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Pet care costs
5 Tips: How to keep your pet healthy without breaking the bank.
By Gerri Willis, CNNMoney.com contributing columnist

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - A dog may be man's best friend, but that pup has a price tag. Vet visits and surgery cost dog owners almost $800 and cat owners $500 last year, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.

And that's not including procedures like kidney transplants which can cost up to $10,000. In today's top Five Tips, we're going to tell you how you can keep Fluffy healthy without sacrificing your retirement.

1. Vet your vet

Prices at animal hospitals can vary widely. Make sure you get recommendations from other pet owners first. You can also search online at the American Animal Hospital Association at www.healthypet.com.

Ask about the common procedures, like vaccines, checkups, neutering and spaying. Plan on going to at least three vets before you decide on one. Make a mental note of just how clean the environment is when you look around. And don't forget to ask for discounts from your vet. Some vets offer multiple pet discounts as well as discounts for seniors (senior citizens, that is).

2. Get medicine elsewhere

According to reports, vets mark up many drugs they sell an average of 150 to 175 percent. Ask your vet for prescriptions, not the medicine itself, says Pet Expert Warren Eckstein.

"People don't realize that 75 percent of the drugs that vets use are approved for people and can be purchased for much less in the generic form at the local pharmacy," he says.

You can also check veterinary-medication prices at places like KV Vet Supply and Costco. Also search sites like www.1800PetMeds.com. Of course you should check with your vet before giving your pet any medication.

3. Be preventative

Don't wait until your bundle of fur's health gets very serious to visit your vet. Getting an annual checkup is probably a good idea especially if you have an older pet.

And while annual physicals may run you a couple hundred dollars, vaccines have longer immunities. That rabies shot may last you three years. Of course if your cat never goes outside, it may not be exposed to a large number of dangerous diseases. But it's a good idea to check with your vet about any vaccines that may be required by law, including rabies.

Many pet experts also recommend having your pet spayed or neutered. Spayed females have a lower cancer risk and neutered males aren't as aggressive and have fewer prostate problems. Costs for cats and dogs range from $80 to $200. You may be able to get the surgery for less if you check out your local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, at www.aspca.org.

4. Beware pet insurance

Today you can even get pet health insurance. But be careful if you decide to invest. Only about 3 percent of pet owners carry this kind of insurance, according the American Animal Hospital Association.

With pet insurance, you'll pay deductibles, co-pays, and premiums. Plus, some treatments are excluded from coverage. Some policies also limit the amount they will pay per incident and may make you pay higher co-pays as Fido gets older. In fact, Consumer Reports suggest you skip it altogether.

Bear in mind that if you haven't chosen your lovable pooch, mutts are generally healthier than pedigreed dogs and cats. Consumer Reports says that's because the pedigreed animals may have been bred for appearance rather than good health. But Wendy Diamond of Animal Fair Magazine says that it really depends on the kind of breeder you buy from. Don't buy from a puppy mill.

5. Skip the gourmet aisle

After surgical procedures, food was the second most expensive item for pet owners. Individually, Americans spent about $250 a year on food for their pets. That's an almost $15 billion industry.

Instead of going to your pet store, consider getting pet food at the supermarket. It can be just as good, and in some cases better than the more expensive foods, according to Eckstein.

Make sure you look at the label. For example, if you see the ingredient chicken parts, that could mean that any part of the chicken (including beaks and feet) could be included in the ingredients. You should also make sure that the protein source (beef or chicken) is at or near the top of the list says Eckstein.

Whatever kind of food you invest in, look for the AAFCO seal of approval. The Association of American Feed Control Officials is a watchdog group that develops standards for pet food.

OK, but does your puppy really need a special kind of dog food? Do senior pets require special "geriatric" pet food? Experts say yes.

"Nutritional needs change as pets get older. Smaller pets may get fattier foods while older ones need other nutrients," says Diamond.

____________________________

Gerri Willis is a personal finance editor for CNN Business News and the host for Open House. E-mail comments to 5tips@cnn.comTop of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.