Pets on a Budget

by Jonni McCoy

Getting a family pet can be one of the most rewarding things for a child. The pet provides companionship, entertainment and exercise. But sometimes the wrong pet for the family style and needs can be disastrous.

Many pets require a certain type of care. Some dogs, for example, require more money as well as physical interaction and attention than other dogs. Without proper attention, they can start to act strangely, chewing up things and sometimes even biting or growling.

Some other mammals, especially the small ones, don't demand as much and may be better suited for certain people. The smaller mammals, such as rats, rabbits, hamsters, and guinea pigs, are not only less demanding, but also less expensive.

How does one decide if they can afford a pet? When deciding if you can launch into this addition to the family, don't forget to factor in the pet's love it will provide in return. This is something no one can put a price tag on.

After deciding what the initial purchase fee will be, the prospective owner must look at food, vet bills, cage (if required), and any accessories that may be needed. Another consideration is if your family is away from home much. Will pet sitting be a regular expense?

A dog can cost $13,000 over its lifetime. A third of that goes to food, and another third for the vet bills. The other third is spent on training, collars leashes, toys, etc. A cat will cost significantly less, with small mammals, reptiles and fish trailing behind.

Food can be an overwhelming expense if you have a large and active animal, such as a dog. There are ways to get around this expense if you are creative. These have helped us in the past:

  • Buy in bulk quantities at discount pet superstores. Check the ingredients to make sure that the first item listed is a meat (chicken, beef, lamb).

  • Don't over feed the animal

  • Learn to make some of their food - cooking in bulk

That last suggestion may surprise you. When we lived in Nigeria and Pakistan we didn't have the luxury of a supermarket, or canned pet food. Dogs weren't kept as pets there. Therefore, we made all of our pet's feed.

For dog food, we boiled some meat and a bone with some rice and herbs. We added a little healthy oils to the mix for the dog's coat. For a cat, we chopped a few teaspoons of fish, chicken, or egg yolk and mixed it with a tablespoon of cooked rice or oats, a teaspoon of milk or sour cream and a little oil for its coat. There are several recipe books in the library (including Frugal Families) with various meals to make for pets. You can even make your own dry pet food and biscuits.

Vet bills can be an expense we forget to plan for. The average family spends between $100 and $750 per year on their pet. Those unexpected expenses like broken legs, etc. are just things we have to plan for. There are ways to cut some of the routine vet expenses. Here are a few:

  • Ask around at pet stores if they host a mobile vaccine clinic in the area. These are usually 75% cheaper than a vet office visit.

  • Check with the local Humane Society and find a low-cost spay and neuter clinic: many also offer vaccines at cost only (no office visit charge)

  • Practice good health and hygiene. This preventative measure can save hundreds of dollars.

  • Ask around what vet prices are. They vary greatly.

  • Get videos from the library or find Internet groups that discuss simple home remedies for common ailments, dental cleaning, grooming, and clipping at home.

Our personal favorite for a pet is a rat. They are inexpensive to purchase ($5.00), don't require vaccinations or vet visits, and don't require a great deal of exercise. Surprisingly, they are very social and well tempered. Aside from having a low purchase price, they are also inexpensive to feed. We occasionally buy rabbit food for them, but they do very well on leftover lettuce, carrot tops, carrot peelings, oats, sunflower seeds, and other things we have around the house. We found them a good choice for our rambunctious 4 year old, and have had them as a family addition ever since.

Whatever type of pet that you choose, remember to never trade their safety or health for a few dollars' savings. Love them and treat them well.

Jonni McCoy is a freelance writer, wife, and mother of two living in Colorado Springs, CO. She is author of Miserly Moms - Living On One Income In A Two Income Economy, Frugal Families, and Miserly Meals (

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