Can You Really Afford That Pet?

Illustration by Abbie Winters.
Pets are members of the family. They come with their own attitudes, personalities, idiosyncrasies, and value judgments (especially when it comes to food choices). They also come with their own — sometimes costly — needs, from toys, to medicine, to carriers. It's a lesson that reality puppy Sushi Kardashian-West will likely teach North West soon enough, even if North won't exactly be footing the bill. Those of you who do have to pay for the joy of pet ownership, or are considering it, might want to keep that in mind.
The American Pet Products Association's (APPA) 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey reveals that the average amount of money people spend to buy an animal obviously varies by type. At $357 on average, dogs are the most expensive, especially if purchased from a breeder, followed by birds at $220 (due to some "exotic varieties), saltwater fish ($188), freshwater fish ($81), reptiles ($72), cats ($63), and small animals ($60). The APPA reasonably concedes that "horses, at $7.7K, cannot accurately be compared to the cost of the other pets," so let's focus on our smaller animal friends.
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By most measures, dogs, cats, and birds are the most common pets that people own, respectively. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), people in households with pets spent an average of $528 on their furry loved ones, including food, supplies, medicine, and vet services. Unsurprisingly, food costs were the largest share of expenses (nearly 44%), while veterinary services claimed the second-largest share (about 25%).
Those costs were on the sunny side of things. Feeding your pet might cost more money on average than an individual doctor's visit, but a single vet visit could amount to a steep, unexpected expense. APPA's survey looked at the eight most-basic annual expenses for canines and felines. For dogs, surgical vet visits cost $474 on average, routine vet visits cost $257, kennel boarding cost $322, groomer/grooming aids cost $84, and toys cost $47. For cats, surgical vet visits cost an average $245, routine vet visits cost $182, kennel boarding cost $164, groomer/grooming aids cost $30, and toys also cost $30. (On the upside, for many cats, an old Amazon Prime box or large kitchen bowl should suffice.)
Emergency visits for dogs, cats, and birds respectively cost $349, $154, and $107; and surgical expenses were $474, $245, and $45. Need heart worm medication for your dog or cat? That's another $102 and $65, respectively. Additionally, owners of purebred animals might have to care for animals with a host of ailments.
The APPA also notes that 85% of dogs and 95% of cats are spayed or neutered, and Petfinder indicates that these surgeries can cost up to $200, possibly more. Fortunately, there are low-cost options available, since the practice is highly recommended for both animals, from a comfort perspective and a health one. PetSmart Charities and the ASPCA have a database where pet owners can find affordable clinics in their areas, as does The Humane Society. (In New York City, some low-income pet owners can even receive services free of charge.)
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If you already have a pet, the ASPCA has a list of short-term care recommendations that may cut down on any long-term health expenses, however, there may be some leeway. For example, the ASPCA says that buying good quality pet food is important (as is avoiding overfeeding), however, premium pet food might not actually be much better for your pet than less-pricey brands. Consult with your vet and do what's best for all beings involved.
Don't own a pet yet? It's so tempting to get one to cuddle up with, whisper sweet nothings to, and give butt scratches, but you might want to reframe owning one in your mind as a luxury — or at least a responsibility — until you're fully prepared, mentally and financially, to care for one.
In the mean time, maybe hang out with or volunteer to vacation babysit your friends' furry progeny to get all the love — only some of the pick-up, and none of the early-morning vom/hairball cleanup. Or check out apps like Rover, where you can get some of the experience and make money for caring for a pet, rather than spending your own. And in some cities, including New York, cat cafés are now a valid option.
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