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Kim Carney / msnbc.com
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/18/2008 12:06:12 PM ET 2008-02-18T17:06:12

When the economy takes a dive, people aren’t the only ones affected. Sometimes family pets run the risk of losing their homes as well. The current mortgage meltdown has brought reports from across the country that people who have lost their homes are leaving their animals at shelters or simply letting them stray away when they move.

“It’s not unusual for animals to be left behind, even abandoned, during difficult times,” says Ed Sayres, president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The good news for pets is that most people whose financial issues call for cutbacks in expenses are more likely to forego luxury items, electronics, clothing and entertainment, and even reduce spending on their own groceries and household goods than to spend less on care and supplies for their animals. That’s according to a national survey of more than 650 pet owners that was released recently at the North American Veterinary Conference in Orlando, Fla.

Still, vet bills that run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars can set many families back, especially in hard times. If the falling stock market and rising energy costs have you doing a little belt-tightening, you’ll be glad to know that there are ways to reduce pet expenses while still giving good care.

Here are some tips from pet owners and experts:

Consider going the distance for surgeries
When Bryn Hess’s 5-year-old Siamese cat Nestle developed a polyp the size of a lemon in his Eustachian tube last month, she discovered that the cost to remove it would be more than $2,000 in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area where she lives.

For advice, Hess turned to the Siamese Cat Rescue Center in Locust Dale, Va., where she had adopted Nestle. “We suggested that she contact our vets down here, just two hours outside the city, for better pricing,” says SCRC director Siri Zwemke.

Hess did, and much to her surprise paid only $800 for the surgery. “I was stunned,” she says. “It was probably the best decision I’ve ever made because the prices out there were at least a third of what they were quoting me in the D.C. area.”

That’s not possible for emergency situations or highly specialized care, but it can pay off for less urgent procedures.

Marty Becker, a veterinarian at North Idaho Animal Hospital in Bonners Ferry and the resident vet on Petconnection.com, says there’s nothing wrong with getting a second opinion or shopping around for better prices, and he encourages his clients to do so. Check your local drugstore or online pharmacies to compare prices for prescription medications.

Pet owners who live near a veterinary college may want to explore having a routine surgery done there. “You end up getting a whole staff that does medical rounds and does an exceptional job,” Becker says. “You’re probably going to get something that’s more for less.”

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Take the bite out of dental care
Periodontal disease is one of the most common health problems in pets, and the bacterial infection can contribute to heart, kidney and liver disease. Regular brushing plus an annual veterinary cleaning under anesthesia is the best way to keep teeth healthy. But if you can’t afford a full veterinary cleaning, a scaling and polishing by your vet’s dental hygienist can cost considerably less because no anesthesia is involved, says Deb Eldredge, a veterinarian in Vernon, N.Y., and author of "The Dog Owners Home Veterinary Handbook" and "The Cat Owners Home Veterinary Handbook." It may not be as thorough a cleaning as when the animal is sedated — and not fidgeting around — but it's better than no cleaning.

Suds up Scruffy yourself
Taking even a small dog to the groomer can cost as much as $45. Washing it in your bathtub using warm water and a high-quality dog shampoo? Pennies per bath.

If your back aches just thinking of bending over that tub, there's another option to look out for: Former dog groomer and author of "Pet Care on a Budget" Virginia Parker Guidry of Spring Valley, Calif., takes her golden retriever, Luke, to a do-it-yourself dog wash that provides no-bending-required dog wash tubs, aprons, towels, shampoo, conditioner, dryers and more, for much less than the cost of a professional grooming.

Check out local clinic care
If you want to have your pet spayed or neutered but funds are tight, many communities and animal shelters offer low-cost spay/neuter surgery clinics. Visit spayusa.org for more information.

You can also find low-cost vaccine clinics. And keep in mind another cost-saver: Veterinary professional organizations now recommend vaccinations every three years instead of annually.

Buy in bulk
Becker taught his own daughter this lesson recently. “She was buying little tiny 8-pound bags of food until I showed her how much it was per pound compared to buying larger quantities,” he says. “She has a neighbor who has some young dogs, and now they split a 40-pound bag.”

The same concept applies to other pet products, such as cat litter.

Don’t be pennywise and pound foolish
It’s smart to change the oil in your car regularly to keep it running smoothly, and it’s just as smart to invest in preventive care for your pet such as routine examinations once or twice a year, parasite control and high-quality food.

“Some diseases that we treat are potentially preventable through good health care,” says veterinarian John Berg, a professor at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton, Mass. “Most diseases when they become very advanced become much harder and more expensive to treat, so health maintenance and early detection of problems can in the long run save money. So can being sure that the pet isn’t exposed to hazards like being hit by a car or getting into something toxic or swallowing a foreign object that could obstruct the gastrointestinal tract.”

A monthly home exam where you check for lumps, bumps, abnormal discharge and redness in the eyes or ears can also help you catch problems before they become expensive.

Bypass the doggie bling
Finally, it’s OK — really — to scale back on your purchases of non-essentials such as expensive toys, accessories and gourmet packaged treats.

Instead, rotate your pet’s toys so it doesn’t have the same old ones out all the time, and try making treats at home.

But what if you’re facing a more serious financial crisis than simple belt-tightening? If the worst has happened and you’re looking at losing your home, contact your local animal shelter, not about leaving your pet there but about ways it can help you keep the animal.

In Riverside and San Bernardino counties in California, which have the nation’s third highest metro foreclosure rate, the Riverside County Department of Animal Services has compiled a list of pet-friendly apartments, available on its Web site, and offers free behavior courses for people having issues with their pet. Being able to show a landlord proof of attendance at a training class or graduation from obedience school can mean the difference between being accepted or turned down for a rental that allows pets, says John Welsh, public information chief for the department. Other shelters — the San Francisco SPCA being a shining example — offer similar information and programs.

“We’re trying to preach the message that your animal can be very comforting in these hard times, particularly if you have children,” Welsh says. “If the family is being forced to move because they’re losing their home, the children are already going to be stressed out by this sudden change in their life, and abandoning the pet or turning it in to a shelter is just going to add to that.”

Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with two Cavalier King Charles spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.

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