Australians pamper four-legged friends

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When happy hour rolls around, pubs around the country are serving up beef-flavoured, non-alcoholic beverages to four-legged, furry patrons. It sounds gimmicky, but Dog Beer – with the slogan "Shout your best friend a beer" – reflects a broader embracing of canine clientele by cafes and bars, particularly in Sydney.

Australia's love-affair with our pets extends beyond the bar; it is estimated that as a nation we have around 38 million pets. While pooch Pilates, doggie designers and puppy preschools aren't yet run-of-the-mill, we're spending close to $8 billion per year on our pets, despite tough economic times.

Regardless of the type of pet you own, there's one thing all animal lovers will have in common; at some point your animal will need medical attention, and vet bills aren’t cheap.

Data by Choice reveals that insurance claims for pets have shot up over 500 percent in the two years to September 2011. This is due in part to the fact that more treatment options are available to pet owners, particularly for ongoing conditions such as diabetes. But it's also evidence that pet owners are willing to spend more on their beloved animals than in the past.  

Are we a nation of foolish pet pamperers? Or do our animals actually give us value for money?

A recent US study found that having pets around can ease stress and the pressures of the working day. Participants in the study found that taking a dog to work made them more relaxed than those who either did not own a dog or chose to leave their pet at home.  

There's a real 'spare-no-expense' approach for some pet owners. But many don't have a clear financial plan to look after their pets, says Choice spokesperson Brendan Mays.

"Apart from the trusty (and potentially expensive) back-up credit card, there are options to look after your pet regardless of your budget as long as you don't mind doing some planning," he said.

"For a start, you could self-insure. It's not ideal in a worst-case scenario, but if you have a low-risk house cat or your budget is particularly tight, putting money aside into a high-interest savings account could get you out of trouble. Unlike insurance, there're no restrictions or exclusions and if you don't use it you get your money back."

However, like all self-insurance, you may need more than your budget can cover, and you will need time to build up your savings. Pet insurance has is benefits, said Mays.  

"But you really need to be aware of the tricks and traps involved in this type of insurance."

According to Choice, most policies cover only a portion of the bill, leaving you with a co-payment, which is why it's important to always read the product disclosure statement before signing up for any financial product.

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