Can you really afford that doggie in the window? A guide to pet costs

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When I was 11, my dog was hit by a car. She was a shelter dog, and we fed her Kirkland brand dog food, so, all in all, our costs were low. But the accident left one of her legs shattered, and she needed at least $5,000 worth of surgery to recover. My parents hadn’t budgeted for an amputation when they agreed to adopt her, but once Penny was hurt, they weren’t about to let her die.


So, my dad ponied up for the vet, and she went on to live another 12 years as a plucky three-legged dog.

For many pet owners, pets aren’t just pets. They’re members of the family. But with them comes a certain financial burden: once Fido worms his way into your heart, you’ve got no choice but to shell out for his heartworm meds.

I was incredibly fortunate that my dad came up with the money to save Penny’s life, but many pet owners aren’t in the same financial position. Some of them must give up their pets or put them down because they can’t pay for emergency services. Take Jade Davis and her husband, Justin, who lost their 11-year-old pug Schneider earlier this year after giving him up to a shelter for life-saving eye surgery they could not afford on their own. When it looked like Schneider was going to be OK, the shelter refused to give the dog back to the family, reportedly saying, “We are not charities for people. We’re charities for animals.”

That’s not to say you shouldn’t adopt a pet if you don’t have five grand in the bank. But it helps to be aware of the costs, and to evaluate how much you’re willing to spend. Here’s a look at basic expenses associated with some common household pets, according to a guide provided by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

🐶 Dogs 🐶

New dog owners should be prepared to spend anywhere from $580 to $875 per year on food, toys, vet visits, medicine, and other various expenses, depending on the size of the animal, according to the ASPCA. But that doesn’t include initial capital costs—fees for spaying or neutering, collars, carrier bags, training classes, etc.—which can range from $470 to $560.


But even those numbers can be misleading, since they don’t take into account special items—whether medical emergencies, chewed up furniture or services that certain dogs require, like trainers or walkers.

In a 2011 AP/Petside poll, pet owners said they had spent an overall average of $505 just on vet bills in the past year. While 60% of respondents said they spent $300 or less, one in eight pet owners said their bill came in at over $1,000 for the year.


Since the average dog lives to be 10 to 13 years old, expensive years are bound to come up.

“It's not that expensive most of the time and then really expensive when you don't expect it,” says Jacqueline Beckwith, who lives with her large shelter dog and fiancé in Brooklyn.


While her regular monthly pet costs are fairly low, Jacqueline says Bowie’s grooming can cost “an arm and a leg.” According to the ASPCA, owners of long-hair dogs should budget from $264 to $408 for grooming alone.

And then there are costs unique to having a big dog in a big city.

“Whenever we drop him off with a dog sitter we have to get a ZipCar, because we can't bring him in a cab or walk him there or just bring him on the subway,” she says.


For dog owners who can’t be at home as much as they like, dog walks can also get expensive. One walk can cost anywhere from $12 to $25, a number that quickly adds up when a walker is needed a few times a week.

For new pet owners on a budget, it’s worth considering smaller dogs because they don’t need as much food or exercise. But make sure to avoid breeds that are prone to certain medical conditions. For instance, bulldogs and pugs commonly develop breathing issues, and toy breeds can develop health problems ranging from joint and bone issues to tooth decay.


🐱 Cats 🐱

The ASPCA estimates that an average cat owner will need to spend just $365 on capital costs, the bulk of which goes towards spaying/neutering and other initial medical costs like deworming and basic blood work. And, unlike dogs, cats don’t need housebreaking pads or obedience school, and they don’t ever need to be walked.


But cats have also been known to break the bank. Their annual costs—$670, according to the ASPCA—can be just as high as those for a small dog. In some areas, cat owners might do well to spend a little more on some things, like wet food, to avoid medical issues like urinary tract infections, which often come as a result of a kibble-only diet.

Amy Nazer, who lives in Brooklyn with her 6-year-old cat, Max, says her main expense is his “moderately priced food.”


“Other than that, all he wants out of life is boxes, bottle caps, and string to play with,” she says.

Even so, Nazer spent a whopping $700 at the vet over the past year.

“The worst one was a $450 visit because he was biting on his stomach and it got infected,” she says. Although she’s looked at pet insurance, Amy hasn't found an affordable plan that covers routine costs for an otherwise healthy cat. Even with the highest deductible plan from the ASPCA, Amy’s costs would have likely been about the same.


“Nothing that's happened to him to date would be covered by standard pet insurance,” she said.

Many pet insurance plans also refuse to cover problems they consider “pre-existing,” which means unless a pet is signed up very young, it may not do much good.


🐰 Other animals 🐠

Of course, for pet lovers who aren’t ready to commit to a dog or cat, there are lots of other household pets. Most of them take up less space, but smaller doesn’t necessarily mean less expensive.


For instance, the ASPCA estimates that rabbits cost a new owner roughly $1,055 for the first year. That’s more than the cost of a cat. Guinea pigs come in at about $705. Capital costs are relatively low for these animals, but their litter alone can run more than $400 a year. For animals that live to be about nine, for rabbits, or four-to-five years old, for guinea pigs, that’s no small amount of cash.

Large birds, like the colorful, long-tailed macaw parrot, can also be surprisingly expensive. These birds not only need a lot of attention and food, but they also need a cage big enough to spread out their feathers and play, which can cost as much as $1,000. They can also live to be over 50 years old, so buying or adopting one is no easy commitment.


Looking for cheaper options? Fish aren’t quite so cuddly, but they can cost as little as $35 a year to feed, and just $200 up-front to buy some and set up a basic tank, according to the ASPCA. Small birds, like parakeets, only cost about $200 a year to feed and keep healthy after buying a cage for about $70.

If you really want something furry, go with hamster. These small mammals typically cost only $300 per year, with $40 in capital costs, according to the ASPCA. They tend to live about two-to-three years.


Stephanie Russell-Kraft is a writer, reporter and translator living in Brooklyn, N.Y.