Friday, May 18, 2012

Friday Finance I: The Cost of Pets

My daughter and I took a trip to the pet store yesterday, because she's applied to adopt two rats from a local rescue group, and she wanted to get food, litter, and toys for them. (She already has at least two suitable cages.)

While we were there, I took a look at the kitties available for adoption from our local shelter, and found myself staring at a beautiful grey boy cat. Daughter said, "No, Mom. You gave away Phil (my last cat, I gave him to her father) because you couldn't afford him, and you still can't afford a cat.

(Phil, my former dust bunny. Have I mentioned the cost of allergy medication in this post yet?)

It's true, unfortunately. Even if I could afford the $230 adoption fee (which covers spaying/neutering if needed, a check-up and all vaccinations, and includes a bag of food and a tub of litter), I still can't afford a regular vet check-up or even food. At this point, I'm barely staying ahead of my bills.

mintlife has an informative article about the lifetime cost of pets, along with an infographic depicting the costs of various pets. The costs are grossly over-inflated, in my experience and opinion, but the graphic does show that pets cost more than many prospective owners think they do, and all too often, this leads to neglected or abandoned pets. Some of the highlights:

Spaying or neutering:
Ogden Nash said it best: Cats have kittens, dogs have puppies, but guppies just have baby guppies. Lots of kittens and puppies and baby guppies. And unless you're into killing baby animals, each of those kittens and puppies and baby guppies will need to be fed and housed and cared for properly. Or you'll have to abandon them at a local shelter, where maybe someone will adopt them who's more responsible about spaying or neutering their animals. Except for guppies, which can't be spayed or neutered, which leads me to ask you all a question: Does anyone out there want a tank load of guppies. Cuz I haz them. :p

Food: I found, when I did have a cat, that the cheapest food was usually not the cheapest, as it leads to overeating because the food is not nutritionally dense enough, and because it leads to health issues, and vets aren't cheap. If you think you're going to save on pet costs by buying the cheap stuff, think again. I get my fish food from the dollar store, but never again will I buy any cat food that does not list meat or fish as its first ingredient. It just isn't worth it.

Housing: Sure, the cat or dog can live in the house (and cats SHOULD live in the house), but a cat will need something to scratch other than the furniture or carpeted stairs (look closely at the picture above, and you'll see Phil has had a go at the bottom of the box spring), and a dog (and sometimes a cat) may need their own bed. Fish need tanks, rats need cages, and so on. Be very diligent in researching the ultimat size of your pet--far too many goldfish die simply because they're kept in bowls that are too small for them. Goldfish, in fact, need tanks larger than most fish--my two goldfish are currently in a twenty gallon tank, and they would be happier in something a little bigger.

(The sharks in their tank)

Leashes, collars, and clothes:
Yes, sometimes clothes are necessary, even for dogs. I live in Canada, and it can get very cold in the winter. Short haired dogs may need coats, and some dogs may need booties or shoes, especially if there's a lot of salt used on the sidewalks where you're walking them.

Poop and pee disposal:
Every animal does it, even human ones. And somehow, that poop and urine must be contained and removed from the house. Cats and other animals need litter, dog owners need to carry little bags on walks, even fish need filtration and frequent water changes. This is often an overlooked expense, especially when keeping fish (how many times have I forgotten that I need to buy filter media???).

Toys, decorations, etc.:
While not strictly necessary, it's the little things in life that keep your pet amused and sometimes make life worth living. A caged animal, in particular, needs something other than just the bare cage to distract it and keep it from terminal boredom during its owners absences.

Vet fees: For some animals (like my fish) these can be non-existent. However, for anything bigger than a rat, a yearly check-up is necessary to prevent health problems that will end up costing even bigger bucks down the line, and to keep your animal healthy and happy. If you can't afford a yearly vet check up, then you can't afford the dog or cat! I'm not going to waste ink waffling on this one--you made a committment to this animal by bringing it into your home. While I don't equate pets with children, they're still living creatures deserving of utmost respect.

Some animals need more than just their owners to thrive. Fish need other fish--when one of my two goldfish died a year or so ago, the remaining fish seemed likely to follow suit. Then I got him a companion, and everything is fine again. Rats need to be in pairs or larger (same sex!) groups. Hamsters, however, should be kept in individual cages. Know your animal's needs, and it will save you money and grief in the long run.

Time: All animals need time and attention to thrive in the artificial environment of a human dwelling. That time and attention will take you away from other pursuits. Some animals will require babysitting if you're away even for a few hours, some can be left alone for a day or two, and some as long as a week. (Which is why I have fish...) If you can't provide that time and attention, you'll have to hire someone to do it for you, or find a willing sucker (I mean friend or family member) to help you out for free.

Training: I'm of the firm opinion that no-one should own a dog who isn't willing to put the time in to train it properly. A dog is more like a child than any other pet. You wouldn't let your child grow up with no schooling or rules (would you???), and you shouldn't do that to your dog, either. Not only is it bad for your reputation as a dog owner, it's bad for the dog. A dog that hasn't been taught proper behaviour around people and other animals is often a stressed dog. A dog not trained to obey voice commands may bolt when off-leash, possibly becoming lost or getting hit by a car. The saddest pet story I have is that of trying to catch a dog that had been hit by a car and was still running, after being spooked by fireworks while off-leash. I did catch it, but not before it was hit by a second car. The animal control folks were called in, and I learned the owner had already been located. But the whole incident could have been avoided by having the dog on leash and properly trained to stay with its owner.

There are many, many benefits to having a pet. But even an animal as lowly as a guppy costs more than most folks think it does. There is no such thing as a "free" kitten or puppy or even guppy. The mintlife article says that 21% of animals surrendered to the Humane Society Silicon Valley during a 12-month period were given up for financial reasons. That's traumatic for both the animal and for you, the former human companion.

Think before you buy is a good mantra to adopt for any purchase, but for pets, think two or three or four times, and not all within a ten-minute period of time. Pets should always be a planned addition to the family, and with eyes wide open as far as the financial aspects are concerned.

And my daughter, the one who's getting the rats?

She's twenty-four, has more income coming in that is going out, and is an experienced caretaker of rats. When her last rat (adopted by itself from the humane society) went to rat heaven after living a long and spoiled life, she delayed getting another because she was hoping to go to grad school in the States. After she learned she wasn't accepted and shed a few tears, her first action was to check the adoption site for the rat rescue. It's been a couple of months since then, and she only just put in the papers to adopt this week. Before she was even approved, she went out and bought what was needed, with her own money.

She's ready for pet ownership. Are you?


  1. excellent post. As a person who has got animals she can't afford to keep in the past, I feel for you. I got my cat and couldn't get her spayed... I felt terrible, not to mention,she's a girl and heat is hell. However - I made damn sure no boy kitties got to her! My sister helped me to get her spayed - I was very proud to tell the vet my 3 y.o. cat never had kittens.

    Also - with the food. If I only knew then what I knew now. I started baby kitty on a really good quality stuff and she's never gone off it. The kind that starts with MEAT. Her healthy weight, her coat, her eyes, her healthy pee and poop are worth paying for the more expensive food. When I think my other cats troubles might have been down to the food I was feeding him, I feel terrible.

  2. I can attest to vet fees, they are not cheap! We have two English bulldogs, a Yorkshire terrier, a cat and salt water fish. When we had a death in the family around the same time shots were due, we had to board the dogs for 5 days, forgetting that they were due for their shots (all at the same time).

    When we picked up the dogs, they were so excited to see me and I was ecstatic. That is, until the receptionist handed me the a for $865.00.


    Pets are expensive, so I would say not to invest in one if you think your finances might shift toward the negative in the future.