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Pet Ownership: A Financial and Emotional Responsibility

This article was written by in Best Of, Family and Life, Featured. 26 comments.


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. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about Luke Landes and follow him on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar jim

I totally agree, I think that when you have a pet, you take responsibility for their care. If you can’t, don’t get a pet and wait until you can afford it.

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avatar Yana

I have never paid $250 to a vet. Maggie, my dog, just turned 15 years old. She too has been low maintenance, but I don’t believe in unnecessary veterinary care any more than I believe in the human kind. Dental care has been suggested for years. She has had none. She is a dog, and if I as the owner am going to be marketed and exploited, it isn’t going to be on *their* terms. My friend has several dogs, and one of them is no longer with her because it died of anesthetic given for a dental procedure. I hope she didn’t pay the bill!

In the early years, I got Heartgard, but when I was told I had to pay for either a heartworm test or an office visit (annually) to have the prescription extended, I quit giving it to my dog. If the expensive stuff prevents heartworms, you shouldn’t need to be tested. I don’t know that Heartgard is benign and doesn’t cause problems, but I do know that I have a 15 year old dog who does not take it and she doesn’t have heartworms. And the vet’s staff where I used to go would always tell me how prevalent heartworms are here. Scary. Intentionally so.

Animals are terribly expensive if you think that your love for them is measured by how much you spend, or if you measure your own competency by how much you can spend. I love “treating” my dog, but there is no love in waste.

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avatar hyperbole

You remind me of an acquaintance who doesn’t use flea preventative because “dogs survived for years before it was invented.” Choosing not to take an animal to the vet =/= “low maintenance.” I, too, don’t believe in unnecessary medical procedures, but I do believe in necessary ones. And for a living animal in my care who can’t articulate when something hurts, necessary medical care includes an annual checkup. *Can* a dog live a long life without any vet care? Yes, just like the occasional chain smoker can live to 90. Doesn’t mean smoking is healthy and that everyone who smokes will live that long.

Human doctors don’t renew scripts blindly, they require a patient visit. Why would animal doctors be any different? Heartgard is contraindicated for currently infected animals and the combination of a highly infectious area plus a missed or late dose could very easily expose your pet. (Also, if Maggie has never been tested you cannot claim that she doesn’t have heartworms. Asymptomatic =/= not infected.)

Steering this back on point, pet ownership is a larger responsibility than most pet owners grasp. Many pet owners would not dream of giving up their daily latte in order to feed their pet a higher quality food, let alone giving up other creature comforts if money gets tight. However, if a pet owner has scrimped and cut everywhere possible and the next cut would reduce the quality of their basic human needs (food, shelter) then the pet needs to be rehomed. And surrendering an animal doesn’t always mean shelter, responsible dog breeders will ALWAYS take back any of their dogs if the owner becomes unable to provide for them. (Most familiar with dogs, can’t speak to other species on this point).

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avatar Yana

I believe in necessary care as well, but think many things marketed to us are not necessary, other than to financially support the marketer – and sometimes at our peril. I use flea treatment (Advantage) and purchase it from Australia because it costs less. I don’t use it as directed (monthly) because one treatment takes care of the problem, usually until the next year. I don’t think it is necessarily healthy to use the product, but it is less healthy to have fleas.

I don’t believe for a minute that a healthy dog needs an annual checkup. The last time I took Maggie to the vet was because she was itchy, but did not have fleas. She was uncomfortable, and that is a reason to go to the vet in my opinion. The vet said she was allergic to the fleas that had previously bitten her before treatment, and the itching would subside. He gave me the option of a cortisone shot, but said it wasn’t necessary as the problem would resolve itself.

I asked the previous vet assistant whether a dog on Heartgard could get heartworms. She said no. There is no reason for the annual visit/test requirement except money for the vet. Maggie was tested back in those days, but you are right that perhaps she is asymptomatic. Not having symptoms of a thing is good enough for my dog, and for the humans in this household as well. Hopefully symptoms will remain absent in all of us throughout long lives.

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avatar Nyx

I don’t agree with what you are doing Yana and you probably shouldn’t own a pet. I don’t own pets because I don’t want to take care of them, I wouldn’t want to own a dog and then wait until the problem takes care of itself. I would never want to make a dog uncomfortable. Dogs and pets of any kind, deserve to get treated immediately just like you do when something really bothers you and you go to the doctor and need medicine for something, you buy it immediately.

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avatar Yana

I don’t know what’s not to agree with, Nyx. My dog gets the care she needs, and we don’t get ripped off. If you think that people who love their pets throw their money away, you might be in the group that considers spending money as an act of love. I’m not one of those. I probably already said that I got Maggie at the animal shelter, where she was going to be put to death within days, and I’ve had her for over 14 years. She turned 15 this month. She gets vaccinations and I license her with the city. She doesn’t get less professional care than the humans in this household – she gets more. Sad to say she won’t live forever, and I just hope that if we get another dog in the future, we and the dog are as lucky as we’ve been with Maggie. I’m so tempted to post a link to a picture of her in her hoodie, but I lost a lot of pictures when my old computer was put down and would have to search online. She is darned cute for an old lady :P

avatar Anonymous

It def. is a financial and emotional one. But it all depends on what you value. If you appreciate and value the companionship, then so be it. Otherwise, stay away. It’s not fair to the animal and it’s not fair to you.

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avatar KC

I’m with ya. Pets suck money at inopportune times, just like broken water heaters and other things that you will undoubtedly find more essential than a pet. Pets _can_ be relocated, and they’ll do alright with anyone who will feed them and give shelter.

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avatar Ace @ aceofwealth.com

This is what makes personal finance personal. Great topic. I’ve been wanting to get a dog myself for the longest time, but I know that I’m not quite ready financially, so I’ll wait. As alluded to Flexo, it’s the pets in their older years that often cost the most. And people need to be aware and prepared for that.

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avatar Aaron @ Clarifinancial

I thought this line was classic, “What we interpret as unconditional love from a pet like a cat is invaluable — you cannot put a price on such a thing.”

But seriously, I grew up with large active dogs and now have two great cats (one sweetie, one rascal). They are cheaper for me than the $50/m Flexo mentions, but they do get annual check-ups. Their favorite toys are free, like boxes and milk rings.

But then there are those who are not fit to be an animal parent. My wife’s cousin is one of those and has lots of animals she can’t take care of adequately. Then they get pregnant and she has even more. It’s quite sad.

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avatar Chris

I think pet insurance could have been included in this article. I’ve had pets for years growing up, but only learned pet insurance existed this month when one of my friends adopted a cat. I think its around $20-30 a month for premiums and it covers a good amount of stuff. I’ve never paid pet expenses myself, so I’m not sure how good a deal it is. I’m looking to adopt a cat this fall, so input would be appreciated!

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avatar Candide

Do vets actually take pet insurance? I always figured it was like dental insurance: the only dentists that take it are so bad you’re better off without it.

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avatar Chris

The ASPCA has its own pet insurance that it offers. They say you can go to “any licensed veterinarian in the US or Canada and pay for services” and they will reimburse 80% of the covered charges (after $100 deductible).

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,505 (Platinum)

Thanks for the reminder about pet insurance. I didn’t address that in the article, but it can be a way to mitigate some costs in some cases, and be a colossal waste of money in others — like most insurance. I’ll have to look into it in some detail.

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avatar Tom Dziubek

Flexo, you may want to take the cat in to another vet for a second opinion on the teeth. Not sure where you went, but I do know several vets in the Princeton area push teeth cleanings. You may want to try a vet in a more rural area…one that doesn’t serve a community of affluent people…just to see what they say.

That being said, my last cat started having serious health issues after I noticed one of his front teeth missing. He developed diabetes a year and a half earlier, but the issue with the teeth seemed to send him into a downward spiral (jaundice & liver failure). I had to have him put to sleep at the age of 13 which, although relatively normal, still seemed rather young for a cat. Even with the diabetes…which was under control…I can’t help but wonder if he would have lived another year or two if it wasn’t for the bad teeth.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,505 (Platinum)

This vet was not pushing teeth cleanings — his opinion that cleaning the cat’s teeth could end up being the worst thing I can do if the plaque is masking major dental problems. He suggested leaving it alone, and I was the one who pressed about what it would take to fix any underlying dental problems. I don’t think this was the case of a dentist who was trying to push extra services on an assumed affluent customer with the assumption based on location — he suggested it might be a better idea to do nothing about the teeth.

You are right — a second opinion is always a good idea.

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avatar Randy

I agree with you completely. I had a mixed black lab/border-collie/chow/other stuff for almost 14 years. He was a great dog. Fairly low maintenance – once or twice a year grooming to clean up his matted hair. I tried the roaming rabies-shot doctor, but didn’t like it, so took him to a vet almost all of the 14 years. The bills weren’t that high and I could afford it.

Unfortunately, his age caught up with him. The last few years, arthritis set in, a large benign tumor on his chest and finally, he just started giving in. He lost a lot of weight the last year or so and the choices weren’t good. Further testing which would have been hard on him, radiation and/or chemo if the results were bad, more testing if they weren’t. We reluctantly decided that it was better to end it for him. I could have found cheaper ways, but again, I could afford it.

We still have a Shitzu. High maintenance. Skin gets irritated when the weather changes. Stomach that can go bump from eating the wrong foods (and she’s too stupid to know what’s right/wrong).

But more than the money (for us) is the time required. I’d like to be able to pick up and leave for a weekend or a week, but we have to find a sitter. Expensive time-wise (and $$-wise).

When her time comes, I look forward to a few pet-free years…

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avatar Juggler314

I’m always on the fence about pet insurance…if one of my pets got seriously ill I could probably afford to spend one or two thousand on care without hurting too much, but a serious illness like cancer that can eat up money like nothing else – that would be tougher. I tend to think the best bet is to consider it like catastrophic care insurance, Go cheaper, then if you have major bills it can help, but for minor illnesses cover it yourself (much like moving your car insurance deductible up to 1000 or 2000).

Hell it’s easy to spend a fortune on toys and non-necessities…:)

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avatar DennisK

Last month, my 13 1/2 yr old Black Labrador died. I loved that dog. He was with me through my financial bad times, the prolonged illness of my mother (who eventually died), an even more prolonged illness of my father (who died a year ago), etc. He was there for me throughout. Having said that and probably getting the expected wrath that Flexo may have gotten with his article that suggested that if push comes to shove financially, the dog may need to put down. Fortunately, my dog died at home and I did not have to make the dreaded decision of whether or not to have him put down. Initially, I was gung-ho about getting another dog right away. Nevertheless, I really was not in financial shape to do so. It was difficult to accept that reality. However, in the past 12 months, I spent over $1100 on pet expenses plus another $30 a month/$360 a year added to my rent because I had a dog. Strangely, (and I might get heat for this), after having the carpet cleaned and not having dog hair all over the place and the freedom of not having to do maintenance duties (giving meds, helping him up and down the ramp to get in and out of my SUV, having to lift the 125 lb animal to get into bed), I was, all of a suddenly, free of all that. It may sound selfish but the dog and I are in a better place because of his passing.

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avatar Donna Freedman

My MSN Money column, “Why you can't afford a dog,” suggested that if you were looking at layoff or job loss, you ought to start looking for a way to foster your pet until times got better.
It got well over 1,200 comments — a bunch of which were deleted by moderators for obscene or downright threatening language. A fair number of the ones that weren't deleted were extremely, uh, heated.
So far no one has called you selfish, cold, ugly, fat, or a bitter and lonely human being. You're doing good, Flexo! ;-)

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avatar Jerry

I agree, as well. They do have pet insurance now but I'm still not sure how I feel about it. You are making a serious commitment when you take on a pet and it often leads to spending way more money than you would have ever anticipated. It should not be taken lightly.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,505 (Platinum)

Thanks for pointing out your article, Donna! I added a link to the MSN Money column above. This is a touchy subject for people who feel their choices are being judged.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,505 (Platinum)

Thanks for pointing out your article, Donna! I added a link to the MSN Money column above. This is a touchy subject for people who feel their choices are being judged.

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avatar Nyx

I agree, I think animals are cute but I don’t want to take care of one so I’ve never gotten one. I think its sweet that you take care of that cat. =)

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avatar brianahasmoney ♦367 (Nickel)

My fiancée and I were thinking the same thing. We love dogs and cats and would love a pet but it’s definitely a bigger responsibility than people initially think. We may be holding off until we start a family.

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avatar jillianb ♦275 (Nickel)

I’m working though a pet adoption right now. I can’t wait to bring the little guy home. My boyfriend and I have run the numbers a dozen times. We wanted to be sure that this guy was going to have the best home we could give me.

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