Here are the smartest ways to save money on vet bills

Q: My income is limited, but I wouldn't part with my dog, Max, or cat, Mimi, for anything. How should I spend what I've budgeted for pet health care?

A: The best way to save money on pet care is to prevent disease rather than treat it. Let's start with some free ways to do that.

First, keep Max and Mimi slim. Research shows that slim dogs live two years longer than their overweight counterparts. Moreover, slim pets develop fewer chronic diseases, which can be expensive to diagnose and treat. For example, overweight dogs are at risk of osteoarthritis, and overweight cats are prone to diabetes.

Minimize tooth and gum disease by feeding a dental diet accepted by the Veterinary Oral Health Council. These diets, which reduce plaque and tartar, are listed along with recommended treats and other dental products at the council’s website.

In addition, brush your pets' teeth with pet toothpaste every day or two. Discard bones and other hard toys that can fracture teeth badly enough to require extraction.

Comb or brush Max and Mimi every day or two to prevent mats and the skin infections that can develop beneath them. If either pet gets ear infections, minimize recurrences by cleaning ears weekly.

Every month, clip Max's nails so they don't break off at the quick and necessitate a veterinary visit. If he's had anal sac problems, learn how to empty his anal sacs, and do it monthly.

If you smoke, stop. If you must smoke, do so outdoors. Pets that inhale secondhand smoke run a higher risk of cancer. Cats are especially vulnerable because they also ingest toxins from the smoke when they groom themselves.

Schedule wellness visits with your veterinarian at least annually. Your vet will examine Max and Mimi, looking for problems that can be addressed before they become serious. In addition, your vet can provide preventive care, such as vaccinations and parasite control.

Vaccines are inexpensive and they protect your pets from dangerous diseases. At minimum, Max and Mimi should receive the distemper-combo and rabies vaccinations. Ask your veterinarian whether your pets should have additional vaccinations based on their lifestyles and the diseases prevalent in your area.

Parasite control is also important. Protecting Max and Mimi from fleas and ticks saves you the aggravation and cost of dealing with a flea infestation in your home and the expense of treating the diseases fleas and ticks carry.

You should also protect Max and Mimi from intestinal parasites, such as roundworms and hookworms. They induce diarrhea and stomach upset in pets — and they can infect humans, where they cause blindness, seizures, organ damage and skin problems.

Heartworms are found in every U.S. state, and preventing this life-threatening infection is significantly less expensive than treating it. Most heartworm preventives also kill intestinal parasites, and many kill fleas and ticks as well. Ask your veterinarian to recommend parasite control medications for Max and Mimi.

Let's also talk about your pets' sterilization status, starting with a vocabulary lesson. Intact animals are those with reproductive organs. When a female is spayed, her ovaries and uterus are surgically removed. A neutered male's testicles have been similarly removed.

Spayed female dogs and cats rarely develop two diseases common in intact females: uterine infection and mammary cancer. Both are life-threatening and costly to treat.

Neutered male dogs and cats are much less likely to roam and get hit by cars than intact males, and they're less likely to fight and get bitten. In addition, neutered male dogs rarely develop benign prostatic hypertrophy or prostatitis, conditions often seen in intact males.

If Max and Mimi are not already sterilized, talk with your veterinarian about the right time for this surgery.

Consider pet health insurance to help pay for unexpected care so you won't have to contemplate euthanasia for financial reasons.

Finally, talk with your veterinarian about developing a cost-effective health plan tailored to Max and Mimi's needs and your budget.

Lee Pickett, VMD, practices companion animal medicine in North Carolina. Contact her at

[email protected]

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