saving money, budgetIf you have a furry or feathered family member, you’ve probably faced this conundrum: How much are you willing to budget for medications and medical care for Fluffy?

It’s not always a simple question to answer. For example, our family paid less than $10 for a hamster, and we swore that we would never spend more than a few bucks on medicine and we would never take her to a vet. Yet when she got sick a year later, I caved in and took the little fluff ball to the urgent-care vet’s office. That one office visit cost six times more than the hamster herself. (I drew the line at paying for a hamster MRI test, though.)

Chances are, your pet is worth more than ten bucks and will live quite a bit longer than our hamster. Fortunately, if you need to shell out some cash on prescriptions or medical care, you do have some options for saving money:

Shop around. Veterinary care is often a competitive service, especially in larger communities. Check with several clinics and ask what they charge for routine services or for the particular procedure your pet needs.

Negotiate with your current vet. If you have a limited budget, let your doctor know. He or she may be able to recommend less expensive treatment alternatives, provide product samples, or arrange financing over several months at no additional charge.

Look for discounted care and medications. Contact your local Humane Society or ASPCA. In many communities, both groups offer inexpensive vet services—particularly for vaccinations and spaying and neutering services. Veterinary colleges also may offer low-cost services to pet owners who are in financial need, so check with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), which offers a list of veterinary colleges in every state.

In addition, be sure to shop around both off- and online for common pet medications, like heartworm preventives and flea controls. Your vet’s office may not offer the best deal in town.

Get advice at the pet store. Most reputable shop owners are happy to share health advice for critters—and they won’t you charge a cent. As long as your pet isn’t seriously ill, see what the pet shop expert recommends first. In our case, we have urban chickens (as well as a new hamster). Visits to an avian vet are expensive and hard to schedule, but the folks at our local feed stores are great resources. They also stock common animal medications at very reasonable prices.

Consider insurance—or self-insurance. The jury is still out as to whether pet insurance is a good financial deal. However, if you know you’ll want to take advantage of every medical option available to your sick pet, you may want to consider insurance. Things like surgical procedures and cancer treatment can get quite expensive, and sometimes insurance can help you cover your costs.

One alternative to buying a plan is to create your own pet insurance fund. Deposit the amount you would have spent on insurance premiums into a separate savings account every month. Use that money, if you ever need it, to pay for future pet medical care.

Pets are like part of the family, and caring for them can sometimes be stressful and expensive. To help ease the burden, consider all the options available to you and look for ways to save money where you can.

Teri Cettina is a mom of two daughters and freelance writer who specializes in personal finance and parenting topics. She blogs at Your Family Money. Follow her on Twitter: @TeriCettina