There’s a good reason they call dogs “man’s best friend” (and woman’s too, for that matter). Numerous studies show that dogs bring a vast array of benefits to their owners. Dog owners get more exercise, have better health, are less likely to feel anxious or depressed, spend more time with friends, and are less likely to be the victims of a home break-in.
But these benefits come with a price tag. Just the basics — such as food, veterinary care, and adoption fees — can run into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Extras like dog training, grooming, and boarding fees add still more to the total. All told, the average dog owner spends a total of $2,883 per year, according to the 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association (APPA).
But owning a dog doesn’t have to be this expensive. Veterinarians and other dog experts agree that for many dog products and services, there’s no need to spend big bucks to keep your dog happy and healthy. At the same time, there are a few areas in which it’s a bad idea to cut corners.
Top Ways to Save on Dog Care Costs
If you’re looking for ways to save on dog care costs, the best place to start is with all those extras. There are only a few things your dog absolutely needs: food; proper veterinary care; a collar and leash; and plenty of exercise, play, and affection. Everything else is gravy, and it won’t harm your pet to skimp on it.
Let’s start with one of the most obviously unnecessary expenses for dogs: clothing. Walk into a major pet retailer like PetSmart or Petco, and you see a vast array of cute and colorful outfits for your four-legged friend. You can find sweaters, winter coats, raincoats, little hats, and even Halloween costumes in a range of sizes and styles.
Cute as these outfits are, dogs don’t generally need them. According to Dogster, shorter-haired breeds can sometimes benefit from the extra warmth of a coat or sweater in the wintertime. But dogs that already have a heavy coat of their own don’t need this extra layer, and many of them feel uncomfortable wearing it. As for stylish doggy apparel like biker vests and jeweled collars, they serve no useful purpose at all.
In many cases, the only accessories a dog needs are a well-made collar, an ID tag, and a comfortable leash. Concentrate on finding high-quality versions of these items, and don’t worry about the pieces that are just for looks.
Clothing is just one of the ways dog owners keep their canine companions looking sharp. Many also spend large sums each year on professional grooming. According to Angie’s List, the average cost of cutting and styling a dog’s hair is more than a typical woman’s haircut — which, in turn, costs more than a man’s.
You can reduce this cost by skipping some of the extras. Pet groomers offer a variety of services, including bathing, cutting and brushing fur, trimming nails, and cleaning teeth. Doing some or all these jobs yourself can reduce the cost of each grooming session.
For starters, you can bathe your dog at home or take it to a dog wash station at a pet store. Grooming your pet’s fur is more challenging, but it’s not that hard to learn. A good pet hair trimmer costs less than a single grooming session, and you can find instructions and videos online to show you how to use it.
One task many dog owners find intimidating is clipping their pet’s nails. There’s nothing wrong with leaving this task to the pros while doing the rest of your dog grooming at home. However, if you’re willing to try it yourself, ask your vet to show you how. All you need is a good set of clippers and some styptic powder for stopping the bleeding if you accidentally cut too deep.
If you don’t feel confident about caring for your pet’s fur on your own, you can still save by stretching out the time between grooming visits. While breeds like the fluffy bichon frise need monthly fur care, others can go longer between cuts without harm. And many short-haired breeds don’t need haircuts at all. All their fur needs is regular brushing, and that’s easy to do yourself.
Every pet dog needs to learn at least a few simple commands, such as “come,” “sit,” and “stay.” Early training also stops your new dog from developing bad habits like jumping on people or chewing clothes and furniture.
However, hiring a dog trainer is an expensive way to teach these basics. Unless you want to teach your pet complicated tricks, you can save money with one of these cheaper methods:
- Group Classes. Group training classes for dogs are considerably more affordable than private lessons. They also give your pup a chance to meet and socialize with other dogs. Animal trainer Travis Brorsen told Reader’s Digest it’s important to properly socialize puppies within their first seven months. He recommends all puppies take at least one class for this purpose and also so the owners can learn what types of play are appropriate. You can often find inexpensive group classes for dogs at chain pet stores.
- Shelter Training. Some animal shelters offer training classes for dogs adopted there at a reduced cost or even free. Also, some private trainers offer a discount on their services for adopted dogs.
- Do-It-Yourself. There are lots of resources available to help you train your new dog yourself. These include books, online tutorials, YouTube videos, and free or inexpensive apps. However, Brorsen cautions that training a dog isn’t easy or quick. Many owners find it less frustrating to find a trainer or take their dog to a group class.
According to the APPA survey, the average dog owner spends close to $50 per year on toys. Many owners spend well more than this average, regularly splurging on new toys for their four-legged friends. Some even pay a monthly fee for a subscription box like BarkBox, which delivers new toys, treats, and chew toys each month.
However, pet blogger Kristen Levine, another expert interviewed by Reader’s Digest, says dogs don’t really need that many toys. They’re much more interested in spending time with their owners than in playing with their toys on their own. Levine recommends getting your pet just a couple of essential toys:
- A Ball. For games of fetch, choose a ball that’s the right size for your dog’s mouth — something easy for them to pick up but too large to choke on or swallow accidentally.
- A Tug Toy. Dogs love to play tug of war, but you don’t need to spend money on a toy. Pet experts at VetStreet say you can make a sturdy tug toy by braiding together old kitchen towels or strips cut from a pair of blue jeans. Be sure to supervise your dog so it doesn’t swallow shreds of the fabric.
- A Treat Dispenser. Levine says a treat-dispensing toy provides good mental exercise for a dog. These toys hold a few small treats that spill out if your dog shakes or bats the toy at the correct angle. Some online tutorials explain how to make your own treat dispenser from an empty plastic bottle, but be careful. It’s not safe for a pet to play with plastic bottles unsupervised. According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), a dog can chew off and swallow a piece of the plastic, creating a potentially life-threatening emergency.
Doggy Day Care
If you’re like most people, you spend at least eight hours each day at work. Since many dogs — especially puppies — can’t go that long without a bathroom break, that means you need someone to tend to your dog during your absence. Doggy day care centers provide complete care, including regular walks, food, playtime, rest time, and a chance to socialize with other dogs.
Dr. Shian Simms, a vet interviewed by Reader’s Digest, says doggy day care helps socialize your dog, teaching it how to interact with other dogs. And if you have to be away all day, doggy day care can be cheaper than hiring a professional dog walker to take your pup out for multiple walks each day. However, it’s still a pretty significant expense.
Fortunately, there are cheaper ways to do all the things doggy day care can do for your pet.
- Walk the Dog Yourself. Walking your dog yourself during the day isn’t just cheaper — it also provides healthy exercise and a chance to bond with your pet. The trick is fitting a daily walk into your work schedule. You can come home on your lunch break, which also helps you save on lunch costs. Alternatively, you can work from home or even bring your dog to the office. Work with your boss on a plan to combine your work with your obligations to your pet.
- Ask a Friend. If you can’t find any way to walk your dog yourself each day, find a friend or neighbor who’s willing to take the job. Your dog will probably be happier to be walked by someone it knows than by a stranger, anyway. Perhaps a retired neighbor or a responsible teen can take the job for only a modest fee. Or you can offer to barter something in exchange for pet care, such as shoveling a neighbor’s snow or giving a friend all your kids’ hand-me-down clothes. Deals like this can help strengthen ties between neighbors.
- Hire a Dog Walker. If you can walk your dog yourself sometimes but not every day, paying a licensed dog walker to fill in the gaps can be cheaper than taking your pet to day care. Since you’re trusting this person with your pet and the keys to your home, look for a licensed and insured dog walker with good reviews from clients. Sites like Rover can help you find one in your area.
- Make Time for Play. Playing with your pooch is one of the most rewarding parts of being a dog owner. So why pay a service to do it? Instead, make a point of getting in plenty of playtime with your pet whenever you’re at home.
- Visit With Other Dogs. One significant benefit of doggy day care is the chance for your pet to socialize with other dogs. However, you don’t need a service if you know plenty of other dog owners in your area. All you have to do is schedule play dates for your pets. The dogs can romp around together in the yard while their humans chat.
- Find a Dog Park. If you don’t have a yard for your dog to play in, see if your neighborhood has a public dog park. These enclosed areas are set aside for dogs to run around and play together. Some dog parks are free, while others charge a modest yearly fee for membership. Check out DogGeek to look for a dog park in your area or call your local department of recreation.
When you go on vacation, it usually isn’t possible to bring Fido with you. You have to either put the dog in a kennel or hire a pet sitter to care for it while you’re away. Both options can be pricey, and neither is likely to make you very popular with your pet.
One alternative is to find a way to take your dog along on your trip. Sites like PetsWelcome can help you find hotels that allow dogs. If you’re taking your dog on a road trip,
make sure to get a good pet seat belt or a sturdy crate to keep it safe in case of a crash.
If you can’t take your dog with you, find a friend who’s willing to dog-sit for you. If you have a friend with a dog that gets along with yours, perhaps you can work out a system to care for each other’s dogs during vacations. Of course, that only works if you tend to travel at different times. If you both travel for the holidays, for instance, that leaves both your dogs home alone at the same time.
If you have to leave your dog with a stranger, there are cheaper alternatives to a boarding kennel. Sites like Rover and BringFido can help you find a pet sitter who can take care of your furry friend in either your home or theirs. If you use one of these sites, ask plenty of questions to make sure the sitter is a good fit for your pet. Find out about the sitter’s qualifications, the location where your dog will stay, and any other animals that will be there at the same time.
Finally, if a boarding kennel is your only option, at least make sure to get all the details about pricing beforehand. Many kennels offer a variety of extras that can send your bill way up, such as scheduled playtime or — no joke — bedtime stories. Nix these unnecessary services and pay for only the care your dog truly needs.
Top Places to Splurge on Dog Care Costs
Although there are many ways to save on the cost of caring for a dog, it doesn’t make sense to skimp on the things your pet genuinely needs. Anything that affects your canine pal’s health or safety is a must-have, not a luxury. You can still look for ways to control costs in these areas, but only if they don’t harm your pet.
Food is one of the biggest expenses for dog owners. According to Petfinder, it can cost anywhere between $120 and $500 per year, depending on your dog’s size and breed. That’s not counting treats and chew toys, which can add an extra $50 to $300.
Vets and other pet experts, such as the clinical nutrition team at Tufts University’s Cummings Veterinary Medical Center, generally agree it’s worth paying for a high-quality dog food. However, it’s the ingredients that make a particular brand high-quality, not the price tag. To find a suitable food at an affordable price, talk to your vet about your dog’s nutritional needs, then check food labels to find brands that meet them.
You can often save on pet food by buying it in bulk. However, you need to store it properly so it doesn’t go bad. Veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Coates of PetMD says to keep dry food in an airtight container in a dark place. Keep the original bag so you’ll know when the food has passed its expiration date, and avoid mixing old food with new.
Coupons can also lower the cost of dog food. Look for them in your local paper, on websites like Coupons.com, and on the website of your favorite pet food brand. You can also use a browser extension like Capital One Shopping, which will automatically add coupon codes when shopping for pet food online at participating stores. Some brands notify you about exclusive deals if you follow them on social media. You can also find discounted prices on dog food by shopping online, but remember to factor in the cost of shipping.
As for treats, Levine, the pet blogger interviewed by Reader’s Digest, suggests making your own. To find recipes, check out reliable sources like the AKC. If you find a recipe on a site you’re not sure about, do a quick search on all the ingredients to make sure they’re safe for your dog.
Crates & Kennels
There are a few reasons to invest in a crate or kennel for your dog. First, it’s a safe way to transport your pet when traveling, either on a plane or in a car. Crates also come in handy for housebreaking and training your pet and provide a cozy place to sleep. Many people think putting your dog in a cage at night seems cruel. But according to Brorsen, the animal trainer interviewed by Reader’s Digest, many dogs actually like the feeling of security it provides.
With so many applications for a dog crate, it’s worth investing in a good one. Look for sturdy construction and secure door latches. You can save money in the long run by paying a little extra upfront for an adjustable crate that can grow along with your puppy, such as the MidWest Life Stages model.
While you shouldn’t skimp on quality, you can save on the cost of your dog kennel by using coupons or online coupon codes. If you’ve adopted your dog from a shelter or rescue, ask if it has any special deals with local pet shops to provide discounts on equipment.
Alternatively, try shopping secondhand for your dog crate and other supplies. Many pet owners are happy to unload outgrown equipment that’s still in good condition for a fraction of what it would cost new.
To stay healthy, your dog needs proper veterinary care. When you first adopt a dog, it needs its initial vaccines, spaying or neutering, and, if it’s a puppy, monthly worm treatments until it reaches 6 months old. Many dog owners also choose to have their new pets microchipped — implanted with a tiny microchip that makes it possible to identify them if they ever get lost. And each year after that, your dog needs an annual vet exam, booster shots, and regular treatments to battle worms and fleas.
Keeping up to date with routine care isn’t cheap. However, it saves you money overall by preventing costly illnesses down the road. You can also keep your pet healthy by making sure it gets high-quality food and regular exercise.
Another important factor in dog health is dental care. Tooth decay in dogs doesn’t just affect their mouths. It can cause infections that spread to the heart, liver, or kidneys. Fortunately, you can easily prevent it by brushing your dog’s teeth daily and getting a regular dental exam at the vet’s office. Veterinarian Dr. Craig Prior, speaking with Fetch by WebMD, says good dental health can add two to four years to a dog’s life.
However, no matter how well you care for your pet, you can’t prevent absolutely every illness or injury. That’s why many dog owners choose to carry pet health insurance through a company like Petplan. They pay a monthly premium, and if their pet suffers a serious health problem, the insurance covers all or part of the cost of treating it. Another option is to set aside some money each month in a dedicated emergency fund earmarked explicitly for veterinary care. Make sure your emergency fund is in a high yield savings account so you have easy access to the money if needed.
If your dog needs medication, there are a few ways to save on that cost as well. Like medicines for humans, many pet meds come in a generic version that’s just as effective and significantly cheaper. Ask your vet about these and over-the-counter alternatives to brand-name prescription drugs. Also, ask whether it would be reasonable to save money by giving your pet three-year vaccines rather than yearly doses or by skipping heartworm medication during the winter months when the mosquitos that carry the disease aren’t active.
However, there are a few cost-saving measures that definitely don’t make sense. Prior warns against do-it-yourself vaccines, which aren’t guaranteed to be effective. Also, never skip doses of any medicine prescribed by your vet or try to save money by giving your dog medicines designed for humans. Dr. Nate Clark, another vet interviewed by Fetch, says he has seen clients accidentally kill their pets by doing that.
One of the most significant factors in the cost of owning a dog is which breed you choose. For example, if you adopt a large dog, such as a retriever or a German shepherd, you’ll pay extra for larger versions of everything, from collars to crates. Larger dogs also need more food. All in all, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that a large dog costs about 40% more per year to own than a small one.
Also, Scientific American notes that many purebred dogs are vulnerable to specific health problems as a result of inbreeding. For instance, Cavalier King Charles spaniels are at high risk for heart valve disease, while snub-nosed pugs often suffer from breathing problems. Research dog breeds before adopting one to make sure you’re prepared to deal with its potential problems.
If you don’t have your heart set on a specific breed, look for a dog at an animal shelter or rescue. Adopting from a shelter or rescue is much cheaper than paying a breeder, and the mutts found in most shelters and rescues aren’t vulnerable to the same health problems as purebred dogs. Plus, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you’re providing a good home for an animal that needs one.
Dog owners, what advice do you have about spending on your pet? What are some ways you’ve found to save money, and where do you choose to spend more?
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