Updated on 01.27.07

Reducing The Cost Of Caring For Cats (And Dogs) While Improving Their Quality Of Life

Trent Hamm

My wife, my son, and I have two cats. The first one we acquired is Bill (short for Belinda, because Bill is a female cat):


The second cat we acquired is named Fancy:


A bit of background: I grew up in a household where my father was highly allergic to cats and thus had an innate dislike for them. I am slightly allergic to them as well. When my wife found Bill abandoned several years ago, I was very apprehensive about keeping the cat, but I went ahead with it. After seeing Bill’s extremely high-strung personality, I didn’t really want another cat, but then my wife brought Fancy home one day and we kept her as well. I’m still not particularly close to them, but I do participate in caring for them and you can catch me on occasion petting them. My son, on the other hand, adores Fancy and often tries to pet/hug/tackle her. Unbelievably, Fancy takes this toddler abuse without a hiss or a whimper.

Anyway, one major expense in our lives is simply providing upkeep for the cats. There are so many expenses, big and little, that come from maintenance of an indoor pet. Since we’re learning to become more frugal, here are five techniques we’ve adopted that have not only saved us money, but have seemingly improved the quality of life of the cats. These techniques all work for dogs as well!

Instead of feeding them costly cat food from the store, we try to match the contents of that food with fresh material we’ve prepared ourselves. For example, if we have leftover rice and chicken, I’ll blend it up and feed it to the cats. They love it and it has to be better for them than that dry, preservative-laden mass produced junk at the store.

Use an old, beat up brush as a hair groomer. We often comb the cats with an old hairbrush to reduce their shedding and also cut down on hairballs. This saves us on buying special things to clean the cat with, as well as additional cleanup costs.

Make your own collar and ID tag. Use a piece of string, custom fit it to the cat, and “hand-laminate” a tag to fit on it. A hand-laminated tag is simply one that is hand-written and covered in several layers of tape. This method is actually better for the cat because you can fit the makeshift collar to your cat perfectly.

Use scoopable clumping litter and baking soda to extend its life. Use your cat’s cues to tell you how often to scoop your litter and also when it’s time to change the litter. Your cat knows what’s right more than the directions on the box, which are there to minimize the time that your litter will last. Even better, adding a bit of baking soda when you first change the litter (and maybe a bit more here and there) will reduce potential unpleasant odors.

Build your cat a “home” out of an old box and leftover clothes. Both of our cats like having a “home” to sit in, as do most cats; it gives them a cetral place of security. While our cats are lucky to have a cat tower that they both dearly love, a close friend of ours made a “home” for her cat out of a sturdy old cardboard box lined with layers of old, beat up clothing (mostly just old tee shirts that were headed for the trash).

These techniques not only provide better care than the “normal” way, they save substantial money as well.

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  1. Laura says:

    Great post! I am also struggling with the cost of maintaining my cats (vs. the benefits I get from being owned by them). I’d add the following to your list of suggestions:

    Don’t buy cat toys. They won’t play with them anyway. Instead, make your own: Every cat I’ve known has loved those plastic strips you pull off gallon milk jugs to get the lid off the first time. In recent years, I’ve actually seen something similar marketed as a “toy.” Sure, they end up under the fridge, but if you buy a gallon every week, you have an endless (and free) supply.

    An idea I stole from the place I adopted by cats from: Instead of throwing them away, use worn-out socks as cat toys. Put a couple pinches of catnip in a sock and tie the end shut. (Tie the toe end too, if there are holes.) My cats play with them even after the catnip has lost its punch, and every so often I refill them. They are also washable, even with the catnip in them (found this out by accident).

    Old socks also work well to clean up the inevitable hairballs. I dump what I can into the toilet and wash and re-use the socks. If you’re grossed out by that, I suppose the socks could be thrown out. At least you’re not using paper towels and the socks are getting one last use.

    Rubber bands (especially the wide ones that hold broccoli stalks together) and packing “peanuts” also provide hours of fun, although I make sure to supervise, because it seems like they could accidentally inhale them.

  2. cg2 says:

    Re #3: There are terrible stories about cats getting caught on things and being hanged by collars that are too narrow or don’t stretch. I think you should ask your vet about what constitutes a safe collar for a kitty. I don’t know the answer, but a piece of string would really worry me, unless it’s thin enough to break easily under tension.

  3. Kim Whitley says:

    Please reconsider your choice of cat collars. The collar should have the ability to “break” if the cat becomes caught on something to prevent strangulation or asphyxiation. This is a feature that a good commercial collar will have. Right now, you risk the possibility of losing one of your cats for the savings of a very few dollars.

  4. My wife and I bought a cat last year. She laughed heartily when she came home from work the next day and found a giant cardboard complex (completely painted no less!) for the new kitty.

  5. kamikasee says:

    My father is a veterinarian, and I worked in his clinic for 10 years, so I have some experience. A few notes on the post:

    #3 – home-made collars – This is actually a really bad idea. Collars you buy have a breakaway mechanism on them, which your home-made version will lack. Since cats like to jump on (and off) of things, there’s a good chance they’ll hang up the collar on something and suffocate themselves because the collar does not have the breakaway feature. Collars are cheap, and worth not coming home to find your cat has accidentally hung itself.

    #1 – human food – Chicken and rice are probably fine on occasion (I’m assuming you remove the bones), but cats’ dietary needs are specific in some ways, such as needing to be high in protein and low in sodium. If you want your cat to have a healthy diet, buy Hills Science Diet from your veterinarian. If you insist on making your cats’ own food, ask your vet for tips or nutritional information about cat diets. (I list #1 one second because the first note is much more critical.)

  6. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    Yes, please use flimsy string for a homemade collar! I might have just assumed it was obvious to use flimsy string to avoid a choking danger. Use cheap kite string, which the cats can easily break if caught up.

  7. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    kamikasee: I really don’t trust the breakaway mechanisms in collars, which is part of why I’ve moved away from them. Bill has been in several predicaments where it should have given away and simply did not on multiple collars. I don’t feel confident about the string being safe when jumping and caught, either, but at least Bill can break the string.

  8. John Bullock says:

    I have a cat and I keep good financial records. I spent $187 on my cat last year and I feed her top of the line pet food. It is hard for me to justify spending much time or thought trying save money on such a tiny budget item.

  9. lorax says:

    Our cats were cheap until they turned 13. Now we spend avg $200/month on four cats. Almost all of that is on one cat that became diabetic after a cortisone shot. I guess I’m too softhearted to put it down until there’s a serious problem.

  10. Leigh-Ann says:

    On the issue of food, I have to agree that “people food” can be excellent in theory, but you need to make sure it has the proper balance of vitamins and minerals. Cats, for example, need specific amounts of an amino acid called Taurine. If you’re going to feed homemade, borrow a book from the library about doing it properly, and/or consider buying a homemade food “base” and then adding your own ingredients to it. It can still be inexpensive, and it lowers your risk of eventual vet bills from an improper diet.

    Regarding cat litter, there’s a definite correlation between what goes into the cat, and what comes out of the cat. If you feed your cat a cheap grocery store kibble, it will poop a lot more frequently, and voluminously, than if you fed a better quality food. Your cat will also produce more waste when fed a dry kibble as opposed to wet food. I spend a great deal of money on a “premium” canned food for my cats, but I know it saves in litter costs because they use the box less frequently. Cats are fussy eaters, so you can’t control everything, but if you feed your cat a food made mostly of “fillers”, you’ll use more cat litter.

    My tip for saving money is regular vet care, at least once a year. Vets are not out to rip you off, they’re out to keep your pet happy and healthy. An annual visit sets a baseline and can catch a small, inexpensive problem before it becomes a big, expensive one.

  11. Sojourner says:

    You might check out a raw diet for your cats.

  12. Ngo Thye Aun says:

    Hello Trent,

    Thank You for sharing the story of your kitties to the world and how to cut down cost on them. I got to know your site through google when I did a search on baking soda to eliminate cat poop odor.

    My questions are is it dangerous to mix them with the cat little sands and how much do we have to mix with it, a few table spoon?

    By the way is there any specific brand you are using or any general baking soda will do?

    Thank You for help.

    Best Regards from Malaysia,
    Ngo Thye Aun aka Thomas

  13. Vivian says:

    Would you like to compare cat litter in your Saving Pennies or Dollars articles? In the past, I used the clumping litter which is less expensive. But I found it created a lot of dust. My box is located in the laundry room which also has about 7 long shelves for storage purposes. Everything was covered in litter dust. I switched to crystals about a year ago. Now, the Crystals brand is very expensive, but I’m able to get a brand called Mimi(about 8 dollars less). This is not available everywhere. I still have a dust problem, but only close to the box. Cost and time…I’m doing better with the off brand of crystals. The environment is the other issue. Clumping litter can be flushed and for the most part is dirt. I don’t know what crystals are really. But it is something that has to be thrown in the trash. So, now I’m scooping 2-3 times a week and placing in little plastic bags (usually bags from the grocery store) and throwing these bags in the trash-which is another plastic bag. This can not be good for the environment. And I’m not certain that flushing the other litter is really any better. I try to be frugal AND environmentally conscience, but feel I have failed here. I’ve even tried the litter that is suppose to be great for the environment ’cause it’s made of paper. The odor is pretty bad-no amount of baking soda will work. Hopefully, you know a better way.

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