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Save some doggone money on pet care

Mary Madigan, a Buffalo senior citizen who lives alone, was thrilled to take in Muffin, a stray orange kitten who looked a lot like Morris The Cat.

"I was tickled to death to get it," she says.

Over the next five months, Madigan and Muffin bonded. Although Muffin was a stray who'd been found by a friend's brother, he adapted well to living with her. She also wondered what Muffin's story was. Because he'd been neutered before Madigan took him in, she figures he had a previous owner.

"I live alone and they're a lot of company," she says. "They're part of the family."

Then Muffin started to get sick. He wouldn't use the litter pan for two days at a time.

But Madigan, living off Social Security, couldn't afford to take Muffin to the veterinarian for what potentially could be expensive treatment. She called some vets to see if any offered payment plans -- none did. She contacted the SPCA to see if they could help with Muffin's treatment -- they couldn't unless she gave up the cat.

So Madigan made a hard -- and upsetting -- choice last month. She turned Muffin over to the SPCA.

"There was nothing more I could do," she says. "I really do miss the little fur ball."

Pet care can be expensive, from routine costs like food, flea treatments and grooming to higher-priced items, like medical care.

With the stock market in turmoil and fears growing that the economy is headed for a recession, family budgets are getting squeezed, and that could leave less money for pet care.

Amherst veterinarian Dr. James Brown of the Blue Cross Animal Hospital says the first thing to do, before you even get a pet, is to decide how many pets you can afford to care for, not how many you'd like to care for.

"A lot of people's hearts are certainly bigger than their pocketbooks," he says.

Local veterinarians say some of the best things pet owners can do to save money in the long run is to spend a little on vaccinations, flea and tick treatments and other preventative care.

"It's not immediately cost effective, but it is going to be in the long run," says Dr. Stephanie Wolf from the Cheektowaga Veterinary Hospital and the president of the Niagara Frontier Veterinary Society.

"It's like buying a car and saying, to heck with it, I'm not going to do oil changes," she says. "Down the road, you're going to need a new car."

These are their Top 10 money-saving tips:

* Buy big. Those smaller bags of cat and dog food might be more convenient and easier to store, but they're also much more expensive than the larger sizes. Going with the bigger bags can save a bundle.

Consider this: A mid-sized bag of Science Diet dog food costs a third less per pound than a small one, and the even bigger, 40-pound bag costs almost 60 percent less per pound, although that much food may go stale before your dog can eat it all.

It's a similar story for dry cat food. An 18-pound bag of Friskies costs 60 percent less per pound than a 3-pound bag.

Because storing the food in the bigger bags can be messy, try using a plastic storage container with a sealable lid instead. That also will help the food stay fresher.

Wolf recommends spending a little more for a higher-quality food, which typically has fewer fillers and offers better nutrition. "It's like eating junk food, versus your Grade A quality stuff," she says.

And lay off the table scraps, Brown says. Obese pets are prone to many more costly health problems.

* Spay or neuter your pet early. Vets typically charge more to spay a pet once it's been in heat. It also reduces the risk -- and added expense -- of unwanted pregnancies, as well as the chances your pet will contract certain types of cancer and infections.

Spaying or neutering pets also will reduce their urge to roam, which lessens the chances they'll be hit by a car or get into a fight with another animal -- encounters that would lead to significant vet expenses.

The state Department of Agriculture offers vouchers for $20 spaying or neutering to low-income pet owners. Vouchers for $30 spaying and neutering often are offered when pets are adopted through pet rescue groups.

Dogs and cats adopted through the SPCA (kittens cost $100; $185 for dogs) come with spaying or neutering included in the fee, as well as with initial shots, 30 days of pet insurance and four obedience classes for dogs, says Gina Browning, an SPCA spokeswoman.

Browning warned that "free" kittens can end up being far from free after sterilization costs, shots and other important initial expenses are added.

* Take advantage of free rabies clinics. Free rabies clinics are offered periodically by the Erie County Health Department, with help from the SPCA and the Niagara Frontier Veterinary Society. While no clinics are scheduled for the rest of this year, the program gives pet owners a chance to get one of the mainstay vaccinations without paying a visit to their vet's office.

* Keep up with vaccinations and parasite prevention. Vaccinating your pet for diseases, such as distemper, rabies, feline leukemia, parvo and hepatitis costs much less than the vet bills you'll face if they contract one of those preventable diseases.

"Some of the best ways to cut costs are routine care," says Nancy Fredrickson, a spokeswoman for the Niagara Frontier Veterinary Society. "Some of the best ways prevent small problems from becoming big problems."

* Shop around for flea and tick medicine. If you've ever had a pet infested with fleas or ticks, and seen how they can quickly infest your entire house, then you know how hard it can be to get rid of those pests once and for all.

But the popular -- and highly effective -- flea and tick treatments aren't cheap, easily topping $10 per dose in some cases.

Wolf recommends applying flea, heartworm and worm treatments year-round. Brown says pet owners can start flea treatments when they take the lawn mower out for the spring and stop once they put it away for the winter. He recommends worm treatments year-round, but says heartworm treatments can stop once winter hits.

Yet prices can vary widely, so it's a good idea to shop around. Compare the prices at your local vet with the cost of similar products at U.S.-based online stores, like 1800petmeds.com. Before you order, do an Internet search with the online store's name and "coupon code" to see if there are any shipping deals or coupons available to further reduce your costs.

Some of the cheapest prices often are available from Australian-based Web sites, such as www.petshed.com and www.petsuppliesnet.com. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also has issued warnings for consumers to be wary of counterfeit products, especially under the Advantage and Frontline brands.

* Join a shopper's club. Like grocery stores, big pet store chains like PetSmart and Petco have their own loyalty programs that offer consumers additional discounts on some items, as well as discount coupons.

PetSmart, for instance, occasionally sends its Pet Perks members coupons offering $5 off a $25 purchase or similar discounts. Try to bunch up your purchases to take full advantage of those coupons when they're available.

* Be creative with pet-sitting. Boarding your pet while you're on vacation can quickly add up to big money. So can hiring a pet-sitter. Try to work out a mutually beneficial deal with a fellow pet owner to watch each others' pets when one of you is away. Maybe a friend or a neighbor will be willing to step in while you're away.

* Brush your dog's teeth. Poor dental hygiene can cause tooth decay and gum disease in pets, just as it can in humans, Brown says. Those problems in the mouth also can spread, causing problems in other parts of the body, such as the liver and kidneys.

While it might not be your dog's favorite activity, brushing teeth every three or four days can help avoid those problems, and the need for potentially expensive teeth cleanings by your vet, which can run upwards of $400, Brown says.

* Exercise your pets. Like humans, an active pet tends to be a healthier pet. Regular walks are important for dogs. "It's great for their brains. It's great for their bodies. And it's free," Brown says.

* Keep up with grooming. Some pets require more grooming than others, but something as simple as combing them regularly can ward off mats that can require more costly grooming later on to repair.

e-mail: drobinson@buffnews.com

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