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How to Manage Pet Expenses

Make sure taking care of Fido doesn't break the bank

Chihuahua inside red handbag. How to manage costs of owning a pet. (Jasper White/Getty Images)

If you think your pooch or kitty deserves better treatment than standard boarding, hire a pet sitter instead. — Jasper White/Getty Images

En español | When was the last time you went to a birthday party for a dog? Don't laugh. One in five of us has thrown or attended such a soiree, according to a recent survey from Coupon Cabin. I'm on that list (and yes, I brought a gift).

But this piece of research — which also found that 15 percent of pet owners spend more than $100 a month on their animals — has me thinking perhaps we should be hitting the brakes where our pet spending is concerned. The American Pet Products Association expects our pet-related expenditures to top $55 billion this year. That's more than the GDP of eight states, including Maine and Rhode Island. And nearly twice the GDP of Vermont. Yikes.

If this makes you want to take another look at your own pet-related expenditures with an eye toward trimming those bills, the good news is you can. And you can likely do it without robbing Fido (or Fluffy) of any TLC. Here are some ways:

Feed your pet the right amount

Feeding a small dog or cat costs $120 to $150 a year; feeding a large dog is $350, according to Stephen Zawistowski, science adviser at the ASPCA. Many people, though, spend much more than that because they overfeed their pets. "We have a huge pet obesity problem in this country," Zawistowski says. "On TV commercials you see this massive washbasin of food. You shouldn't be feeding them that, and you shouldn't be leaving food out all of the time." Follow the recommendations for your dog. In many cases one-half to three-quarters of a cup will do the trick. Also, for dogs, stick to dry food rather than canned, says veterinarian Karen Halligan. "Wet food is 70 percent water, so you're going to have to feed your pet considerably more."

Don't go crazy with the pet spa or hotel

When you need to leave your pet, look to board it in a place that is sanitary and comfortable, Zawistowski says. If you think your pooch or kitty deserves better, hire a pet sitter instead. You can save roughly 40 percent off the cost of a kennel using dogvacay.com, a website that helps pair dog owners with sitters who operate out of their own homes. (Or, as I've done, volunteer to watch the neighbors' pet gratis when they go away in exchange for their doing the same for you.)

Next page: Can using a leash actually save you money on pet expenses? »

Ask your vet about discounts and generics

We've gotten used to talking with our own doctors about things like generic medications and whether they can shave a bit off the bill. It's time to have the same sort of conversations with our vets, says Halligan. "Many vets and pet hospitals will offer discounts on certain procedures," she notes. "For example, there are often deals on dental specials in the month of February. Some also offer packages for cats or senior pets." And be careful that your vet isn't loading your pet up with unneccesary vaccines. Talk to your vet about what vaccines are necessary for your particular pet — rather than all dogs or all cats. Indoor cats, for example, may not need as many as those that live in and outdoors. "I vaccinate according to life cycle," Halligan says. "That's one way to save money on your vet bill." If you live anywhere near one of the country's 30 schools of veterinary medicine, taking your pet for treatment there can be significantly less expensive.

Take the first morning appointment

If your pet is scheduled for an in-office procedure, schedule it for first thing in the morning, Halligan says. That reduces the likelihood that your pet will have to spend the night, which saves on boarding expenses.

Prevent unneeded expenses

From washing your pet once in a while to brushing its hair/fur/teeth to keep them from getting matted and unclean, there's a lot an owner can do to keep a pet healthy, happy and, yes, fairly cheap to care for. One preventive measure that's abandoned all too often: a leash. Use one. "I'd say 60 percent to 70 percent of emergency room visits could have been prevented if owners used leashes more often," says Halligan. "I used to work in emergency, so I've seen it all."

Jean Chatzky, best-selling author, journalist and money editor at NBC's Today, is AARP's financial ambassador. With reporting by Kelly Hultgren.