NEW YORK - Pet food isn't cheap.
Consumers are expected to spend about $21 billion on pet food this year, up 3 percent from $20.6 billion in 2012, according to the American Pet Products Association.
Walk through any pet shop and you can see why. Store shelves are stocked with high-end meals, from organic cat food to frozen raw dog food. Although pricier options might have less filler and more protein, and can be healthier, they are not always necessary, said Dr. Liz Hanson, a veterinarian at Corona Del Mar Animal Hospital in Newport Beach, Calif.
For most healthy pets, regular dry food and water can be fine. Some people think that if it's cheaper the quality must be lower. "That's not necessarily true," said Hanson.
"If you have a healthy dog, with no medical condition, there is no reason not to pick up a brand-name dog food from Wal-Mart or Costco," said Hanson.
Those big retail stores, including Target and PetSmart, tend to have better prices. "The more boutique places are more expensive," said Hanson.
Deals can also be found online, but beware of shipping costs. Most sites will charge a shipping fee if your order is below a certain level. Some charge a flat shipping fee. But sometimes, even with shipping costs, online pet food can be a cheaper option, if you do your research.
Here are five ways to cut down your pet food budget:
1. FOLLOW BIG BRANDS
Pet food makers and online stores often post coupons on social media sites and their websites. So follow your pet's favorite brand on Twitter and like it on Facebook. Do the same with online retailers. Also check your weekly newspaper circulars.
2. GET AUTOMATED
Set up a subscription online to get your pet food delivered on a regular basis. Amazon.com, PetFoodDirect.com and Dog.com all offer discounts for that service. A case of 24 cans of Purina Fancy Feast cat food was selling for $14.29 on Amazon.com, but is offered for 5 percent less, $13.58, if you choose to have it automatically shipped to your house regularly.
3. START SEARCHING
Dig up the lowest pet food prices online on new product search website DugDug.com. The website searches about 40 online pet retailers for 10,000 products and lets you compare prices, including shipping costs. DugDug.com also seeks out coupons you can use on the product, helping you save.
The website launched in early April and is still adding products, said DugDug founder David Keh.
4.SITES FOR TREATS
If a new treat gets your dog's tail wagging, discover them on a daily deal website for dogs. DoggyLoot.com updates its website every Monday to Saturday with new dog products at a reduced price, including treats.
Shipping is free, and with some treats, you have the option of signing up for a subscription to get them delivered automatically.
Other deal websites are Coupaw.com and BarkingDeals.com.
5. MAKE YOUR OWN
Whipping up a freshly cooked meal for your pet can offer up some savings, especially if the pet has an allergy or other medical condition. Specialty foods for dogs with medical needs can be more expensive than others.
Before switching to a cooked diet, consult with a veterinarian or pet nutritionist to make sure your pet is getting all the nutrients it needs, said Patti Howard, a pet nutrition specialist at Seattle-based The Pawsitive Packleader, which helps train dogs and plan nutritional programs.