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How to Afford Your Pet

Stefanie O'Connell

For many people, pets are part of the family, so putting a price tag on their love and care is impossible. While pets can serve as wonderful companions and provide a vast array of benefits, from promoting social interaction to reducing stress, the cost of care has real world implications that should not be overlooked.

According to petfinder.com, the first year expenses for adopting a dog in the United States range from $766 to $10,335. The cost each following year ranges from $526 to $9,352. That kind of financial commitment requires some serious consideration. Luckily, there are ways to ensure your costs remain on the lower end of the spectrum. In fact, there are alternatives that can eliminate some costs altogether.

Portion control. When it comes to food, pets and people need the same things -- higher quality and smaller portions. Believe it or not, pet obesity is a real problem in the United States. The effects of excess weight can lead to expensive health problems like cancer, heart and respiratory disease, kidney disease and a host of other high-risk health factors. To avoid these complications, don't overfeed your pet.

Instead, focus on food quality. Many of the bargain brands contain harmful preservatives and are loaded with fillers like corn that can cause allergies. The better brands may be more expensive, but the health savings in the long run will be significant.

Use the coupons and discounts. Coupons for pet products can be found everywhere from the Sunday paper to manufacturer websites and social media pages. Rewards programs and subscription services will also help you save on the major recurring expenses like pet food. If you're willing to try out some of the newer products, keep your eyes open for free samples and rebate offers. And of course, good old-fashioned bulk buying is a great money saver too.

Ditch the novelty items. Is that designer sweater you bought for your dog for him or for you? High-end animal fashion might be "in," but it's also completely unnecessary. Your animal also doesn't need a full-service spa for basic grooming. In fact, you can do the washing, brushing and trimming yourself. Not only will you save, but you'll bond, too. Skip the superfluous accessories and pet pampering and opt for some good old-fashioned love and care instead.

Find a sitter. Instead of boarding your pet every time you leave town, ask a friend, neighbor or family member to pet sit. If none of those are an option, check out dogvacay.com, a website that helps pair dog owners with local pet sitters who operate out of their homes.

Do your research. Many of the bigger shelters have on-site vet clinics and offer low-cost vaccinations, spay and neuter services and dental care. Also, look for mobile vet clinics that often drop into major pet stores. Finally, many vet schools and university programs offer pet services at reduced prices.

If you want to stick with your trusted veterinarian, ask about discounts, deals and packages on procedures. And remember to consider generic medications for a more affordable alternative.

Foster a pet. For those who crave the company of a pet, but can do without the financial burden, consider fostering. Pet adoption agencies need people to take care of homeless cats and dogs until they are adopted. You can help them by taking those homeless animals into your home and caring for them during that time, generally between a week and a month. In return, the adoption organization covers the cost of all veterinary care, food and any other necessary supplies. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has a searchable database of more than 13,000 local shelters, humane societies and animal control organizations nationwide that are looking for volunteers.

Consider the alternatives. Remember that pets are not limited to cats and dogs. While they are the most common, they're also among the most expensive. Going with a lower-maintenance animal can save you a lot of time and money. A small bird or fish, even a smaller mammal can be much more affordable and easier to care for.

It's important to understand the full financial implications of pet ownership before you welcome a new furry family member into your home. Luckily, with a little research and planning, you can find an animal care option works for you.

Stefanie O'Connell is a New York City based actress and freelance writer. She chronicles her struggle to "live the dream" on a starving artists' budget at thebrokeandbeautifullife.com.

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