For many of my readers, their pets are like children. So, of course, you love your furry friends and want the best for them.

But if the cost to keep them fed, healthy, cared for and looking good has gotten so high and you’re the one coughing up fur balls, take heart. There are lots of little ways to cut pet expenses that together will help you save big on your pet costs.

According to one survey, pet owners spend on average of $126.19 every month on their pets. Dogs are more costly than cats, but canines are not the most expensive pets. Fish are the cheapest pets; fish owners spend $62.53 a month on their aquatic friends.

So how can you afford to care for your furry friend in sickness and in health? Make prevention and maintenance your top priorities. Carefully track every expense, and then consider these tips that will help you cut your pet expenses in half without putting your pet’s health at risk.

Free exams. Search for free initial exams. Local veterinarians often advertise a free initial examination to market their business and attract new customers. Take advantage of the offer. This kind of office visit typically runs between $40 and $60.

Mobile low-cost clinics. For vaccinations, microchips, and heartworm and flea prevention, check around for low-cost or mobile clinics. While you may want to stick with the same vet for annual exams, you can save a bundle on preventive services.

Restrain. A fence is the best way to avoid big vet bills, says David T. Roen, D.V.M., board-certified veterinarian and owner of the Clarkston Veterinary Clinic in Clarkston, Washington. “I see more dogs in my office because of injuries sustained while unrestrained than for any other reason,” he says. “Dogs should always be leashed, fenced or supervised.”

Choose the right food. Dr. Roen advises pet owners to skip all the fancy premium foods sold by vets. Use name-brand pet food from the supermarket labeled “complete and balanced.” Or look for the seal of approval of AAFCO (the Association of American Feed Control Officials). Stick with the same brand. Switching abruptly can cause health issues for some animals. And less is better, as slightly underweight pets have fewer health problems.

Spay and neuter. Reproductive issues aside, spayed and neutered dogs have fewer health and behavioral problems.

Make wellness routine. Some pet supply stores offer in-store clinics and special events. Humane societies and veterinary schools offer low-cost clinics where inoculations and wellness exams are administered by professionals. Keep good records of your pets’ inoculations and treatments.

Forget pet health insurance. Pet insurance will probably cost more money than it saves, says Dr. Roen. But you should anticipate future medical bills. “Instead of sending premiums to an insurance company, put the amount you’d pay in premiums into a savings account,” he says.

Get second opinions. Even if it’s an emergency, if the estimate is more than a few hundred dollars, get a second opinion. If the estimate is $800 and you can only afford $400, speak up, says Dr. Roen. There may be less aggressive and cheaper treatments.

Shop around for medications. Ask your vet for prescription drug samples to get started. Then call around to retailers such as Walmart or Costco pharmacies (many meds are the same for humans and animals) to compare prices.

Exchange pet sitting. Hiring a pet sitter or boarding at a kennel can run from $40 to $60 per pet per night. That can add up fast! Instead, when you travel, exchange pet sitting with a friend or neighbor. Choose someone you trust who doesn’t vacation more than you do so it’s an equal exchange.

Find the bargains. When you need a crate, a cat carrier or other pet equipment, don’t rush to the pet store. Instead, look for used merchandise. You won’t believe all the bargains on gently used, even brand-new, pet gear. Make sure you sanitize crates, carriers and the like even if they look clean. A 50-50 ratio of either vinegar OR bleach (never mix the two) and water should do the trick.

Mary Hunt, founder of www.DebtProofLiving.com, writes this column for Creators Syndicate. Send tips or address questions to: Everyday Cheapskate, 12340 Seal Beach Blvd., Suite B-416, Seal Beach, CA 90740, or email her at mary@everydaycheapskate.com.

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