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Originally published September 12, 2012 at 5:00 AM | Page modified September 12, 2012 at 9:57 AM

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Cutting kibble costs: How to save money on dog food

Americans spend $20 billion on pet food annually, making it the biggest cost of owning a dog. Here are some tips, and a price comparison, to reduce the bite Fido takes out of your budget.

The Washington Post and Seattle Times staff

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Sharing your life with a dog can take a big bite out of your budget. The average cost of man's best friend is somewhere between $10,000 and $14,000 over the course of its life, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Consumer Reports says that Americans spend $20 billion on cat and dog food annually, making it the biggest, most predictable expense during your pet's life. According to a 2011 Consumer Reports study, dog food can average $36 a month. It is the biggest continuing cost of owning a dog.

But you can save money on this expense if you buy in bulk, use coupons, shop around and choose less expensive food.

We looked at some shopping tips and did our own price comparison to help you

Prices vary dramatically

There is a wide range of prices among dog food that meets the minimum requirements of the Association of American Feed Control Officials, and Consumer Reports says that there's no legal definition for "premium" blends.

Ol' Roy sells for 34 cents a pound at Walmart. At the other extreme, Purina Chef Michael's Rotisserie Chicken flavor sells at PetSmart for $2.22 a pound — 6-½ times more expensive than Ol' Roy.

But sometimes you get what you pay for. According to Franny Fleischman at Mud Bay in Seattle, with cheap kibble you generally need to feed more; a quality food with a higher calorie count means you can feed less, making it last longer.

She advises pet owners to look at the back of the bag, just as you would read nutritional information for human food, and that dog food listing meat as the first ingredient is ideal.

Buy from big-box stores

Consumer Reports sent secret shoppers to 21 retailers and found that Target and Walmart often have the lowest prices on dog food, while supermarkets and specialty pet stores — including retailers such as Petco and PetSmart — tend to have higher prices. Costco and other warehouse clubs usually have great deals on dog food.

Try a store brand

Consider switching to a store brand, such as Costco's Kirkland Signature Super Premium Dog Food ($27.95 for a 40-pound bag) to save money. But remember to change your dog's food gradually over a one-week period to avoid digestive issues. Mud Bay offers tips on making the transition at www.mudbay.us/About_Dogs/Switching_Foods.htm.

Don't shop online

Consumer Reports' 2011 study found that online sites were priced 50 percent higher, before shipping costs. Skip the convenience of online shopping and pick up the 50-pound bag yourself.

Join the club

Most specialty pet stores, including Petco and PetSmart, have free membership programs that can get you discounts, or even cashback rewards. Sale prices at both of these stores require the free membership card.

Use manufacturer coupons

If you favor a specific brand, check out the manufacturer's website or contact them directly to inquire about frequent buyer coupons. My dogs eat Wellness, which is pricey, but since I signed up for the brand's e-newsletters, I regularly receive $3 off coupons to help reduce expenses.

Ask your vet, and your store manager

If you're on a budget, ask your vet about less expensive varieties. It's always a good idea to consult your vet when choosing your dog's food.

Another resource is the staff at your local pet-food store. Since Wellness is so expensive, I asked the assistant manager at Mud Bay to recommend a lower-priced natural food.

Mud Bay only carries dog food guaranteed to be free of meat byproducts, meat and bone meal, and artificial preservatives, which makes it high-quality, but considerably more expensive than supermarket brands. Yet even in this top bracket of dog food, there are savings to be found.

Fleischman recommended First Mate Skoki Chicken Rice and Barley, $42.95 for a 40-pound bag at Mud Bay ($36.99 at http://store.allamericanpet.net), and Canidae Chicken and Rice, $52.95 for a 44-pound bag. Since I was paying $54.95 for 40 pounds of Wellness, I could save up to 45 cents a pound — or $82 a year — by switching brands. These natural brands are not generally available at grocery or big-box stores. You can save even more with those stores' brands.

Shop around

It pays to shop around to compare prices and brands. To save you the legwork, we compared prices for three of the leading brands (Pedigree, Beneful and Iams) at four Seattle-area stores (Walmart, Safeway, Petsmart and Petco).

Price comparison

Using prices found a week before publication and a hypothetical consumption of two cups of dry food a day, here's how much a year of dog food varies by brand and where it is purchased. We are noting the least expensive price for each brand. (Note: To get the most accurate conversion rates, one would need to measure out cups in the bags of dog food, which are measured in pounds. We did not do this. Instead, we assumed that four cups of dog food equal one pound.) This comparison does not include canned dog food, which is considerably more expensive.

Pedigree Large Breed Nutrition

A 36.4-pound bag costs $19.98 at Walmart, $21.99 at Petsmart (sale price, regular price $23.99) and $23.99 at Petco. Only a 30-pound bag was available at Safeway, for $19.99. To feed your dog two cups a day, you'll need five bags a year.

Annual total: About $100

Purina Beneful Healthy Weight

A 31-pound bag costs $24.60 at Walmart, $26.99 at Petsmart (sale price, regular price $28.99) and $30.99 at Petco and Safeway. This gives you about 124 cups of dog food, which works out to about six bags a year.

Annual total: About $148

Iams ProActive Health Mini Chunks

A 33-pound bag costs $29.98 at Walmart, $29.99 (sale price, regular price $34.99) at Petco, $29.99 (sale price, regular price $33.99) at Petsmart and $29.99 (sale price, regular price $35.99) at Safeway.

Annual total: About $166

Kirkland Signature Super Premium Dog Food A 40-pound bag costs $27.95.

Annual total: $127.75

Cost per pound of dog foods surveyed (from lowest to highest):

Pedigree Large Breed Nutrition: 55 cents

Kirkland Signature Super Premium Dog Food: 70 cents

Purina Beneful Healthy Weight: 79 cents

Iams Proactive Health Mini Chunks: 91 cents

Skoki: 92 cents

Canidae: $1.20

Wellness Complete Health: $1.37

The bottom line: There's a wide variation in prices of dog food, and many contain similar nutritional value. Buy in bulk, compare prices and avoid buying pet food online. And check the back of the package, or resources like dogfoodadvisor.com, to make sure you're getting the most nutritional bang for your buck.

Bree Coven Brown: 206-464-3201 or breebrown@seattletimes.com

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