Here's what pet owners spend the most money on — and it's not vet care

The author's cat, Luna.
Ben Jay

Americans love their fuzzy, scaly, and feathery friends, and they back up that love by spending a lot of money. In 2019, Americans spent a record $95.7 billion on their pets, according to the American Pet Products Association's 2019-20 National Pet Owners Survey.

While pet owners might expect vet bills to cost the most, the number one expense for pet owners is actually food.

Pet owners are spending way more on food than they used to: They spent $36.9 billion to feed their pets last year, nearly double what they spent in 2009. Veterinary care, the second biggest yearly expense, costs owners an average of $29.3 billion.

Experts say the kinds of food available, and changes in the relationship between pets and their humans, are behind this boost in spending. Luckily, though, they say you don't need to break the bank to give your pets the best care.

Why pet owners are spending so much more on food

Over the past 30 years or so, human-pet relationships have grown closer, says Nancy Gee, a psychiatry professor and director of The Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University.

This trend is known as the "humanization of pets." It's more common to view our four-legged friends as fully fledged members of our family, not simply animals, and that means pet owners are willing to spend more. Our pets "live in our homes with us, and we do things with them, and we're much more closely bonded with them," explains Gee.

This guy makes six figures a year with his dog walking business

Video by David Fang

Accordingly, a wider range of high-quality, and higher-priced, pet foods have hit the market in recent years. Many kinds are similar to what people want to feed themselves, including grain-free, gluten-free, and raw food options, says Kristen Levine, president of Pet Living and FWV Fetching, a veterinary PR firm. Other varieties feature novel proteins like venison and cricket.

A frozen bag of venison raw food costs $9.43 on Petco's website, roughly the same as a strip steak (for humans) at Wegmans, and over four times as expensive as the average bag of dry kibble.

How to save money without sacrificing your pet's health

"There's no doubt, pets can get expensive, and food is one of those ongoing expenses you really don't want to skimp on. This doesn't mean you can't find ways to save," says consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch. "With a little research and comparison shopping, you can uncover deals on your pet's favorite meals."

Here are a few tips.

  • Buy in bulk at the right stores: "Your local grocery store may have bulk bags of your favorite pet food, but the price will cost more than if you go to a big box retailer like Target or Walmart," says Woroch. "The best place to buy pet food in bulk, however, is from a warehouse club store." She personally likes to stock up on large bags when they're on sale, which is feasible, in part, because canned and dry pet foods tend to have a longer shelf life than what you feed your human family members.
  • Pet-specific retailers offer more options and rewards programs: While big box retailers like Costco may offer the cheapest bulk options, pet-specific retailers offer much more variety if your pet is on a specific diet. "Though you may get a little more in a bag from Costco, you won't necessarily have access to the same brands as you'd find in a pet store, limiting your options," Woroch previously told Grow. She also recommends signing up for rewards programs at major pet stores, which offer perks like free shipping, cash back, and exclusive coupons.
  • Set up recurring shipments: Several major pet stores offer discounts on automatically recurring orders. Chewy, Petco, and PetSmart all take 5% off if you set up regular shipments. Discounts as high as 30% off the first bag of food are also common, and if you spend enough money, you can get free shipping. That's especially useful if you pair food purchases with other recurring expenses, like kitty litter. Woroch also likes auto-delivery because it ensures that you'll always be stocked up. "If you run out of food, you may find yourself running into the closest grocery or convenience store where prices on dog food are marked up," she says.
  • Take full advantage of your vet's expertise: Your veterinarian — or a veterinary professional with nutrition training — can be an invaluable resource, says veterinarian Jules Benson, associate vice president for veterinary relations at insurance firm Nationwide. Many veterinary practices employ nurses and techs with nutrition training, according to Benson, who can provide brand-specific recommendations. Woroch also recommends talking to your vet before buying generic food. "Food is the most important part of your pet's health, so don't skimp," she says. "I also suggest looking at the ingredients — you want meat as the first ingredient."
  • Keep long term veterinary health in mind: Pet obesity has been on the rise for the past few years, and Benson maintains that there's a good chance you might be overfeeding. You'll save money in the short term if you feed your pet smaller portions. In the long run, keeping your pet on a well-planned diet can promote good health and longevity and help you save on big vet bills. For general information, the ASPCA offers basic nutrition tips for dogs and cats at various life stages.
Anna-Louise Jackson's dog, Scamp.
Courtesy Anna-Louise Jackson

Remember that money does not equal love

Even if Fido has developed a taste for venison, it can still be considered a luxury, not a necessity, especially during times when you may need to cut back.

Remind yourself if necessary that people who can afford expensive pet food aren't inherently better than those who can't. Like any loving parent, you should do the best you can and trust the people who know your pet's physiology better than you do to guide you.

At the end of the day, experts say, the best thing you can do for your pet is to give them the love and attention they need, including the kind that doesn't cost money.

"The bottom line is that they just want to spend time with us," says Gee.

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