Keep costs on a leash and don't join the thousands who put their pets to sleep

As many owners decide the vets' bills aren't worth it, Jacob Floyd sees how to find the right cover, and how to save on food and medicine

For most owners, a pet is a beloved family member – one you wouldn't dream of getting rid of, regardless of how tight money might be right now.

But in the past five years, 1.6 million pet owners have resorted to putting their animals to sleep because they could not afford the cost of veterinary treatment. That's 927,000 dogs and 822,000 cats between 2003 and 2008, according to Sainsbury's Finance. Furthermore, 80 per cent of vets surveyed have had an owner decline treatment because the dog or cat was uninsured.

Pets are rarely considered one of life's luxuries, but the costs quickly add up. For a medium-sized dog, pet-food-choice.co.uk says dry food will cost between £71 and £306 a year, while wet food is between £212 and £1,051 annually if you buy expensive brands like Cesar. Dry food for cats will set you back between £64 and £98 a year or anything from £171 to £629 if you buy cans.

And don't forget the ruined furniture and fittings. Dogs, particularly, are liable to chew things. Great Danes cost owners an average of £669.64 in damages over a lifetime, according to eSure. And if you thought a small pooch like a Chihuahua would cause less carnage, guess again. They may have smaller jaws, but they typically rip up the furniture to the tune of £638.41.

There are, though, a number of ways to keep down the cost of a pet without compromising its well-being, says Ali Taylor from Battersea Dogs Home. "Get a mongrel," she suggests. "They tend to be less prone to disease and cheaper to insure. And keeping your animal healthy with a balanced diet and regular exercise is not only your responsibility as a pet owner, it will cut down on vet bills."

The type of food you buy also matters. "There are various brands, so you don't have to go for the most expensive," Ms Taylor says. "It's more important to look at the details. If you've got a hyperactive dog, you don't want a high protein content. Ask a pet store owner about what is the best value for money."

You can save on food bills by buying in bulk online and splitting the cost of large quantities with a friend.

And don't fork out for unnecessarily expensive entertainment; many of the games you can play with dogs, for example, are free, like hide and seek. If you have toys, don't leave them lying about so they lose their novelty value, forcing you to buy in more brightly coloured balls.

Meanwhile, if your pet is suffering from a long-term condition, buy medicine in bulk and learn to give the doses yourself. By buying online, from sites like petmeds.co.uk, you can avoid the profit margin your vet will add for supplying the same drugs. And if your pet does need expert help, a veterinary school may offer treatment from students at a lower cost without scrimping on care.

Volunteering at a local animal shelter could help you build useful contacts with people involved in animal care. Investigate subsidised neutering and treatment. If you are out of work or on a low income, charities including Cats Protection, Blue Cross and PDSA might be able to help you out, Ms Taylor says.

You could even get your cat or dog to pay its own way with a spot of modelling. A photogenic pooch could bring in as much as £100 an hour with specialist agencies such as PetLondon Models.

Ultimately, though, pet insurance is the best way of protecting yourself from nasty surprises when the vet's treatment bill comes in.

Overall, cover for a dog costs from £76 to £354.51 a year, while a cat will set you back between £46 and £186.69. However, there are so many different policies now that you have to chose carefully. "Don't just look at headline prices," advises Peter Gerard at the price- comparison site Money-supermarket.com. "It is more important to ask if the policy will cover emergency and continuing treatment. And check that it does not have a high excess or a low benefit level – the amount the provider will pay out for a claim.

"Insurance will not cover a condition that you're already aware of," he continues. "If you buy with that assumption, you'll be very disappointed. And some policies can also contain some nasty surprises for the unprepared purchaser.

"Check if the claim is 'continuous'," Mr Gerard adds. "Some companies will pay out for one set amount in one year. If you have to pay monthly amounts for treatment, they may not cover it."

Finally, make sure you're not over-insuring your pet. Some policies offer the works, but may have parts that aren't very useful to you. "The sneakiest example of this is third-party liability," says Mr Gerard. "You can't be liable legally for the actions of a cat, but you can for a dog. If the policy includes liability for a cat as an extra cost to the basic quote, then you are paying for something essentially useless."

The best buys for insurance

Tesco offers the cheapest cover for a cat aged between five and six, at around £4.50 per month including up to £2,500 worth of vets' bills and £1,000 worth of boarding fees. For a young cat up to a year old, an E&L policy offers cover for £2,000 in bills and £250 of boarding fees for around the same price.

Insuring a puppy under a year old will cost £7.30 at Tesco. This will cover £2,500 in vets' bills and £2m for third-party liability. If your dog is five or six, a monthly premium of £6.80 with Tesco should offer the same cover.

Source: Moneysupermarket.com

From cats to cockatiels, the escalating cost of keeping a pet

Even pets are being affected by the credit crunch, it seems, and as the cost of animals are re-evaluated, some nasty surprises have come to light.

The cost of having a pet is currently rising at above the rate of inflation. A puppy bought last year will cost its owners an estimated £9,000 in its lifetime. Yearly maintenance costs are typically around £502 now, but the amount is projected to rise over the course of a dog's average 12-year lifespan to £921 by 2019. And the expense incurred in a cat's lifetime is not much lower, estimated at just over £7,200.

For rabbits, the internet rescue operation Rabbit Rehome estimates annual maintenance costs of at least £520 a year per animal. And as it suggests they are happier when housed in pairs, the figure can quickly escalate towards £800.

Among other, less-common pets, birds are also victims of the recession, with around 800 parrots, budgies, cockatiels and macaws handed over to the National Parrot Sanctuary since January. It is estimated that aviary enthusiasts have to spend in excess of £500 a year keeping thier birds well-fed and healthy.

Ed Forbes

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