my two cents

Can I Afford to Get A Pet?

Photo: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Carrie, 29, is a communications manager in Chicago and desperately wants to get a pet. She grew up with cats and dogs, and has wanted a puppy since she graduated from college, but it always seemed like too big of an expense and commitment. Last fall, she broke up with her longtime partner, and this winter she has been particularly lonely; however, she knows that pets are expensive and doesn’t want to make a rash decision that will hurt her financially. She doesn’t have much disposable income and travels fairly regularly for work. How can she afford a pet and give it the best care possible without compromising her own (rather meager) savings?

Worst-case scenario: A guy I know — let’s call him Matthew — estimates that he has spent at least $40,000 on health care for his beloved 6-year-old Labrador retriever, a waggy-tailed fellow with a sweet disposition, bad knees, and a proclivity for eating things that could kill him. Matthew would rather I not use his real name here because, as he puts it, “That’s a shameful amount of money.” He’s spent it on four “foreign object” surgeries (to remove socks — and, in one case, Matthew’s dad’s underwear — that the dog swallowed) and three knee surgeries, amounting to approximately $5,000 each. “I’d say he’s a good example of the most extreme end of the financial spectrum,” says Matthew. “It’s pretty absurd.”

Now for the opposite end: My friend Catherine, who found her beloved cat on the street one night while walking home from a bar in Brooklyn (which, for your own health and safety, I would not encourage — cat-scratch disease is real), claims that her cat actually saves her money. “I don’t go out as much, or stay out as late, because I genuinely like hanging out with him at home,” she says. Cost-wise, she’s been lucky: The cat was free to adopt, and aside from relatively minor fees for neutering and uneventful annual vet visits, she pays about $40 per month for organic food and kitty litter. She doesn’t even hire for a cat sitter when she and her boyfriend are out of town — a neighbor just pokes his head in every once in a while.

Both of these situations are unusual, but that’s the thing about pets, particularly cats and dogs — adorable as they seem in their Petfinder photo, you never know what lurks beneath that furry exterior. Some turn out to be snuggly, self-esteem-boosting balls of joy, and others are psychopathic furniture shredders who rack up four-digit hospital bills after gnawing the tassel off your fanciest shoe. Just like children, a pet is a crap shoot — and you’ll probably love it anyway, at least enough to cough up three months’ worth of rent to save its life. But how can you hedge your bets, or at least stack the deck in your wallet’s favor?

First, let’s look at the data. According to the ASPCA, dogs are more expensive than cats, and big dogs are more expensive than little ones. Of course, it costs more to buy than to adopt (high-end breeders charge upwards of $3,000 for a dog, while low-to-mid-range ones are more like $1,000). Meanwhile, shelters charge up to $250 for an animal, although that cost almost always covers vaccinations, a basic health checkup, spay or neuter fees, and sometimes even a creepy but ingenious microchip embedded into your pet that helps you find it if it wanders off. Like just about everything else, veterinary procedures are pricier in metropolitan areas. (Matthew says he’s heard of “sock surgeries” costing as little as $300 in a rural county of Washington state, in comparison to the $5,000 he spent on them in Washington, D.C.) And finally, mutts are cheaper than pure breeds, especially over time — even dogs with impeccable lineage from top-notch breeders carry a higher risk of congenital diseases, along with hefty vet bills, due to their shallow gene pool. You can see hard numbers about the approximate costs of dogs versus cats in a handy infographic here.

But the biggest pet expenses are, by far, the surprises. It’s not unusual for cats to need a tooth removed (good-bye, $700), or for a dog to develop a bad hip, or for either of them to tear an ACL during a badly executed jump off your bed. If an operation is called for, then you could easily wipe out all of your savings (or worse, take on significant debt). The average pet surgery costs about $2,000 to $5,000, and the average pet will have at least one “emergency veterinary visit” in its lifetime. Services like CareCredit can help with charge-free payment plans, but it’s better to be prepared.

This is where pet insurance comes in. Most people don’t sign up for it — and that’s fine. (A common refrain among my pet-owning friends was “We might get it in a year or two.”) Indeed, your pet’s one “emergency” might cost about as much as the sum of their pet-insurance premiums over the years, so it all shakes out. Still, it is true that the best time to get insurance is before you need it, especially because preexisting conditions are never covered — and that’s where you get screwed.

Liz Watson, the CMO of Hartville Pet Insurance Group, recommends that pet owners sign up for insurance (which can cover 60 to 80 percent of any vet costs) from the get-go as premiums are much cheaper for young, healthy animals who haven’t yet lived long enough for their congenital defects — i.e., preexisting conditions — to rear their expensive heads. However, Watson said premiums still vary widely based on certain criteria. “The factors we refer to are age, species, breed, and zip code,” Watson told me. “In certain parts of the country, like New York, the cost of veterinary care is higher than it is in other parts of the country.” Another reason to get insurance early is that it covers pricey first-year costs like spaying and neutering, which can cost between $150 and $300. (However, you can often get those procedures discounted at a local animal shelter if you’re willing to be flexible.)

And what if your pet does have a preexisting condition? It can be tricky to get insurance, and largely depends on how often the condition occurs. “For example, if my dog Henry had a stomach condition before I enrolled him in our insurance, his stomach condition wouldn’t be covered unless he could go 180 days treatment- and symptom-free,” says Watson. “Make sure you understand preexisting conditions and the health of your pet when you’re looking at plans and set your expectations accordingly.” Like any insurance, there are many factors to consider when choosing a plan, like deductibles and annual limits. Watson recommends comparing prices and reviews of pet health insurance plans on sites like Trustpilot before making a decision.

On the bright side, Watson says that a number of companies are now offering pet insurance to their employees as an extra benefit — and with good reason. As Catherine mentioned, pets can inspire healthier lifestyles (drinking less, sleeping more, and decreased anxiety due to cuddles). Meanwhile, research shows that pet owners are a significantly healthier bunch overall, which in turn saves companies money on their health-insurance plans and, presumably, inspires better work performance due to improved employee well-being. Win-win! See if your employer offers this as a benefit — it still won’t be free, but it may be less than if you sign up for a plan independently. If you decide to forego insurance, make sure to pet-proof your emergency fund before you bring an animal home.

If you’ve read this far and still want a pet, draw up a budget and, based on the above numbers, see what kind of creature fits into it. If you’re feeling cautious and don’t have much cash to spare, a cat is probably your best option; if you’re more flush, a dog might be in the cards. And if you have an obsessive attachment to a health-issue-plagued pure breed like, say, a bulldog, wait until you have more disposable income (and definitely get insurance). Being responsible enough to take care of an animal is about more than feeding it on time. You need to be able to afford its worst days, along with your own — even if yours are much fewer with a pet in your life.

How Much Will a Pet Actually Cost Me?