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Smart Consumer: Don't blow the whole kitty on costly pet healthcare

Given how much we love our pets, it seems churlish to talk about how to cut the costs of their upkeep. After all, Buster, Felix and Roger the rabbit deserve nothing but the very best care for all the joy they bring to our lives.

Yet the pet product industry is a multi-billion industry worldwide and makes most of its money selling little extras for our animal companions.

Even when it comes to the essential stuff, mainly good healthcare, pets can be expensive to run.

According to the Dublin Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals (DSPCA), a typical dog can easily cost up to €1,000 a year to keep, with the average cat about half that.

But worse than that, the DSPCA says some owners have been skimping on basic care in recent times.

"Over the last number of years the Dublin SPCA rescue and rehoming centre has seen an increase in the number of owners who are contacting our centre looking for assistance about caring for their pets," says operations manager Orla Aungier.

"Unfortunately, we have seen a increase in the number of animals that we deal with who have not been provided with the necessary veterinary care."

1 So how often should I be taking my pet to the vet?

It's generally recommended that you take your pet to the vet at least once at year. Annual veterinary exams, which involve a thorough check-up of your pet's gums, teeth, heart, lungs and internal organs, can catch health problems early on and therefore save you a lot of time and money.

The vet will also provide annual boosters and flea/worming treatments.

You can also do your own weekly basic checks as part of a preventative regime, such as checking under fur for any lumps or cuts, and perhaps their ears and teeth.

2Well, that's just for normal, non-emergency healthcare, isn't it? What if my dog gets run over by a car?

The unexpected bill from a pet emergency can come as a shock to most owners. Fees can range from €80 to €120 for an emergency consultation in urban areas, and that doesn't include any medication and treatments that may be required.

This is because the cost of providing staff on call is very high for most practices, says Fionnuala Rogers, clinical director of the DSPCA's Vet Clinic.

"It is much more economical, where possible, to identify your pet's problem during clinic hours. "

Rogers also suggests phoning a practice and asking to speak to the practice nurse during the day if there is a concern, as they can often give first-aid advice over the phone.

Saving: Up to €200 per emergency

3Is there much variation in vet costs? Should pet owners shop around?

A typical vet consultation costs about €45 on average for a dog or cat, but the costs of more serious treatment may vary widely.

"There can be a big variation in the cost of veterinary care, but this often reflects the standard of care the pet receives," says Rogers.

"The profit margins in the industry can be very tight."

The costs of running a veterinary practice can be very high, particularly if an emergency out-of-hours service is provided, says Rogers.

If prices are on the low side, this is often reflected in a more limited range of services, lower staff ratios and a higher volume of low-fee work. "This means your pet might get less time and individual attention," she says.

"Certainly pet owners should shop around, but it would be prudent to shop around for quality of service and value for money rather than on price," says Rogers.

4If I get a new pet or a pet for the first time, what can I do straight away to keep down the costs of their care?

Getting your pets spayed or neutered is a surefire way to keep down the costs of their care while also making your pets happier, vets say.

Esther Van Luipen of the Claremorris Small Animal Practice in Co Mayo says this procedure can prevent testicular cancer and prostrate problems in male dogs and not encourage the roaming they often do when a local bitch is in heat, which often coincides with them getting hit by cars.

It's a common notion that allowing bitches to have a single litter is good for them, but this is a "complete myth", says Rogers.

"This can be a costly exercise where a caesarean might be needed. Not all bitches birth well these days.

"We have had to perform a lot of caesareans since our practice opened in February, and these cost several hundred euro."

Another preventative measure is to ID your pet, either through a collar tag or a microchip implant, which only costs €50. You could think of it as 'lost pet insurance'.

Saving: Pet ID -- priceless

5Now that you mention pet insurance, a lot of people tell me that kind of cover isn't worth it, or totally unnecessary.

Pet insurance is really pet healthcare insurance because the majority of claims on pet insurance are based on treating illness or injury, says Joe Campbell of Allianz, Ireland's largest pet insurance provider (and owner of two German shepards).

If premiums seem high, then it's because of the availability of increasingly sophisticated and effective treatments for more serious conditions, but which are expensive, he said.

Premiums start from €260 for a pedigree dog, which includes veterinary fee cover for up to €4,000 a year, but can be higher or lower depending on the age and size of the pet. You can shop around for pet insurance.

"Allianz was until recently the only pet insurance firm in the country, but so they were dictating the price," says Van Luipen.

She advises pet owners to read the small print carefully, including how much it pays out for vet fees, and any excesses that apply: "Is the excess amount applied per year or per ailment?"

Conor Clancy, owner of Freeway, told Smart Consumer that he can't afford it now, but would certainly consider insurance for his pet in the future.

Saving: Not a lot, but you might save up to €50 by shopping around

6Is the cost of looking after Buster likely to rise when he gets older?

"No, it depends on whether it is healthy or not," says Van Luipen. "Some dogs can live up to 15 years and never a day sick.

"Others might develop a heart condition at the age of 3 and need daily treatment for the rest of their lives, which could be another seven or eight."

She adds that crossbreed dogs are healthier in general than purebred dogs, so that may well influence your choice of dog breed.

7 I didn't realise how much it all costs, at the end of the day. I may have to reconsider buying that cute labrador we've always wanted.

Well, given that a puppy can cost up to €500 to buy, plus all the associated costs of vaccinations, microchipping and neutering, one big saving that a prospective pet owner can consider is adoption rather than purchase.

Before the DSPCA rehomes a pet, the animal is fully vet checked, microchipped, vaccinated and spayed/neutered as part of the rehoming fee of €80 for cats and €135 for dogs.

"At the time of adoption our staff advise all prospective owners on the costs associated with pet ownership to make sure they are making an informed decision," says Aungier.

Saving: Up to €600-700

Irish Independent