Tough times often means tough choices for pet owners.

Many owners are cutting back trips to the vet or eliminating them altogether, but Karen Johnson, DVM and a veterinarian with Banfield Pet Hospitals (a clinic found mainly in PetSmart stores) said cutting back visits may cost owners more down the line.  

“We recommend that pets see a vet at least two times a year for a good physical exam,” said Johnson. “We have a better chance of catching something early and the treatment being less costly.”

Still, many people who have lost their jobs or taken pay cuts may be having a hard time just meeting their monthly expenses.

Can cash-strapped pet owners keep their costs down? Yes they can, and many are doing it through preventative steps.

Keep Them Fit--and Vaccinated

Christine Dominick knows a lot about high veterinary bills. One of her dogs was diagnosed with cancer and she spent $5,000 on treatment before the pet succumbed to the disease. Another pet, a rescue dog, was heartworm positive, and required pricey treatment.

Having learned her lesson, today Dominick makes sure her dogs get enough exercise to keep them at their optimal weight and heart-healthy.

“Dogs should really get a minimum of 30 minutes exercise each day," said Dominick. "The more exercise they get, the happier they will be."

Another preventative measure Dominick uses to keep her dogs healthy is brushing her dogs' teeth three to five times a week. “I really should do it daily, but they don’t like it,” she said.

Brushing your pet’s teeth can ward off Para dental disease, which can lead to costly tooth removal surgeries or kidney and heart problems as your pet ages. Special pet toothpaste can be purchased at a vet’s office or through discount pet supply retailers. (Experts warn never to use human toothpaste or mouthwash on your pets.)  

When Dominick’s pets need veterinarian services, meanwhile, she finds the best deals through humane societies and reduced cost clinics online. This can save up to 50% off the cost of a visit to a full-service vet and cover services such as low cost spay/neuter, dental cleanings, vaccinations and micro chipping.

Finally, Dominick purchases worm medications through retail stores. She cautions against purchasing medication and vaccinations from retailers, however, as rabies vaccines must be administered in a vet office and the medications must be climate controlled. If a pet contracts a disease from an ineffective vaccine, or if the pet owner isn’t skilled in administering vaccinations, the results could be devastating.  

Feed Them Well

Jennifer Chiongbian, a pet owner in New York, said she maintains her pets' diet so they remain healthy. "I always measure their food. I never just fill it up and let them eat to their heart's content," she said.

The amount of food a pet owner should feed varies and can differ from the recommendations on the bag or can. But most important, Johnson said, is to maintain a quality diet.

“If people are feeling the pinch, they may have a tendency to change the food from a high quality diet to a less expensive food,” said Johnson. “Poor quality food, those that don’t have meat as the main ingredients, have a lot of fillers and it actually takes more of it to fill your pet up. In the long run, it doesn’t cost more to feed a better diet.”

Chiongbian also pays attention to her dog, watching for signs of changes in his behavior, eating habits or changes in her body. “I always consult the Internet first with the symptoms of my dog to try to diagnose what could possibly be wrong, then I try the herbal or natural treatments recommended. This is always my first step,” said Chiongbian. “If it doesn't improve or symptoms change or get worse, then I call the vet.”

Chiongbian said she also consults with her vet by phone, making sure the home remedy is appropriate. “He often tells me that what I was doing was right and there was no need to call him,” said Chiongbian.

Of course, if your pet is in distress, you should take your buddy to the vet immediately.

One of the most important things to remember, Johnson, said, is that your pets can sense if you’re stressed as well. “It’s important to remember that pets feel stress in households and if the family is stressed, they will be stressed too. Keeping your pet on a regular routine is such a small, but important step to a healthy pet.”
No matter how strapped you are, never give up the following health measures for your pet:

•    Spay/neuter. To save, look for low cost spay/neuter clinics.
•    Micro chipping. If a pet gets loose, it could be deadly for your pet and you could be liable for whatever damages it causes. To save, go to a low cost micro chipping clinic.
•    Vaccines. The rabies shot is required and other vaccines such as Feline Leukemia for cats and Distemper combo for dogs are highly recommended. Diseases are much costlier to treat than prevent. To save, visit a low cost vaccine clinic, or if you’re highly skilled, purchase or administer the vaccine at home. Remember to check the quality/reliability of the seller.
•    Heartworm preventative. Heartworm is such a costly disease to treat, but can be prevented for a small amount of money each month. To save, get a prescription from your vet or a low cost clinic, or find discount retailers online.
•    Flea/Tick preventative. For a few dollars a month, you can help prevent tick and flea borne illnesses that are costlier to treat after the fact. To save, check out online discount retailers.