As with anything, paying for pet care is a series of choices. Two of those choices - managing your pet's diet and how you prepare for unexpected costs - will make up a large part of your pet budget.
With food, it's garbage in, garbage out

You may think you're saving money when you buy a less- expensive brand. But because it's got more bulk, grains and less-digestible elements, your pet will have to eat more.
"In the end, the cost comes out about the same (with high-quality food), but your pet will be healthier," says Carol Kuzdek, owner of Whole Pets, a retail pet-supply company with stores in Broomfield and Boulder.

Quality: It's complicated
"We do recommend a higher-quality food," says Dr. Greg Collins, owner of Louisville Family Animal Hospital. "But it can be very confusing determining what foods are good."

Quick-and-easy formulas - for example, checking to see if meat is the first ingredient - can be misleading. Ditto for the oft-touted notion of nutritional "balance" between carbohydrates, fat and protein.

Digestibility is the key. A manufacturer could theoretically achieve the right "balance" of nutrients, Collins says, by including such things as leather and motor oil in its formulation. Know and understand the ingredients list.

Foods with benefits
High-quality food also will pay off in the long run by keeping your dog or cat out of the vet's office, Kuzdek says.

For example, cats that primarily eat dry food are much more prone to urinary tract and kidney problems. And dogs that chew fresh bones on a regular basis are less likely to develop dental problems.

Less is more
One of the best ways to keep your pet healthy is not to overfeed him or her. Overfeeding causes a host of problems, including diabetes, joint damage and cardiac problems.

Alex, Kari and Micah Stemm-Wolf have decided not to seek treatment for their older terrier mix, Kelsea, middle, surrounded by Boogie, left, and Bongo.  She
Alex, Kari and Micah Stemm-Wolf have decided not to seek treatment for their older terrier mix, Kelsea, middle, surrounded by Boogie, left, and Bongo. She s basically in dog hospice care, says Kari. If something happens with her, we would let her go. (The Denver Post)

In one study reported in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (Jan. 15, 2005), lab puppies from the same litter were given 75 percent of the food of their littermates. After 14 years, when all the dogs had died, those on a restricted diet had lived an average of 13 years, compared to 11.2 years for their more amply fed littermates.

Cats that overeat are much more prone to diabetes, which requires expensive investments of time - for insulin shots, hydration therapy and other owner-administered treatments - and money.

Be prepared
You never know when an unexpected ailment or injury is going to crop up.
There are pet-health insurance plans available, but Dr. Leah Hanley, a house-call vet in Boulder County, doesn't recommend them.

"If you read the fine print on some insurance policies, they are often very limiting. For example, ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) repairs (in dogs) often aren't completely covered," she says. "You're better off putting money into an interest-bearing account."

Know when to say no - and yes
Injury to the ACL is relatively common in otherwise healthy dogs and surgical repair can cost in the neighborhood of $2,500, Hanley says. However, surgery is usually successful.

But sometimes the best thing for a pet is simply to forgo treatment. For example, an older pet with cancer may be better off with palliative care - think pet hospice - than undergoing intrusive, uncomfortable treatments that may extend life by only a little.

"It should be about maximizing quality of life," Hanley says.

And if it really is too expensive?
First, shop around. Some clinics offer discounted rates or payment plans.

Englewood's Veterinary Referral Center of Colorado has established a foundation that can help defray the costs of an expensive procedure by as much as 60 percent. (Note: Funds are limited and not every applicant is accepted.)

Hospice and palliative care can keep your pet comfortable at lower costs.

But if you can no longer afford to care for your pet, never post "free to a good home" ads on Craigslist or in the classifieds. Surrendering a pet to a reputable shelter is better than taking such a chance.

"There are a lot of weirdos out there," Hanley cautions.