My household has almost always included pets. First, let me establish the true hierarchy. It’s very clear when you live with one cat or more that they own the place, and we humans are only permitted to share living space with them because we provide food and shelter. The only years I’ve lived in a house or apartment not “owned” by a cat were when I was living in a dorm on my university’s campus and for some time following graduation.
As a single man without a human roommate, my cat spends a lot of time with me. He greets me when I come home from work and spends the evening at my feet while I work on Consumerism Commentary and other projects. What we interpret as unconditional love from a pet like a cat is invaluable — you cannot put a price on such a thing.
That’s what we’d all like to believe, anyway. I knew this when I wrote about 10 unusual ways to save money for U.S. News & World Report. I had the apparent audacity to suggest that if you cannot afford the responsibility of fully caring for a pet, you should not have a pet. More precisely, I said, “get rid” of the pet, which may have been a more heartless way of stating the fact, but I still stand by the thought behind the words.
Pets are money drains, cute and lovable money drains. My cat happens to be a low-maintenance, frugal pet. Food and litter cost me only $50 a month or so, and that’s normally the bulk of my expense. I took my cat to the veterinarian this past weekend for a check-up and to determine whether there’s a pathological reason he lost weight over the last few months. The one visit cost more than $250. While results of the blood test are still to be determined, the vet was able to tell during the visit that my cat’s gums are not healthy. Possibly in an effort to scare me away from a procedure, he mentioned that full dental work could easily be $1,000.
He’s an older cat, and as he continues to age, I expect expenses like these to increase. But my experience so far pales in comparison to my boss’s dog. Her dog has a thyroid problem that keeps the pet on and off medication. Not only must she pay for his drugs, repeated visits to the vet, and special dietary considerations, but she also must factor in the cost to clean up after a large dog that cannot always control its bodily functions until it is let outdoors.
Taking care of a pet can be a significant expense, and it is not a responsibility that anyone should take lightly. If you’re not in a position to take care of a pet, including the ability to afford a healthy lifestyle that involves regularly visiting the veterinarian and paying for procedures that ensure the comfort of the creature’s continued existence, you should not own a pet. Living beings deserve better care, and love is not enough.
If your financial circumstances change due to forces beyond your control and caring for a pet is a major expense that you can no longer afford, then you must at least consider your options for removing the pet from your care. While adoption agencies are already overcrowded with pets who need a home, living creatures designed for domestication, as are dogs and cats, deserve families who can care for them fully, not just with love.
When my friends had baby who was determined to be allergic to cats, I agreed to adopt their pet when they were having difficulty finding a home for him. This is the cat who has lived with me for the past five years. I agreed to adopt knowing I was likely to be able to care for him through his old age, not because I selfishly wanted a pet. I would not have been able to do so several years earlier, a time I was having trouble affording necessities for just myself.
I strongly suggest considering the financial and emotional responsibilities before committing to care for a pet. The “unconditional love” we receive from pets is not worth the financial hardship we may encounter if we are not prepared for all the responsibilities. The New York Times has an insightful look at the true cost of pet ownership here. I found this link on Free Money Finance, where FMF often discusses the financial realities of pet ownership.
Update: For more on the realities of pet ownership, take a look at Donna Freedman’s article, Why You Can’t Afford a Dog. Also, PetFinder has these tips for saving money on pet care.
Updated June 20, 2014 and originally published June 14, 2010.