Insights & Advice

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The Increasing Costs of Man’s Best Friend

As a fairly recent owner of a dog, my wife and I have suddenly taken an interest in how much this pooch is costing us. Sure we love him to death but pets can be expensive and all indications are that those costs are just going to go higher in the future. So if you’re thinking of taking the plunge, learn from our experience.

Several months ago we bought a Labrador Retriever we called Titus from a private breeder in Williamstown for $700. We decided that the cost of a guaranteed, healthy, well-bred puppy was worth the money since we had heard too many stories of owners who had bought poorly-bred dogs at cheaper prices only to be saddled with thousands of dollars in medical bills later on. Bad hips, allergies, disposition and other maladies caused by in-breeding abound in dogs today, we discovered.

Now that’s not to say you can’t find a perfectly healthy pet at your local humane society. Quite the contrary, one of the benefits of adoption is you receive a clean bill of health with your adopted pet or if not you will know ahead of time what problems your pet has. But whether you pay $25 or $1,000 for your pet that is only the down payment for an investment that over the life of the animal will cost you many times more.

Food alone will cost you between $300-$500 yearly. When I was a kid our dogs got table scraps. No more. Titus’s diet is as strict as our own and this stuff is expensive. We shop at the cheapest outlet we can find for Purina dog chow. There is a bewildering array of more expensive gourmet brands available but it costs a great deal more and I’m not convinced it is that much better. I estimate it will still cost us closer to $500 for the year.

Next, add in regular maintenance visits to the vets (check-ups, inoculations, boosters, worming, heartworms, tick and flea treatments, etc.) without any emergencies equals another $500-$1,000/year. Given the advancements in veterinary care such as high-end geriatric screening and advanced vaccines and blood work, the cost of medical care has steadily increased. Fortunately, we’ve had only one emergency this year (Titus had an allergic reaction to some road kill he gobbled down before we could stop him) so add another $125 on top of that. However, a single veterinary problem can routinely cost an owner $2,000 or over.

Given our chocolate Lab already weighs in at over 50 pounds and his front paws reach to my wife’s shoulders, obedience training seemed a good idea especially in today’s litigious society. You may think it’s cute that your dog nipped your neighbor’s hand in a friendly greeting but you may change your mind when his lawyer contacts you. So far we’ve been to two, six-week puppy obedience classes and are starting an intermediate course next week for a total of $330.

“Many owners don’t spend any money on training their puppies and then show up a year or two later at my door,” explains Erica Nance, owner of Dogs of Hudson, a training, retail and playgroup emporium for pets in Hudson, N.Y., “by then it will cost them much more to unlearn bad habits then it would to have taken a course at the beginning.”

There is a wide range of obedience courses starting at the typical community college for $60 for a six week basic course to the high end of $185 for 7 week courses like those offered by Dogs of Hudson. Aside from these rather large expenses there are a host of other outlays ranging from equipment (bowls, leashes, collars, crates, fencing), grooming, boarding, and of course treats and toys. All in, depending upon the dog, its health, size and where you live expect an annual expense of $500 to $1500 a year without medical emergencies. If you expect your pet to live an average of 14 years we’re talking $7000 to $21,000 over its lifetime. Is it any wonder that the recession, high foreclosure and double digit unemployment rate has had an impact on our pets and their owners?

Whether we’re talking about cats, dogs or even horses the rate of abandonment has jumped nationwide as unemployed owners can no longer afford the cost of care required in America today.

“Up until this year the Berkshires were relatively untouched,” says John Perreault, Executive Director of the Berkshire Humane Society in Pittsfield, MA. ”but that has changed in the last six months. Our pet abandonment rate is up 10-12% and our food donations over 500%.”

Perreault says his agency is getting calls from desperate owners, some without shelter themselves, who can no longer afford to pay for veterinarian visits, medicine, food or even shelter for their animals “and we can’t afford to treat all these animals either,” he laments.

Even though the Humane Society has reduced fees for adoptions the adoption rate is down because fewer people can afford to take on an extra pet. The Society has now opened 18 food banks in the county and can barely keep pace with demand.

“A few months ago we had a cat food drive,” he said, “we ended up with 600 bags of cat food and it’s almost gone.”

A similar situation confronts all the animal shelters, societies and organizations in our region whether in Massachusetts, New York or Connecticut. So before you embark on the journey of pet ownership, I urge you to focus not just on the joys and love that a pet most assuredly will provide you and your family. Focus on the dollars and cents cost and whether or not you can afford it. That way you can be certain that your new pet won’t end up in the pound and become someone else’s problem.

Posted in A Few Dollars More, Financial Planning