Money may not be able to buy you happiness, but it can buy treats, toys and training for your furry four-legged friend — and that’s basically the same thing.
Though pet ownership has always been a financial commitment, it's especially true today. Average annual costs now range between $1,270 and $2,800 for dogs and between $960 to $2,400 for cats, according to a Synchrony Bank survey of pet owners. It’s an expense that often comes as a surprise to first-time owners: Some 45% of dog owners and 38% of cat owners said they underestimated the cost of caring for their pet.
What’s more, pet products have seen the same sky-high inflation this year as other everyday consumer goods, up 9.7% from last year.
Yet even with mounting day-to-day costs and the temptation to splurge on a growing roster of specialty services, you don't have to go broke to be a good pet parent.
Start by choosing a pet and breed that fits your budget. Cats tend to be cheaper than dogs, for example. Small dogs tend to cost less than large dogs, while breeds like a Maltese or poodle need more frequent (and expensive) grooming.
If you’re already a pet owner, follow these 5 tips to plan for expenses and cut day-to-day costs.
1. Be a savvy shopper
Americans spent a record $123 billion on their pets last year. The biggest share of that big chunk of change comes from pet food and treats.
For many pet owners, it’s money well spent. Vee Weir, founder of the budgeting blog Vee Frugal Fox, says she’s quick to recommend spending a bit more to buy higher quality food. She lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her two Australian shepherds and a mixed-breed dog.
“It will save you money in the long run,” she says, because “you’re going to avoid health problems later on.”
There are ways to save on that budget line in the here and now, too. For one, Weir says, you should always look for rebates or coupons online, or for loyalty programs. She shops at a nearby Chuck & Don’s for her dog food, where every 10th bag she purchases is free. Some national stores, like Petco, have similar programs.
If your brand (or pet store) has regular sales, plan to buy food in bulk during those times. And if you order your food online, consider a delivery subscription service like Amazon or Chewy to get a 5% to 10% monthly discount.
You can swap brand-name food and treats for cheaper, generic versions. Just be sure to look at the list of ingredients first. Try to avoid low-quality fillers like chicken or beef by-products and corn, and look instead for foods that are protein-based. When in doubt, ask your vet, says Bob Lester, chief medical officer at WellHaven Pet Health in Portland, Oregon.
“Often there are middle-of-the-road alternative pet foods that are very good for your pet, but that you don’t have to spend a ton of money on,” he says.
Shop for toys, beds, bowls and other items at discount stores like TJ Maxx or HomeGoods. Even dollar stores carry dog and cat toys, Weir says.
“You don’t have to buy the Kong ball,” she says. “You can buy a knockoff toy for your dog. They’re not going to know.”
2. Weigh the costs and benefits of pet insurance
Pet insurance prices depend on location, breed and scope of coverage. But a typical policy costs $50 a month for dogs, on average, and nearly $30 a month for cats, according to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association.
The most common pet insurance plans don’t cover preventative or routine care, like vaccinations or teeth cleaning. And you’ll have to spend enough money out-of-pocket to meet your deductible (typically about $500). After you hit that amount, you’ll still owe a percentage of the remaining costs (between 10% and 30%, depending on your coverage).
A 2021 Money analysis of pet insurance rates and veterinary expenses found the odds are low for collecting on insurance if your dog or cat has a “normal” medical life. Even minor accident may not add up to enough to meet your annual deductible: According to a survey from the American Pet Products Association, cat owners spend an average of $170 to $255 a year on vet visits for a surgery, sickness or emergency. For dogs, the averages range from $285 to $460. So insurance is most likely to pay off if your pet develops a serious illness or has a major accident.
“Just like any insurance, you’re paying for the 'what ifs,'” Weir says.
The bottom line? Pet insurance is ideal for pet owners willing to pay for the peace of mind against the worst-case scenario.
If you're in this camp, read the fine print carefully. Pet insurance policies come with a lot of exclusions and caveats, including sometimes requiring you to meet a new deductible each time your pet has a new health condition. Many policies come with annual or lifetime limits, too, meaning that if your pet has a very expensive condition, you may still need to cover costs once your insurance is maxed out.
You should also shop around for policies. A separate Money analysis of pet insurance pricing found wide ranges in what different insurers charged, sometimes adding up to hundreds of dollars a year.
To keep monthly costs low but still have some protection against the most expensive emergencies, consider a high-deductible plan. Choosing a $500 deductible rather than a $200 deductible saved owners more than $200 a year in premiums, Money previously found.
3. Ask your veterinarian about a wellness plan
Insurance in the pet world is reactive; it typically kicks in after there’s a health crisis. Lester says he’s an advocate for helping owners afford “proactive health care” for their pets. That means staying on top of things like annual shots, check-ups and dental cleanings to help prevent the need for more expensive procedures down the line.
Some veterinarians offer what’s called a “wellness plan” for this type of routine care. It’s basically a subscription model for vet care, Lester says.
The beauty of these plans, he explains, is that they help pet owners take control of their budget. For $30 to $50 a month, depending on the plan, all your routine veterinary services will be covered. That includes vaccinations and preventative care, and often extends to things like nutrition counseling and dental care.
“It’s budgeted to just a couple of bucks a day for most folks, and that takes care of all those things that help keep their pets from getting sick,” Lester says.
The caveat here is that you may need to shop around for an animal hospital that offers such a plan. And if you do enroll, you might have to use all of the covered services — every single year — in order for it to make sense financially.
You could also look for a low-cost vet clinic in your area. These services, often run out of veterinary schools or through non-profit organizations, offer discounted services to lower-income pet owners.
4. Comparison shop for medications
Just like with human medicine, pet medicine pricing isn’t standardized.
Be sure to ask your vet if there’s a generic version of the medication your dog or cat needs. Check what it costs to buy it through your vet, too. They may be able to buy in bulk and pass on some savings to you, Lester says.
Don’t take the first price you’re offered, either. After getting an estimate from your vet, look at specialty online retailers like 1-800-PetMeds, Discount Pet Medicines or PetCareRx.
You should also check local pet stores — Weir says she saved $20 on a joint supplement for her dogs by buying it at PetSmart instead of through her vet. Costco and Amazon, which both carry a decent number of pet medicines, also are worth looking into.
5. Look for ways to save on pet services
Pet services like dog walking, dog daycare and pet sitting are popular with owners who work outside of the house for long periods of time. But that help comes at a steep price.
Since dog walkers generally set their own rates, the costs can vary quite a lot. Your location and days of the week when you’re out of the house can also influence the price. But, in general, walks on apps like Rover and Wag start at about $20 and increase with longer walks. Pet sitting or boarding also varies widely, with an average around $30 to $40 a night. (Cats tend to be cheaper.) Sitters with a lot of experience can charge much more.
If you need to take your dog to a daycare center, usually the best way to save is to purchase a package of days at a discount.
There are other ways to save, but they take a bit of legwork. Creating your own “cooperative purchasing program” with your neighbors — where everybody pitches in to hire a dog walker to come to your street or building at a lower, negotiated rate — is one potential route.
Or you could set up a pet-sitting club with friends, families or neighbors, and swap free care when a member is out of town. This may require some initial effort to get the swaps running smoothly, but the payoff could be hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars a year.