fresh.
For flea and tick prevention, which can be expensive, check online for better prices. And look for generic versions. Walmart, for instance, sells a three-month supply of Frontline Plus for dogs for $39. But it also sells the same medication – fipronil – in a generic version under the PetArmor name for $28.
The expansion in veterinarian care, including the rise of health insurance, is the fastest growing sector of the pet care industry, accounting for $13.4 billion in total pet spending in 2011. The APPA is projecting an 8.5 percent increase for 2012. With pets being viewed as members of the family, owners are providing and buying health care and health plans.
Juliet Root, a licensed veterinarian technician at the Erie County SPCA, said vet care is a still growing branch of medicine so treatments and diagnosis continues to grow through research. Animals can be treated for chronic ailments, like diabetes and cancer, and health bills can be hefty. Like humans, health insurance policies are more affordable when animals are younger, Vetere said.
Root, a Buffalo resident who owns two dogs, opened a credit card specifically for medical emergencies. Recently a pit bull’s tail got caught in a door. For stitches and antibiotics, the dog’s emergency care totaled $800.
“I was able to use the card, and I’ll be able to pay it off over time,” Root said.
Some owners put money aside with saving plans to prepare for emergencies. Routine physical exams should be done as scheduled as preventive measures. And local clinics offer wellness plans for dogs and cats that provide routine testing, vaccines and blood screening at a discounted rate.
Root doles out $100 a month on food and $200 total each year for her dogs’ checkups. Instead of spending $50 a pop for grooming, she puts them in the tub. Root avoids luxuries to keep owning her animals relatively affordable.
“It’s tempting to buy new collars and toys every week, but it’s better to save that money for an emergency,” she said.