Dog or cat adoption on your mind? 5 tasks to tackle so you can afford a pet and give it a happy home
The costs of pet ownership are nothing to sniff at. Here’s everything you need to consider before buying a dog, cat, rabbit or other animal — and how to save money once you do. Gladskikh Tatiana and motorolk and Prostock-studio/Shutterstock

Dog or cat adoption on your mind? 5 tasks to tackle so you can afford a pet and give it a happy home

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Desperately want a furry — or scaly — friend? There are great reasons to go for it: Studies have identified many benefits to pet ownership, from encouraging resilience in children to helping seniors maintain healthier, more sociable lives. (To be fair, some researchers wonder whether this relationship is really causal: whether it’s that pets make us healthier or whether healthier people are simply more likely to own pets.)

Whatever their motivations, more and more people do seem to be adopting animals, according to a recent industry report. Dog ownership has climbed 29% in the last decade, the report found, with younger consumers being the most likely to aspire to pet ownership: 43% of millennials who don’t have a pet say they plan on getting one in the future.

People are also investing more of their time and money into their non-human pals, according to Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Association and founder of the Human Animal Bond Research Initiative.

“Pet ownership is becoming more of a way of life than it ever has been before,” Vetere, whose dog-friendly office hosts between six and ten pups on any given workday, said. “Whether it’s millennials looking to have a starter-family or seniors looking for that companionship, the level of ownership has gone up.”

Still, even if you’re excited to take the plunge, it’s crucial to make sure you know the true amount of time — and cash — lovable critters require to be cared for properly.

If you like to travel, for example, you could pay a premium: Dog owners typically spend more than $300 annually on kennel boarding already, according to a survey by the American Pet Products Association. And even bunnies can break the bank — one recent study from the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals in the U.K. estimated that the lifetime cost of caring for a rabbit could top $19,000.

So why, exactly, is taking care of an animal so expensive? And why do people tend to underestimate what it takes? Here are five key steps to be ready for, if you’re thinking about getting a pet.

People aren’t just buying more pets, they’re also more likely to treat them as part of the family.
People aren’t just buying more pets, they’re also more likely to treat them as part of the family. Vadim Ghirda/AP

1. Make sure you calculate the core costs.

Alas, aspiring pet owners tend to lowball expenses, even for dogs, which are by far the most expensive pet. For both cats and dogs, 98% of PDSA survey respondents underestimated the potential lifetime cost of ownership.

While your mileage may vary depending on the size of your pup and its breed, PDSA pegged the true lifetime cost of dog ownership from about $9,000 to more than $46,000 on the high end. And cats can cost roughly between $17,000 and $34,000 over a lifetime.

To arrive at those figures, PDSA included estimates for upfront costs — including leashes, identity tags, some toys, the first round of vaccinations, food and water bowls, etc. — as well as some of the ongoing costs, including food, “booster” vaccinations and pet insurance.

Ballpark, if a $27,000 dog lives around 12 years, about the average for small-to-medium size breeds according to the American Kennel Club, your annual costs will amount a little less than $2,300. That said, the study also assumes you adopted, rather than purchased, your pet — meaning that if you want to buy a fancy or specific breed, your costs will be even higher.

There’s a good case for getting a rescue animal: Beyond just saving you money, adopting a pet from a shelter can mean you’re saving the animal’s life. Plus, many shelter animals have already had their shots — and just because an animal is in a shelter doesn’t mean that it’s aggressive or difficult to care for, as the Humane Society points out: moving, allergies, costs and pet-unfriendly landlords are often to blame for an animal being given up.

To learn more about where you can rescue a pet, try resources like PetFinder or the ASPCA — and be ready to answer many questions yourself, since making a responsible match between owner and pet cuts both ways.

No matter how you adopt your pet, choosing the right animal for your lifestyle can help mitigate costs, Vetere said, and learning as much as you can about the kind of animal you do want to get will help you prioritize expenses. For example: Dogs that don’t need to run a lot — like bulldogs, basset hounds and Saint Bernards — won’t benefit as much from an electric fence or an expensive walking regimen as their more active peers, like Golden Retrievers.

As for the basics that all pets need?

Many animal welfare groups, from the AKC to the American Humane Society publish a checklists for adopting both dogs and cats that detail all the products you should budget for ahead of time.

2. Be ready for an emergency.

The base cost of an annual veterinary check-up is about $60, according to the AKC, though that does not include add-ons like vaccinations and heartworm tests; plus, the organization notes that there are significant regional disparities. If you’re bringing your pet to a vet in a major city, for example, you can expect to pay even more.

Core cost estimates also do not count any unexpected emergencies or illnesses, which is why many pet owners argue for getting insurance — still relatively uncommon. Estimates suggest less than one percent of the pets in North America are insured, though (to be fair) that includes many low-cost animals like fish and birds. Elsewhere, insurance coverage for pets is more popular, and runs as high as 30% in Sweden, for example.

Because routine costs add up, it doesn’t take a particularly sickly pet for the cost of insurance to be worth it, as Reuters’ Beth Pinsker notes. According to her column, Pinsker invests about $700 annually in pet insurance premiums for a plan with a $250 deductible. She writes that it takes about five months for her pet’s insurance to pay out more than she pays in.

For pets that are more likely to experience health problems, that bar is even easier to meet, according to John Rampton, a California-based entrepreneur and Yorkie owner. Because Yorkies tend to be high maintenance — or, as the American Kennel Club puts it more diplomatically, tend to have “big personalities” — Rampton said better insurance was an no-brainer.

“Every year we meet our deductible by, like, February,” he said. “She’s been in to the doctor about 10 times over the past 3 years, and there was a period when she was in every month for something — once it was allergies, once it was because she was limping.”

Like humans, pets get sick. You need to be ready for an emergency — either by purchasing pet insurance or setting up an emergency fund.
Like humans, pets get sick. You need to be ready for an emergency — either by purchasing pet insurance or setting up an emergency fund. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Find yourself in the middle of an emergency and scared to go broke? Check out this list of resources offering financial assistance for pet owners in need, from the Humane Society.

3. Figure out the “extras” you can’t do without.

Beyond food and health care, pet spending can range widely.

If you have an older, trained dog with easy outdoor access, for example, you might be able to get away without having a crate. If not, most trainers would categorize a crate as a pretty necessary expenditure, especially since many dogs like to sleep in enclosed areas, as Modern Dog explains.

Similarly, cat owners will be quick to tell you that while a cat tree might seem like a splurge to some, your cat will seek out high surfaces and stuff they can scratch — whether you make this investment or not. So it could easily be worth $23 to $80, the price range for WireCutter’s cat-tree recommendations, if you don’t want to reupholster your furniture every six months.

Similarly, you might find yourself a bit overwhelmed by all the options you have for pet food. While typical dog or cat owner owner spends about $235 on grub, according to the American Pet Products Association, that average includes both food that’s being purchased in bulk — for roughly 50 cents a pound through brands like Purina — as well as pricier, bespoke, “human grade” dog food that’s shipped to your home a la Blue Apron.

Interestingly enough, trends in pet food often mirror the culinary trends for people, the topic of one 2007 New York Times Magazine story. Indeed, “Kibble” was invented when a pair of researchers borrowed some equipment used to make breakfast cereals and replaced the human ingredients with more dog-friendly foods. (So maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some vegans want their pets to be vegans, or that true believers of the paleo diet wonder if they should be feeding their dog an all-raw diet, too.)

Unfortunately, what’s good for us isn’t always good for our pets, as WebMD notes. That’s why, when it comes to feeding your pet, it’s particularly important to maintain a close dialogue with your veterinarian.

You don’t need to shell out for high end dog food, but you should talk to your vet and stay away from DIY pet food.
You don’t need to shell out for high end dog food, but you should talk to your vet and stay away from DIY pet food. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

4. Find creative ways to save — and play.

Pet care is one area where trying to save money can cost you a lot more in the long run — so run any cost-saving measures you’re considering by your vet first. One 2013 study found, for example, that only 9 out of 200 do-it-yourself pet food recipes met the basic nutritional requirements established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials.

That said, homemade pet toys are probably going to be fine — particularly if you’ve got old clothes, linens, or other supplies that you’re looking to recycle. Old socks make for popular DIY dog toys, which you can fashion by tying off a tennis ball with a knot and letting your dog go to town. DIY blog Instructables has a number of different dog and cat toys that you can make yourself.

More ambitious DIY types might look into trying to build their own cat trees, enclosures or even beds.

Dogs also love frozen treats, which can be made with a variety of ingredients you have around the house, as BuzzFeed notes. (Again, you’ll want to check with your vet first, though, to make sure popular and typically dog-friendly ingredients like peanut butter and sweet potatoes won’t make your Fido sick.)

Remember that focusing on preventative care is a good way to hang onto your cash without feeling like you’re skimping on your pet. Regular dental care can lead to serious savings, for example, and you can also likely save by learning how to groom your pet yourself at home.

Finally, for other ways to cut down on food costs? Consider putting high quality grub in a maze bowl — which you can buy less than $5 from a retailer like Chewy — which will help your pet eat at a slower, healthier pace.

5. Scared you’ll go broke? Find a cheaper starter pet.

When it comes to pets, dogs and cats are by far the most common. Of the 85 million or so homes that have a pet, 60 million include dogs, while 50 million or so have cats — totals that dwarf the overall ownership of pets like birds, reptiles, or other small animals like rabbits or guinea pigs combined.

But if the price tag of having a pup or kitty is intimidating, you might consider cheaper pets. For pure cost-effectiveness, it’s hard to beat fish. Back in 2011, the personal finance magazine Kiplinger’s estimated that you could support and feed a fish for about $20 a year, once you subtracted the upfront cost of a tank. Hamsters and small reptiles can also set you back less than $400 annually, Kiplinger’s found.

If you’re looking for a sweet spot between expense and companionship, you might also consider getting a bird, which are surprisingly intelligent and can sometimes even talk to you.

Parakeets are generally pretty affordable — less than $40 — and birds don’t require nearly so much of a time commitment as a cat or dog. MyRightBird is a great resource for aspiring bird owners which can help you identify the right breed for you based on a range of factors, from price to longevity (some birds live a very long time) to how much noise they make.

Of course, if your heart is truly set on a puppy or kitten, there might be no other substitute. If that sounds like you, but you’re worried about coughing up the thousands of dollars responsible pet ownership will likely cost, consider setting up a special savings account that’s named after your future pooch, then make regular deposits by setting up an automatic withdrawal.

If you make pet ownership a short-term savings goal, costs might not be so intimidating after a year — when you can finally adopt the pet of your dreams.

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