Revision 1 as of 2008-07-10 23:42:50

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Pets don't have to cost a fortune...

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"How can you afford all those pets?" people sometimes ask me. And if you read some of the books on petkeeping, you'd run a mile before taking on some delightful bundle of fluff with expensive appetites and a delicate constitution. But I feel that my kids benefit enormously from being involved in looking after animals, in both educational and emotional ways.

As I write, we have four (rescued) cats, eldest 16, two rabbits, one chinchilla, one goldfish, one ordinary hamster and two Roborovski's hamsters (very tiny & hyperactive in the middle of the night!) Until fairly recently we had 3 guinea pigs too but the last one died not long ago at the grand old age of 7. These, like several of our pets, were hand-me-downs from someone who found themselves unable to keep them, and came complete with a lovely big hand-made hutch, now in use by the buck rabbit. Our other hutch came from the local tip & cost £1; a bit of disinfectant & one new hinge and it was as good as new. Several of our pets have been donated by the owners of their parents, who turned out not to be the same sex after all!

I've nothing but praise for our local pet shop and vet, but I have to say that I try not to trouble them too often! You can spend an absolute fortune on faddy diets, expensive toys, etc. for your pets, or you can "make do" and use your imagination. (That said, before you rush out and acquire a pet, be sure you can cover the bills for essential vetinary care.) We use vast amounts of woodshavings, which our local joiner is very glad to donate as it saves him paying a tipping fee. Hay & straw we buy from farms by the bale & keep in our garage (the window is left open & the cats often sleep in there, which discourages mice). The cats get whatever food is on special offer, the rabbits get the cheapest stuff, but it is all supplemented with kitchen, garden & allotment scraps (dandelions aren't weeds round here!) Shredded paper makes excellent small pet bedding - our hamster has a lovely time weaving it into the perfect nest every week or so. Loo roll inners make good runs for hamsters, and the Roborovskis have a "nest box" which is actually an old strong ice-cream container with holes cut in (& edges smoothed) for exits & ventilation.

It's very noticeable that the more children I had, the more relaxed I became about illness, as I learnt which symptoms merited real anxiety, and what they could safely be left to "get over". Animals are very much the same; if they're eating all right and not in any great distress they will probably get better without troubling your vet. Most vetinary surgeries will sell worming powders & flea treatments without seeing the animal, which saves you a consultation fee. Our front-line defence against fleas is to comb the cats (3 of whom are long-haired) daily, and gradually getting rid of all fitted carpets, which I'm not fond of anyway - daily hoovering is far too much like hard work, but sitting grooming a purring cat on your knees isn't!

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Rightly or wrongly, after the initial vaccinations, I don't pay out for regular boosters. Our cats are outdoor creatures and it would be downright cruel to incarcerate them in a cattery when we go away, so either they are fed by our wonderful neighbours, or if we're away for a while I will pay a local teenager to "pet-sit" for us. Neither are any of the pets medically insured - fortunately they've never yet caught anything wildly expensive - only once in the last 16 years have we paid out enough in one year in vet bills to cover the cost of insurance.

But what about your time? I hear you ask. Well, the children feed & clean out their own special pets - under supervision, of course. I sometimes suspect that we make rods for our own backs with cleaning schedules, as I discovered too late for most of our goldfish, when one wise fish-owner told me, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!" meaning that aquariums with good filtration & aeration soon establish their own balance of chemicals & nutrients, and every time we "clean" unnecessarily we destroy that balance. The horrible green algae that grows on the glass is edible to the fish and in fact actually good for them. The fish left by the time I found this out lived 5 years, and one is still going strong. There are many variables involved; a rabbit hutch that's hardly lived-in in summer (as they're out keeping our lawn under control) doesn't need cleaning as often as one that's continually occupied in winter.

I also feel that our animals pay their way to some extent - you could see a rabbit as a kitchen-waste reprocessing unit and a lawnmower rolled into one! Rabbit & chinchilla bedding makes excellent compost...The cats are mousers, very necessary here on the edge of the open countryside. And they have all taught us all so much about life, love and death that I really feel we would have been far poorer without them.

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A kitchen waste reprocessing unit!