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Pet owners skipping vet visits as economy sinks

Pet owners are trying to give their dog or cat the best care they can on a more limited budget —  but some veterinarians say cutting costs can increase health risks.
Image: Veterinarian visit
Skipping checkups and cutting back on some medications may save money in the short term, but can put your pet at risk, say veterinarians.David Buffington / Getty Images stock
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Tim Parkinson knows his dog and cat are past due for teeth cleanings. But he isn't sure where the money will come from for the procedure. Parkinson, who lives in Lake Forest, Calif., is on disability and says rising prices are forcing him to look closely at how he spends his money on pet care.

As the country slips further into an economic tailspin, with unemployment rates at the highest in more than a decade, pet owners are trying to give their dog or cat the best care they can on a more limited budget. For some, it’s a matter of simply cutting out the extras by buying fewer treats and doing more grooming at home. But some veterinarians say they’re seeing some pet owners skimping on preventive care by skipping checkups and even cutting back on some medications — which cuts costs, but could be putting their pet at risk.

Judi Siler, a veterinary technician in Glendale, Ariz., says the clinic where she works is still very busy, but that some owners are skipping their well-pet visits.

“Our vet clinic is situated between a lower-income part of town and a fairly wealthy part of town. The people with less income have reduced their visits to us except for emergencies,” Siler says. “Our other clients are still spending quite a bit of money but are a little more cautious and want to know prices prior to procedures being performed.”

When the economy was healthier, Siler says, clients weren’t as concerned about cost.

“[Now] they might opt for a less expensive lab panel or maybe not have lumps or bumps removed during other surgeries because they don’t want the extra expense,” she says.

Risks of skipping pet checkups
Infectious diseases, parasitism and degenerative diseases such as heart problems, kidney disease and arthritis in pets can go untreated or unnoticed when people skip well-pet visits, says John Hamil, a veterinarian at Canyon Animal Hospital in Laguna Beach, Calif. That’s especially true in lower socioeconomic areas, he says, where pets might be more likely to encounter other animals that haven’t been vaccinated or given preventive medication for heartworms or fleas. And waiting until a pet needs emergency care can be far more expensive than taking steps to prevent a problem.

Most veterinarians say people are still taking care of their animals, but extras are going by the wayside. Some pet owners are buying fewer treats and toys. Becky Buffum of Austin, Texas, doles out fewer treats to her three rottweilers and looks for cheap toys at the dollar store. One of her friends rotates toys instead of buying new ones.

“We may hear a few more complaints about dollars, but people are still wanting to care for their pets,” says Mary Paige Corcoran, DVM, of Buttercup Creek Animal Hospital in Cedar Park, Texas. “We have, however, seen a decrease in boarding and grooming. Thanksgiving is normally booked, and we are only half full.”

Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Manufacturing Association, says that even as the economy is sinking, people are reluctant to cut back on what they spend on their pets.

“No matter what they stop spending on, pets seem to still be a necessity to a lot of folks,” Vetere says.

Many pet owners wonder if it's ever OK to buy cheaper store brands of pet food, and experts' opinions vary on whether switching to a lower-cost food is the best way to go.

“As a rule, cheaper foods use lesser quality ingredients,” says Liz Palika of Oceanside, Calif., the author of "The Ultimate Pet Food Guide: Everything You Need To Know About Feeding Your Dog or Cat." “Instead of muscle meat, they may use meat by-products or by-products meal. Although in laboratory analysis, those foods might show the same levels of nutrients, such as protein, dog and cat foods are not allowed to post the digestibility of their foods on the label. That’s how melamine ended up in pet foods and now baby foods; it was added to boost the laboratory analysis of protein. So by using lesser quality products, the lab results may show good foods, but the digestibility may be in question and as a result the dog may be lacking certain nutrients.”

But Hamil, the Laguna Beach, Calif., veterinarian, says that paying more for food doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. “You can buy a lot of relatively inexpensive foods and get perfectly adequate nutrition,” he says. “If you go with the larger, well-known, moderately priced foods, you’re in good shape.”

Haggling a deal
Ingenuity and smart shopping can help you save money and still give your pets good care. With the economy on the skids, the ancient practice of bartering is back in vogue. If you have a particular skill, consider offering it in trade for pet services.

“I bartered a basic dog training session with the guy who details my van,” says Palika. “His dog got some training, and my van got cleaned.”

Veterinarian Debra Eldredge of Vernon, N.Y., says one clinic she worked at traded vet care for handmade pottery. She suggests offering to mow or garden. If you’re not handy, Eldredge says, many clinics will offer a payment plan for regular clients.

Buying in bulk is another budget saver. Look for dog treats and chews from online dog supply catalogs and store them in the freezer until you need them.

Some cities offer free or low-cost rabies vaccinations. When pet sitter Terry Albert’s dogs and cats need their shots, she takes them to a vaccination clinic at a pet supply superstore instead of the vet’s office. She shaves her wirehaired dachshund’s coat herself, although the Shetland sheepdogs still go to the groomer.

“I got a call from my groomer, who offered a $10 per dog discount if I brought them all on a slow day, so I took her up on it,” says Albert, who lives in Poway, Calif.

But regardless of what other ways you cut back, don't skimp on preventive care such as heartworm medication, Eldredge says.

“With the financial problems many families are facing, it may seem like a great idea to drop heartworm preventive or stop using flea and tick preventives,” she says. “Unfortunately, those problems can be much more expensive to treat than to prevent. Look to cut corners elsewhere, such as fewer or homemade dog toys or purchasing old comforters at garage sales for comfy dog beds. Look for coupons. If a catalog has a low price for heartworm or flea and tick preventives, see if your vet will match it. Most do. Alternatively, try to get into group orders with a discounted bulk price.”

Owners put pets first
Most pet owners say they would decrease spending for themselves before they’d let their pets go without. In Fairview, N.C., clumber spaniel owner Kim Smith McLendon would do whatever was necessary to make sure her dogs were taken care of.

“My husband and I are lucky in that we only owe a mortgage. If worse came to worst, we could put the cell phones on hold, I could do without the Internet, and we’d have to cut out Blockbuster online,” she says.

Labrador breeder Diane Ammerman of Mahwah, N.J., has given up manicures and other luxuries and drives only one vehicle, a big van in which to haul her dogs.

“The dogs are better cared for than I am,” she says. “If a dog gets sick, I’ll rush it to the vet. Me, I get sick, it’s no big deal.”