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Can You Afford a Pet? Check Your Budget Before Bringing Fido into the Family

Dog in car on country road .Can you afford a pet?

The benefits to living with pets are well-documented. Their companionship improves our mental wellbeing. They can keep us physically active and lower our risk of heart disease. They teach children responsibility and can even keep young ones from developing allergies. Some also make excellent under-foot vacuum cleaners in the kitchen.

A lesser known—and less popular—fact, however, is that adopting and caring for our beloved dogs, cats, hamsters, birds and reptiles requires a significant financial investment.

All it takes is a dip in the economy to prove it, says Liz Perry, owner of natural pet product stores Nutzy Mutz and Crazy Catz. “When the economy last tanked, I saw a lot of people have to take a step back and change what they bought their animals,” she says.  “And there are always people struggling who are looking to rehome their pets.”

The cost of caring for a pet

If you want to open your home to a pet but already live paycheck-to-paycheck, ensuring an animal can realistically fit into your budget is an essential first step. Like their benefits, the costs of pets can be far beyond what they first appear.

Excluding the upfront costs of adoption, spaying/neutering, immunizations and equipment, the cost of owning a dog or cat will still average around $700 each year in food, toys, equipment, annual check-ups, immunizations and licensing (not to mention training classes and boarding fees).

Think you can still manage it? Remember, too, that most dog and cat owners will shell out at least one $2000-$4000 unexpected vet bill in their pet’s lifetime. (In fact, respondents to the most recent American Pet Products Association (APPA) survey spent an average of $474 just on surgical vet visits for dogs and $245 for cats in the last year.)

The take away? If you haven’t already stashed away emergency savings for your own unexpected bills, you most certainly can’t save one up for your pet just now.

When to pay top dollar for your pet…and where you can skimp

Investigate before you adopt

If your budget can handle the extra costs, think now about how to make your dollars stretch before you start searching the adoption sites.

For one, consult sites that estimate the costs of animals by breed (for example these for dogs and cats) so you know about any specific medical and behavioral needs you are likely to invest in.

For another, see if you can defray any up-front costs. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), for example, posts an interactive map that lists low-cost spay and neuter programs by region.

Your best bet to reduce up-front costs, according to Perry (who has acquired her fair share of animals), is to forgo pet stores and breeders altogether. Instead, she says, work with local animal shelters and rescue groups. “That’s because [the animals] will already be fixed and have all the shots up to their age range.”

As an added benefit, shelters and rescue groups can sometimes tell you about any potential behavioral and medical issues that salespeople might not (or might not want to) share. Not only will this help you find a better match, you’ll gain good insight into any extra costs (behavioral classes, special foods, medications and vet care) you’re signing on for.

Pay for prevention

While it may sound counter intuitive, spending good money on quality food and treats, investing in hygiene and grooming and keeping up-to-date with annual medical visits and immunizations is your best bet for avoiding unexpected costs down the line. According to the ASPCA, staying on top of preventive measures like these can keep you out of the accordingly priced “open-nights-and-weekends” animal hospitals.

Good nutrition, for example, is fundamental. That’s why, while you may think buying food in bulk is savvy, Perry doesn’t recommend it. “You want their food to be fresh.” Realistically, she estimates, good-value entry-level dog food is going to cost you around $600 per year for a medium-sized dog. ($50 for a 40lb bag will last about a month, for example.)

Keep in mind, however, that many food and kitty litter suppliers offer frequent buyer programs that provide discounts for brand loyalty. Perry’s stores, for example, honor companies’ frequent buyer programs and pass the savings directly onto the consumer. “These kinds of opportunities are increasing,” she adds. Ask if your store honors them.

Get thrifty

So what can you actually skimp on? Thankfully, the deals are plentiful.

Thrift stores, for example, are great places to find crates, bowls and pet toys. Craigslist and other online sites are just as good. “I’d just stay away from used bedding,” Perry warns: “Fleas.”

In fact, Perry says, as hard as it may seem (especially for new pet owners), it is best to be conservative with early purchases until you know the personality and preferences of your new family member. “With puppy people, you can sell them the world,” she says, “but really there are only a handful of things they need off the bat.” These include: a collar, leash and crate; high-value treats (and a Kong to leave with them in the crate); bowls; and, of course, food and water.  “Until you start to know the puppy, why waste your money on stuff?”

Even small pets require big commitments

If a dog or cat is beyond your means, consider that smaller animals can be an economical choice for a pet. Rabbits, guinea pigs and geckos can appease a child’s desire for a new family member. Fish, reptiles and small birds make for interesting hobbies and housemates.

But remember: smaller and cheaper doesn’t mean easier. Knowing the long-term costs  involved in any pet ensures you can commit to the daily, proper care it will need. That takes research, Perry says, and it is not something for-profit stores necessarily will voluntarily share with you. “Pet stores just want to get things out the door.”

“To be honest,” Perry says, “I’m not a promoter of small animals as appeasement because kids get bored or leave for college and it’s hard to get rid of, say, a gecko that you no longer want to care for. You have to remember that the adult is always the one responsible in the end.”

Think outside the crate: consider a foster

If you have concluded adopting a pet is beyond your budget or level of commitment, don’t despair. Perry suggests you seriously consider fostering. Oftentimes, the organization will pay for the animal’s food and medical expenses, while you provide security (and cuddles!) until it finds its forever home. (You might even get a tax break.)

“When you foster, you have no long-term commitment to the pet, but your kids can still experience having an animal in the home.” Even better, Perry adds, “they’re learning about helping the world.”