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11 Ways to Save on the Cost of Owning a Cat

My family currently has two cats. One is an orange barn cat that was foisted onto my wife’s parents, and then onto my wife, by a proverbial cat lady. He’s seven years old, give or take. The other is a former stray who appeared on our doorstep, cold and hungry, about four years ago. Our vet estimates her age at six or seven.

We find the experience of owning two cats to be manageable and emotionally rewarding, and we wouldn’t trade our particular two for the world. However, we’re also budget-conscious, which means we’ve developed some strategies for controlling the cost of owning cats without sacrificing their quality of life.

How to Save Money On Your Cat

1. Buy From a Shelter

If a member of your family has a serious cat allergy, you may need to invest in a special breed of cat, such as a hairless. However, they can be expensive.

The Sphynx, a popular hairless breed, typically costs more than $300. The Peterbald, a nearly hairless cat with longer limbs and distinctive facial features, costs upwards of $1,000. “Fancy cat” breeds, such as Persians and Russian Blues, cost anywhere from $400 to more than $3,000, depending on the breeder and pedigree. And wild hybrids, such as the Bengal and Savanna varieties, cost $1,500 or more.

However, if you don’t have to accommodate any particular needs, get a domestic short hair – your generic cat – from a shelter. Your adoption fee should range from $30 to $100, depending on your location and the shelter. If the cat is very young, you may have to pay for immunizations – less than $100 for the standard first-year suite, which includes feline leukemia, rabies, and distemper.

Since strays are rampant, shelters often have a wide selection of cats between one and three years old. As long as they’ve received initial vaccinations, annual vaccinations for adult cats should cost no more than $40.

2. Cut Out the Bargain Food

Food is a major recurring expense for cat owners, but that doesn’t mean it pays to go the cheap route. Bargain cat foods like 9 Lives and Meow Mix use corn and other cheap grains to provide the majority of their protein. Cats are carnivores though, so their digestive systems aren’t built to handle significant quantities of grain. These carbohydrate-rich foods can lead to weight gain and allergic reactions.

For example, my family fed our male cat Meow Mix until he developed a corn allergy – according to the vet – that left him constantly scratching at his nipples. Ouch. Though it was considerably more expensive, we switched to a grain-free food at our vet’s behest, and the irritation vanished within weeks. However, the vet visit set us back about $100.

Cheap cat food may also use ash as a filler. It’s not quite as gross as it sounds: Ash actually contains some important chemical building blocks, such as phosphorus, that cats need. But it can also cause side effects, such as painful urinary crystals. In addition, it takes up space that could be used for animal protein, which is what your cat really needs. In general, switching to a higher-quality food can improve your cat’s urinary health, gastrointestinal comfort, and control its weight.

It’s important to note that vets are nearly unanimous in recommending a diet that includes both wet and dry food. A 100% dry food diet doesn’t provide enough moisture for the majority of cats, and can lead to dehydration, discomfort, and more serious health issues – producing hefty vet bills and needless worry for their owners.

Our healthier food does cost more than double what we were spending on the cheaper stuff. We spend about $20 more per bag for the five or so large bags of dry food we buy per year. And we spend a little less than $1 for a six-ounce can of wet food, about 20 cents more than the cheaper cans. You can spend much more on even higher-quality wet food though – sometimes more than $1.50 per three-ounce can.

Between the wet and dry varieties, better food adds about $120 more per year to our cat budget. However, the cost of a single vet visit for a urinary tract infection or intestinal blockage can exceed that, and ongoing vet visits for more entrenched issues can break a budget.

3. Make Your Own Cat Food

You may be able to save even more money by making your own cat food and treats. Though cats have a reputation as picky eaters, doing it on your own is surprisingly straightforward. Basically, cat food should consist of animal-based proteins. And, since cats require lots of calcium, bone matter is a must.

A common recipe might include the following:

  • Six parts muscle meat with ground bone (chicken thighs, drumsticks)
  • One part gizzards or organs (chicken liver, heart, stomach)
  • 1/2 part egg (as a protein-rich binder)

To reduce your ingredient costs, buy family packs of meat and eggs, and look for sales at your grocery store. Don’t settle for anything that’s near its expiration date though – if you wouldn’t eat it, your cat shouldn’t either.

Between a $12 family pack of muscle meat, a $4 box of eggs, and a $4 pack of chicken organs, you can make two weeks of homemade cat food for $20. If you feed your cat high-quality wet food every day that costs over $1 per three-ounce can, you can reduce your expenses by more than 50%.

Some homemade cat food advocates are quite passionate about using a meat grinder, which can cost as little as $15 for a small model, or more than $50 for a larger, sturdier one. However, there’s considerable debate about whether it’s actually better to allow cats to gnaw on hard bones, as they would in the wild. Do your own research and consult a pet nutrition specialist before taking on this extra expense. Also, research whether to go the raw or cooked food route (or a mix of both), as there is considerable debate over which is best for your cat’s health.

If you make big batches – a time-effective move – be sure to separate the mixture into small portions for freezing. For the sake of your cat’s health, you should look at reputable online sources or talk to your veterinarian for healthy, well-balanced homemade cat food recipes.

4. Practice Portion Control

Whether you buy wholesome food at your local pet store or make your own from scratch, it’s important to carefully control your cat’s intake. Adult cats generally only need two three-ounce cans of high-protein wet food ($1 to $1.50, or more), or an equivalent amount of homemade food daily, when spread over a morning and evening feeding. If you’re using high-quality dry food, a half-cup in the morning and half-cup in the evening should be sufficient. Just be sure to check with your vet before settling on any feeding amount, as every animal is different.

Whatever you do, don’t “free-feed” – reflexively filling your cat’s food bowl when it’s empty or nearly so. Weight gain, and all its attendant health problems, may follow. Controlling portions doesn’t just reduce your food expenses – it can also prevent costly vet visits.

5. Manage Your Litter Box

Unless your cats spend most of their time outdoors, you probably already change your litter box frequently. However, depending on their usage habits, litter can be nearly as big an expense as food. Control this cost by purchasing clumping, odor-fighting litter ($12 to $20 per tub) and avoiding the cheap, non-clumping, generic-smelling stuff. Clumping litter lasts longer and controls odor better, allowing you to stretch each box further before changing.

My wife and I used to spend about $9 per tub of non-clumping litter, or roughly $20 per month. We now get at least a month out of our $15 tub (same size) of clumping litter – a savings of 25%. Clumping, odor-fighting litter isn’t a total cure-all, though. If odor persists, you can use scent plugs or candles ($2 to $3) to control it in the box’s vicinity. And, make sure you change the box enough to keep your cat happy: Cats may protest dirty boxes by doing their business elsewhere in the room. I know mine do.

6. Look for Discounts on Feline Care

If you care about the heath of your cats, you should take them to the vet at least once per year and ensure that their vaccines are up to date. As your cat ages, your vet trips may become more frequent and costly.

You can lower the cost of veterinarian visits – without skimping on care – in several ways:

  • Vet Payment Plans. See if your vet offers a payment plan for larger bills. If not, consider looking for a second opinion before proceeding with any expensive treatments, and possibly switch providers altogether.
  • Discounts on Basic Services. For annual vaccines, spaying, and neutering, look into discounted services at your local animal shelter or mobile vet clinic. For instance, the Vanguard Veterinary Services mobile clinic in San Antonio offers a $35 discount, relative to its in-office price, on spaying and neutering. That’s a reduction of 50%.
  • Pet Charities. For all types of services, local pet charities may provide financial assistance for lower-income pet owners. Eligibility is typically decided on a case-by-case basis. Check with your local Humane Society office for options in your area.
  • Pet Insurance. If you’re worried about an unexpected illness or hereditary health condition leading to a crushing medical bill, look into pet insurance. Veterinary Pet Insurance, a subsidiary of Nationwide Insurance, offers cat health insurance plans for as little as $11 per month. Compared to a $4,000 surgical bill, that’s small change.

7. Keep Them Hydrated

Keeping your cats hydrated during periods of warm weather is essential. When we lived in the northern Michigan woods, it didn’t get hot very often, so I refused to get an air conditioner. Bad move.

During an unseasonable heat wave, both of our cats exhibited worrying symptoms – lethargy, problems urinating and defecating, and avoiding human contact. We took them to the vet and got the same diagnosis for both: dehydration. The female had a bowel obstruction caused by dehydration, as well. The combined bill, including an overnight stay for the female, was north of $400.

The vet recommended changing their water several times per day during the summer, since cats prefer cool, fresh water. She also recommended daily wet food feedings, which up until that point, we hadn’t been doing. And she revealed that, in a pinch, you can offset mild dehydration by applying water to cats’ absorbent neck skin. In fact, that’s how she stabilized them at the appointment. If we had followed those recommendations, we probably could have prevented our female’s bowel obstruction, reduced both cats’ dehydration symptoms, and avoided the vet bill altogether.

8. Restrict Outdoor Activity

When we lived in a house with a cat door, our male cat freely roamed the neighborhood. If the dead bunnies and squirrels he brought to our porch were any indication, he was pretty active. He came home limping one day though – probably the result of a fall from a high perch. He wasn’t seriously injured, but it took a couple of weeks for him to return to complete normalcy.

We may have gotten off easy – free-roaming domestic cats can get into serious tussles with other outdoor animals, some quite nasty. A fight with a raccoon, fox, coyote, or feral cat may cause deep lacerations, broken bones, mangled claws, and gouged eyes. The costs can add up quickly: Diagnostic x-rays can cost $100 to $200, an overnight stay at the vet typically starts at $100, and a prescription for pain medication can cost between $40 and $300 per bottle.

Vehicle accidents are a grave risk as well. A serious but non-fatal accident can cause major injuries such as fractured pelvic bones and punctured lungs. According to Trupanion, post-accident surgery and treatment can cost nearly $4,000. So while cats love to roam outside, you can avoid these costs – and protect your pet’s health – by keeping them entertained indoors.

9. Make Your Own Play Structures

Speaking of indoor entertainment, a play structure – commonly called a cat tower, tree, or condo – is a great way to help your feline burn off steam without jumping out the window or scratching your furniture. After all, cats love to climb and perch, and such behavior can be disruptive if it’s not managed.

Depending on their sturdiness and sophistication, cat towers can be expensive. The fairly basic Trixie Altea Cat Tree costs nearly $50. The more elaborate Kitty Mansions Redwood Cat Tree, which is more than six feet tall and features three bed-like perches on top, costs nearly $150. Really complicated structures can exceed $200. So why not build your own?

You need some sturdy pieces of plywood for the platforms, a few two-by-fours or wooden poles for supports, and some soft fabric or old carpet – which can double as a nice scratching surface. If you have an old cat bed or two, fasten them to your platforms to create a sturdy resting place in the sky. With a hammer and nails and the above supplies, you can put together a basic but solid tower in the course of an afternoon.

Before starting, look online for instructions or schematics – if your structure isn’t properly designed or supported, it could become top-heavy and tip over, or simply collapse in a heap. Neither scenario is ideal for your cats, nor for your home. A properly constructed cat tower kills two birds with one stone: You don’t have to pay retail price for a pre-made structure, and you may avoid costly furniture damage.

10. Be Careful During Child-Rearing

If you have an infant younger than one year old and don’t yet have a cat, wait until your child is older. If you’re pregnant and already have a cat, take precautions to avoid contact with cat feces. In particular, wear gloves if you have to clean the litter box, and don’t garden without gloves (if the cat goes outdoors).

The issue here is toxoplasmosis, or “toxo” for short. It’s a common cat parasite – especially in feral, stray, and formerly stray cats – that spreads through feces. Humans with healthy immune systems can typically fight off infection, but unborn children are more susceptible. Even if you don’t contract toxo yourself, exposure to the pathogen may increase the risk of certain birth defects, including sensory impairments, epilepsy, and hydrocephalus (a dangerous accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain). Toxo may cause other problems as well, though it’s important to talk to your vet and obstetrician to get the latest thinking on the issue.

Once your children are born, it’s important to minimize their contact with cats. With thinner skin and weaker immune systems than adults, babies can be seriously injured or contract toxoplasmosis – or both – from seemingly innocuous cat scratches.

Needless to say, you can avoid hefty medical bills – and heartache – by keeping your child and cat happily separate. During your pregnancy, set up nursery equipment such as a crib, changing tables, and toys as early as possible. This gives your cat time to get used to the new surroundings. At least a month before giving birth, declare these off-limits by spraying them with anti-scratch fluid – check with your OB beforehand – or covering them with cardboard and double-sided tape to frustrate the animal.

At this time, you should also dial back your interaction with the cat, pawning off playtime, feeding, and other duties on your partner or another family member, if possible. When the baby comes, this ensures that your cat doesn’t feel like it has to compete for your attention.

11. Don’t Get Your Cats Declawed

Cats love to scratch carpets, furniture, walls – pretty much anything within reach. It’s a constant battle to redirect this behavior toward acceptable surfaces such as scratching posts and floor scratchers made from corrugated cardboard.

To eliminate scratching altogether, some cat owners opt to get their felines declawed. Though the surgery is straightforward, it’s very painful for the cat. For outdoor cats – and indoor cats who may find themselves outside from time to time – it also removes a key defense. According to The Humane Society, declawing produces ancillary issues like decreased litter box usage and increased biting.

For humans, the surgery is costly: Depending on the vet and method used, it can set you back anywhere from $100 to $500 – cheaper procedures may be less thorough and raise the possibility of a redo down the line. It’s far cheaper to buy a sturdy cat post – as little as $15 at pet stores and online – or to build your own out of wooden or metal poles and old carpeting.

Final Word

For millions of Americans, pet ownership is an emotionally fulfilling experience. According to AVMA, more than 30% of all households own cats, and more than 36% own dogs, though of course there’s some overlap there. Pet owners may also enjoy tangible health benefits. According to a paper published by Pet Partners, two 1989 studies found that owning a cat or dog decreased the incidence of depression in adults. A 2002 study cited in the same paper found that pet owners have lower blood pressure and resting heart rates than non-owners.

However, pet ownership does require a commitment of time and money. If you have less of the latter than you’d like, looking for ways to stretch your pets’ budgets without sacrificing their health or comfort can be rewarding in and of itself.

What’s your favorite strategy for saving money on your cat?

Brian Martucci writes about credit cards, banking, insurance, travel, and more. When he's not investigating time- and money-saving strategies for Money Crashers readers, you can find him exploring his favorite trails or sampling a new cuisine. Reach him on Twitter @Brian_Martucci.