Friday, 13 April 2012

Frugal Friday (13th April)

Oh! Last night we were woken by such an unexpected sound - the echoing call of an owl hooting, right outside our bedroom window! We've not heard an owl here where we live right now, ever before. Where I grew up, in the countryside on the borders of England and Scotland, hearing (and seeing) owls was quite a common occurrence. Watching them fly is quite unlike seeing any other bird. They move incredibly smoothly, almost floating, seeming to glide rather than use their wings to propel them through the air. This of course is partly what enables them to hunt so stealthily - as they move so quietly, they can approach their prey unawares - but it also makes them look very graceful and majestic, especially seen as they fly from tree to tree in the dusk. We weren't able to see our night time visitor last night, of course, because it was dark outside, but we certainly heard it! It was quite exciting - we live in a town, although there are lots of trees around our home - and was a lovely sound to be woken by in the stillness of the night.

Hearing it reminded me of our own birds, that were safely tucked away under their crocheted covers in their cage downstairs! When they are covered up they rarely make any noise, but sometimes I will catch them singing (only the male birds sing) before I uncover them in the morning! As I did it today, I was minded of the owl that called to us in the night, and as I gave them their breakfast, I thought how much more costly it would be, to have to keep a captive owl fed - their meal of choice is mice and other small animals! Of course, we wouldn't ever want to keep a wild animal in a cage, but it got me thinking about the cost of keeping animals in a more general way, and hence this is the theme of today's Frugal Friday - how to be a frugal pet owner!

The first and most obvious hint I can make is this - that all pets are expensive to keep - or at least, more expensive than most people realise. Even a small animal like a hamster or a goldfish, requires a certain amount of investment to ensure it is kept healthy and happy. It goes without saying (but I will, because there are so many unwanted animals in rescue centres, brought there by people who purchased them on a whim, only to find that they couldn't keep up with the expense of caring for them) that you should never invest in a pet, unless you are absolutely sure you can afford to keep it properly for the whole of its lifetime. A good way to find out if you can is to calculate sensibly the cost of keeping an animal for a month, and then see if you can afford to put this amount of money aside each month for a set period - say 6 months or a year. At the end of this time (if the urge to own the pet hasn't faded - which it may well have done, by allowing yourself this "cooling off" period between deciding you'd like to have a pet, and actually finding out if you can afford it) you will have a good idea of whether or not your budget can allow for the additional expense a pet will incur.

In England, many vets advise (and some insist) on pet owners having insurance for their animals to cover the cost of vetinerary fees. I would suggest that you look into this carefully and check over what the different policies actually cover. For larger animals like dogs and cats, it probably is worth having the insurance as some medical conditions these animals suffer from can cost thousands of pounds to treat if you are not insured. However some inusrance policies will increase the premium greatly once you have made a claim on them, so do check whether the long-term investment is worth it. For smaller pets it often isn't worth having insurance. Our birds would only be covered for very minor conditions that would not cost much to be treated at the vet's anyway. The one condition that they don't cover - egg binding - is the one you are most likely to require treatment at a vet's from - and this is very costly as it involves an operation under anaesthesia - not straightforward, with such a small animal as a cockatiel. It is actually a better investment for us, to put aside a sum of money each month into a savings account, where it will accrue interest while we don't need to use it, and if we do, it is there specifically for the purpose of paying for vetinerary treatment.

The best way to save money from vet's fees is to prevent your animal from becoming ill in the first place. It is incredible how many people purchase a pet without really understanding how to care for it. Never is this more true than in the case of pet birds. We have heard of (and seen) so many tragic cases where a bird has been acquired on impulse, and then been cared for inadequately by an uninformed owner. We took in a rescue bird who had been treated in this way, and sadly, although we did everything we could to improve her condition, she passed away only 3 months after we'd taken her in. Her legacy is that I try to inform people that keeping a bird is NOT as easy as it seems. They are exotic pets and they should be treated as such. It is absolutely vital that as a responsible pet owner, you find out how to keep your animal, because prevention of illness is far better than cure - not just for your pocket, but for the animal too.

Our vet has told us repeatedly that incorrect diet accounts for over 90% of animal illness, so it makes sense to be well informed about what to feed your pet and when so that you can avoid costly trips to the vet which have been caused by your animal being fed an inadequate or inappropriate diet. Having said that, rather than underfeeding, or not giving enough choice, a lot of people feed their animals far too generously, partly because it is very difficult to gague just how much to give a creature that is so different from yourself, and partly because as humans, we tend to assume that animals desire the same variety and appeal in their food as we do. This is not so. The correct diet for your pet is really important. It is up to us as their caregivers to try to replicate what they would eat in the wild as closely as possible in captivity. If you can do this, you will ensure that their good health is well maintained. The best food isn't necessarily the most expensive - it just needs to be wholesome, balanced and nutritious. Ask your vet for advice about what to feed and how often, and then stick to this. Extras and snacks really aren't necessary - pet stores are full of foodstuffs for animals that look more suitable for humans than cats, dogs or rabbits (we've even seen "beer" for dogs, in our local pet store) - because that way, customers will be lured into spending money on things that their animals actually don't need. Don't be tricked by the cute packaging and novelty shapes of the treat foods at the pet store. Your pet really will be better off without them.

Another trick the pet stores use, is to offer items for sale which are totally unecessary for the wellbeing of your pet. Your hamster really doesn't care if it is living in a pink cage or a plain brown one. Your cat doesn't need to have a matching food and water bowl set to dine from. And your dog certainly doesn't need a frilly tutu with sequins on it. The exception to this, in terms of dog garments, is small breeds that require extra warmth in winter when they are being taken outside. But even then I would not waste the money on a novelty garment. As I say, the animal has no preference - it is you, the owner, that cares, not the pet. There's something a bit heartbreaking about seeing animals being treated as children. Of course we love our pets - but they don't want to be made into humans. Let's celebrate them for the creature that they are, and embrace that by treating them as they are meant to be treated - not as a human in a furry or feathery coat!

You don't need to spend a lot of money on toys and entertainment for your pet. Many animals will be just as happy with items you already have around your home. Our birds love the inner tubes from rolls of kitchen paper, which I cut into a spiral and clip to the side of their cage, and they also adore torn up bits of newspaper. They enjoy playing with raw spaghetti or a handful of meadow hay, and if you give them a ball of string, they're busy for hours, just pulling it about and chewing it. Wooden objects such as clothes pegs, twigs from apple trees and even an old wooden spoon will also keep them happily amused. They seem to know what is safe to eat and what isn't, and they much prefer naturally coloured toys like these, to the bright primary colours of manufactured toys from the pet store. If you're not sure about the safety of an item, don't take any risks - check with your vet first, but in general, it should be indestructible and made of non-toxic materials. Watch out for plastic items, especially if you are giving them to a dog - they can be chewed into small pieces that could be dangerous, but having said that, one of Papa Bear's brothers had to spend hundreds of pounds having one of his dogs operated on, after he ate pieces of a toy ball that he had chewed up - and that was a toy that had been bought from a pet store!

It's important to provide your pets with the right environment for good health. That means keeping their home or sleeping area clean and safe, and giving them plenty of opportunity for exercise. It's common for people to pay their vet to clip the wings of pet birds to prevent them from being able to fly and supposedly make them easier to tame. We don't do this - birds are supposed to be able to fly. It is good for them, gives them exercise and is their way of responding to stress and fear - and is an unecessary expense. If you don't want a pet that can fly, don't get a bird.

Equally, if you have small children that are begging you for a pet to care for with promises that they'll do all the work cleaning their cage, feeding it and providing exercise and entertainment, then do what our good friend suggested. Tell your children that they may have the desired pet - but that they have to prove that they mean what they say first. Buy them a pot plant (one that isn't too easy to care for!) and tell them that they must take sole responsibility for keeping it alive for a set period of time (depending on the age of the child). Then watch and see if they can keep their word. We tried this (with a venus fly trap of all plants. Cubby Bear's choice!) and the plant lasted about 6 weeks! It was a good lesson for our children to learn, and it was a much longer time before they were really ready for a pet (and then we got the birds, which are a family pet that we all enjoy).

In general if you have small children, say under 6, I would advise against pets altogether not just from a money-saving point of view, but from a time-saving one as well. When you are busy caring for tinies, you really do not need the added responsiblity of a pet to care for. Some people argue that it is useful as a lesson in caring for others and in learning about life cycles and patience and compassion for a child to have a pet, and while these are indeed valuable lessons for a child, it really isn't necessary for them to learn them through caring for a pet, and even if you do feel it is important for your children to have this experience, it can be just as useful if it is learned at a later age, when they are more capable of being involved in the care and work of keeping an animal.

I would also advise, from personal experience growing up on a farm, that if you have aspirations - and a lot of people living where we do seem to have them - to keep a smallholding, even just some chickens, please do look into this very carefully indeed. Livestock like this needs a lot of care and attention - 365 days a year, whatever the weather. Although it may seem idyllic to have a few chickens pecking about in your backyard, perhaps a goat or sheep or even a cow, these animals are not easy to keep, and cost a lot of money in terms of feed and housing and vet's fees (there are various compulsory innoculations and treatments that they will need, year in, year out, if you wish to keep them outside in England) and unless you keep them on a very grand scale, the cost of keeping them will not be repaid by any possible yield you get in terms of eggs or milk or wool. My father was a farm labourer and watching him having to go out in all weathers, even on Christmas Day or bank holidays, to care for the livestock on the farm where we lived when I was a child, taught me that there is very little personal recompense for this sort of commitment -unless it is your livelihood, I would strongly advise against keeping any sort of farm animal.

I can't sign off today without saying one more time that if you DO decide you want to keep a pet, then you would do very well to consider a bird (well, two at least)! They are very definitely worth the work and expense - they are clean, relatively quiet, good company, entertaining and intelligent, and beyond the initial (admittedly quite considerable) outlay of purchasing them and the various bits of equipment they need, they are actually quite economical pets, that, with the right care, can live happily for 20 years or more. We're certainly convinced they are the right animal to share our home, anyways - and I'd like to think they all agree, too!