Q: My family is trying to keep things afloat on just one paycheck, and we can’t afford to provide the same care to our pets. How can I cut back without compromising their health?

A: An ounce of prevention truly is worth a pound of cure. I learned that lesson shortly after kneeling in front of my sister’s pooch one afternoon, hoping to determine the cause of her dog breath. My mother had called earlier that day insisting that there was a serious problem.

The veterinarian diagnosed Daisy’s severe periodontal disease and suggested dental extractions — 13 to be exact. Post-treatment, my sister improved Daisy’s dental care, adding a plaque-reducing rinse to her water each day. Thanks to a special they were running during Pet Dental Health Month in February, her extractions cost about $500. A bottle of dental rinse costs about $7.

Lesson learned.

As you look for ways to trim the family budget, it’s only natural to consider pet expenses such as veterinary checkups, toys and treats. But some cuts could harm your pet’s health. Here are tips for cutting pet expenses without compromising the quality of care.

Be vigilant about dental care.

Regular brushing significantly reduces plaque buildup, resulting in shorter and less expensive dental cleanings at the vet. Poor oral hygiene also can lead to serious health problems for pets, so it’s worth buying a $2 children’s toothbrush and pet toothpaste.

“It’s important to maintain a pet’s dental care,” says DeAndre Upton, a registered veterinary technician with Eagle’s Landing Veterinary Hospital, who spends much of his day performing dental cleanings. He adds that extensive — and pricey — dental cleanings can be prevented with daily brushing, dental chews and toys that give those chompers a good workout. “That applies to cats, too.”

In a previous column, I offered tips to address dog — or cat — halitosis. Upton suggests starting early so young pets get accustomed to dental care. The benefits come when it’s time to check out. VPI Pet Insurance received 17,846 claims for gum disease treatment last year, at a cost of $4 million. The average bill was about $228.84. That’s up from 16,119 claims and $3.6 million in expenses the previous year, when the average bill was $224.58.

“Dental issues fall into one of four grades,” says Dr. Jennifer Monroe of Eagle’s Landing Veterinary Hospital. “Grade 1 indicates tartar buildup and some gingivitis. Grade 4 indicates severe periodontal disease and leads to extractions.”

In dollars and cents, Monroe notes that the difference between a Grade 1 and a Grade 4 dental cleaning can be more than $1,000.

“With a Grade 4 in cats, the cat typically is not eating, not playful, lethargic and probably shows severe weight loss,” she says. “Those teeth are no longer healthy and extractions become a palliative procedure because the pet is in severe pain.”

Opt for low-cost vaccinations.

Vaccinations help protect pets from acquiring life-threatening diseases. Fortunately, some vaccines are available in less-expensive, three-year dosages.

“When pets are young, they are at greater risk for disease, so we vaccinate more frequently,” Monroe says. “We also vaccinate annually when they are older and their system is not as competent. During middle age we can vaccinate every three years.”

Talk to your vet about three-year vaccines and also ask what vaccinations are absolutely necessary based on your pet’s lifestyle. Monroe recommends a bordetella or kennel cough vaccine for pets that regularly interact with others at boarding and grooming facilities or parks. If your pet primarily interacts with humans during treks around the house, a bordetella vaccine isn’t essential.

National low-cost vet clinics such as Love My Pet may provide even deeper discounts. Available in 23 states, the clinics are located at PetCo retail chains. Pet festivals, animal shelters and private boarding facilities also may offer discounted shot clinics.  

Don’t be afraid to shop around for services.

Keeping veterinary expenses to a minimum is essential for nonprofit pet rescue organizations that rely on donations and volunteers. Taylor Brand, founder of Rescue Me! Animal Project in Atlanta, has a short list of veterinarians that she calls for basic pet care. She also knows who offers reasonable heartworm treatment.

“If you don’t have a regular vet, you can call around and get prices before you go in,” she says. “If you have multiple dogs, you can talk about a multiple dog discount. All the vet can do is tell you that they can’t afford to give you a discount. But it’s worth asking.”

Veterinarians in smaller towns typically offer lower rates than their colleagues in larger cities. But Upton warns that you get what you pay for: “The prices may vary based on the quality of care and the equipment available,” he says. “Get referrals and look for a clinic that offers the best care.”

Maintain that healthy coat.

Just like dental hygiene, regular grooming keeps pets healthy and reduces expenses over time. Stock up on pet shampoo and brushes to cut grooming costs. Your nose knows when it’s time. My column on grooming tips covers the essentials to keep your furry friend’s coiffure in check. Monroe recommends asking your groomer or veterinarian to walk you through the steps to clip nails or express anal glands. EHow.com offers videos explaining how anal gland expression works, but I prefer to pay for that one.

Have an honest conversation with the vet.

Level with your vet about the need to reduce pet costs. He or she can provide an honest assessment of your pet’s needs with respect to diet, grooming, prescription medication and even insurance.

“A lot of people these days are looking to do the bare minimum — exactly what a pet needs to get by — and I understand,” Monroe says. “Times like these are very difficult.”

Pet insurance has become a popular cost-saving option. Companies offer coverage for birds, cats, dogs and even some exotic pets, and your veterinarian can help navigate the waters to determine the best plan. Monroe notes that some plans do not cover pre-existing conditions, or breed-specific diseases such as hip dysplasia in German shepherds. Ask for help finding a company that’s right for your pet.

Be careful with online prescription drug companies.

While online prescription drug companies may offer less-expensive versions of popular pet medications, the FDA has cautioned consumers about the threat of identify theft and the prevalence of counterfeit drugs. Monroe and the FDA suggest shopping with Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites or VIPPS-approved sites. VIPPS and Vet-VIPPS accredited companies agree to comply with federal and state laws and have been approved by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. The NABP site has a list of pet pharmacies.

“A counterfeit heartworm disease won’t prevent the pet from getting heartworm,” Monroe warns. “Treating this disease is much more expensive than preventing it.”

Rescue Me! Animal Project’s Brand also suggests filling antibiotic prescriptions at the grocery store pharmacist, where many of the drugs are inexpensive or even free.

Buy quality pet food.

It’s tempting to pick up that ridiculously inexpensive 50-pound bag of pet food with the cute and happy pooch on the label. But you could end up feeding the pet twice as much. As my friend loves to say, “Cheap costs money in the end.’”

“My first car cost the same amount that I spent on dog food last year,” Brand confesses. “But I’m not going to feed my personal dogs crap and I’m not going to feed my foster dogs less than I feed my personal dogs.”

To find out what’s in your pet food, she suggests visiting DogFoodAnalysis.com, which offers a breakdown of several popular brands. Monroe also offers simple advice for pet owners seeking the best food.

“I tell people to go with trusted brands,” she says. “Stay away from anything with a really cutesy name or anything with bright ingredients — yellows and reds — that you can see from across the room. That’s not a natural thing. Instead, select food that lists a quality protein such as chicken or beef at the top of the list.”

If your pet has had a checkup within the last six months, your vet can provide an honest phone assessment on how much food is enough. Rising pet obesity rates indicate that plenty of cats and dogs get more than their fair share.

Monitor your pet’s weight.

Excess baggage can lead to health conditions such as arthritis and diabetes, which ramp up the cost for treatment as well as preventatives. For example, a dog that weighs more than 100 pounds requires double the monthly flea treatments because you must pay for the 100-pound dose, plus an additional 0 to 25-pound dosage. Instead, keep your pet’s weight in check with regular exercise and limit the number of treats.

It may be tough to turn down those sad puppy dog or cutesy kitten eyes, but just tell Fido and Fluffy that we all have to make sacrifices somewhere!

-- Morieka Johnson

Got a question? Submit a question to Mother Nature and one of our many experts will track down the answer. Plus: Visit our advice archives to see if your question has already been tackled.

Photo: John Morton/Flickr

How can I reduce my pets' expenses without compromising their health?
My family is trying to keep things afloat on just one paycheck, and we can’t afford to provide the same care to our pets. How can I cut back without compromis