The cost of pet ownership: The good, the bad, and the ugly

This article is part of relationship month at Get Rich Slowly.

As a dental hygienist, my girlfriend Kim meets lots of interesting people and has lots of interesting conversations. Last week while cleaning a patient's teeth, the topic turned to pets.

“Two years ago, we didn't have any animals,” Kim told her patient. “We were on the road in an RV. Today? Today we have three cats and a dog. Honestly, I'd be fine with more animals. We love them.”

“We love our animals too,” her patient said. “We might love them a little too much. Recently, we moved. I'd say 90% of that decision was based around our dog. Is that wrong?”

Kim laughed. “It's not wrong,” she said. “We did something similar ourselves.”

Pets are expensive, Kim and her patient agreed. Are they worth it? Yes. Yes, they are. But as with most things in life, pet costs can quickly get out of control if you let them. It's important to find a balance between the needs of your animals and your own financial well-being.

For the past two years, Kim and I have been working to find where that balance is for our family.

Meeting Tahlequah

Near the end of our 15-month RV trip around the United States, Kim and I stopped to visit my cousin in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. For a week, we left behind modern life to enjoy the slower pace in this isolated 100-acre creek hollow. We enjoyed the communal meals (during which several families dined together at once). We marveled at the light show provided each evening by the fireflies. (There are no fireflies in Oregon.) And we lavished love on all of the animals: the cows, the chickens, the cats, and the dogs.

Especially the dogs.

A few weeks before we arrived, one of the farm dogs had given birth to a litter of puppies. Kim fell in love with them. “I think I want to take one home with us,” she said.

“Maybe on our way back through,” I said, trying to be the voice of reason.

Kim meeting puppies

Our plan was to turn east toward Memphis, Mississippi, and Alabama. We'd then drop down to the Gulf Coast, cut over to New Orleans, then make our way into Texas. “Dallas isn't far from here,” I said. “When we get there, then we can decide whether or not we want a dog.”

For the next month, Kim and I spent our evenings reading about dogs. Both of our families had dogs when we were growing up, but neither of us had owned one as an adult. We learned about different training philosophies. We discussed discipline. We discussed costs. We discussed what adding an animal would mean for our relationship as a couple.

“Do you still want the dog?” I asked Kim a few weeks later as we pulled into Dallas.

“Yes, I do,” she said.

After spending a few days with my pal PT (from PT Money), we returned to my cousin's farm in Tahlequah. Kim's puppy was still there. “Hello, Tahlequah,” Kim said as she petted the pup. “How would you feel about moving to Oregon?”

Tahlequah seemed happy about the idea. Kim was even happier. She turned to me and smiled. “With this dog, I thee wed,” she said. And that's how we entered a new phase in our lives.

Puppy Love

We've now had Tahlequah (or Tally, as we call her) for 18 months. The experience has been awesome and frustrating at the same time.

Tally is a mutt but she's 100% hound (a mixture of beagle and mountain cur, the latter of which is the newest registered breed at the AKC). She's ruled by her nose. If she gets on a scent, her entire brain shuts down and instinct takes over.

Yesterday, for instance, I was walking her off-leash (with permission) through the neighbor's property. She stumbled upon the spot where the local deer had bedded down the previous night and she was off like a bolt, streaking across other neighbors' properties (without permission). It took ten minutes to get her back on leash. (Or just now, as I was writing this paragraph, she spotted the squirrel that lives under our house. She's now barking barking barking incessantly out the window and she will not stop.)

Mostly, though, we love her — and she loves us. Kim and I have become those obnoxious pet parents who take their dog with them everywhere. (We're not even ashamed of it!)

Driving with Tahlequah

At first, adding a puppy to our lives seemed like a reasonable financial decision. Before we picked her up, Kim and I spent maybe $100 or $200 on puppy supplies, such as a crate, a collar, a leash, and a variety of toys and tools. After we left my cousin's house, we stopped for a couple of days in southern Kansas. While there, we took Tally to the vet for a checkup and her first series of shots. That vet visit was under $100. (In retrospect, that's because we were in southern Kansas.)

“This dog isn't so expensive,” I said. Hahaha. Little did I know…

Pets Are Expensive

Upon returning to Portland in June 2016, the cost of pet ownership began to mount.

  • First, vet visits here are more expensive.
  • Second, once we had settled at home, we began acquiring more dog stuff: toys, treats, and so on.
  • Third, Tally turned into a destructive force of nature.

In under six months, our puppy probably did a couple thousand dollars worth of damage. This is embarrassing to admit, but it's true. Tally destroyed shoes — including Kim's favorite pair of leather boots. (Eventually we realized that if we sacrificed one pair of shoes to her, Tally would leave the other shoes alone.) She ate eyeglasses. She devoured my dental retainer. She gnawed on the furniture. She peed on the carpet. She scratched at the doors.

“This dog is expensive,” I said.

Apparently, Kim and I are gluttons for punishment. One animal was not enough. Within a month of returning to our condo in Portland, we decided to expand the family. We picked up two kittens from a local rescue. And not two ordinary kittens. Two sickly kittens.

Over the next few months, Avery and Bagheera made several vet visits, both to get their initial checkups and booster shots, and to make sure they were recovering from whatever respiratory infection they'd suffered from as babies. Meanwhile, we discovered the cats could be just as destructive as dogs. Our kittens were hell-bent on shredding anything made of cloth or paper. They peed on the bed. They destroyed the blinds.

“These cats are expensive,” I said.

All Creatures Great and Small

Throughout last winter, Kim and I enjoyed bonding with our three beasts. The five of us made do in our condo. We walked the dog through the park next door. The cats got a taste of the outdoors from our balcony — but they wanted more. In the evening, all of us snuggled together while binge-watching All Creatures Great and Small.

“Maybe we should move,” Kim said one day last March.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“It doesn't feel right to keep these animals trapped in a fourth-floor apartment,” she said. “They're wild beasts. They want to be outside. They need space to roam.” I agreed with her.

While the animals weren't the only reason we decided to move last year, they were certainly a major consideration. As we hunted for houses in April, we looked for a lot where we could let the beasts outside to roam. Eventually, we opted for a one-acre lot in a semi-rural neighborhood. It was a good choice.

This place is like dog heaven. We have a large fenced yard that Tally can use whenever she wants. At least once per day — sometimes twice — we take her on a two-mile walk through the neighborhood. She sniffs and sniffs and sniffs, tracking the squirrels and deer and coyotes. She digs in the ditch to uncover mice and moles.

Meanwhile, the cats love it here too. They're able to hunt whenever they want. (In 45 days this year, they've caught twelve critters.) They like going outside to bask in the sun. There are plenty of trees to climb and dark places to hide. With the cats, though, there's an element of danger. As I said, there are coyotes here, and we lost Bagheera to them at the end of October. (Yes, I'm aware that many people believe cats should remain indoors. Kim and I believe exactly the opposite. We're aware of the risks faced by outdoor cats, but believe its cruel to keep them confined inside.)

After Bagheera disappeared, Kim and I had a discussion. How many animals should we have here at our country cottage? “You shouldn't ask me,” Kim said. “If it were my decision, we'd have a whole farm: goats and horses and chickens and cows. Plus, more cats and dogs.”

I'm not willing to turn this place into a full-fledged farm but I was willing to bring home two new kittens. At the end of November, we added Savannah and Bisbee to our menagerie.

We now share our home with one dog, three cats, and a whole lot of chaos.

Our current crop of cats

Enough Is Enough

Because I've been carefully logging every penny I spend, I'm able to see how much our animals cost us. Last year, I spent $1763.25 on the pets. Kim — who does not track her spending — spent several hundred dollars too. My best guess is that we're paying $200 per month (or about $7 per day) to care for our companion animals. They are not cheap.

Our pet spending (2017)

In the nearly three months we've had the new kittens, I've spent $1076.83 for their initial examinations and shots. On Monday, we took Tally and Avery for their annual checkups. The dog cost us $376.38 and the cat cost us $404.45.

That's $1857.66 I've paid to the vet in three months. To be fair, I shouldn't have any additional pet fees this year — barring illness or injuries — but there are still ongoing expenses for food, treats, toys, litter, and petsitting.

“Wow,” Kim said on our drive home from the vet. “That was twice as expensive as I thought it would be.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I hate how much it costs. I mean, I want to make sure our beasts are healthy, but where do you draw the line? How much is too much to spend on a cat? Or on a dog?”

“I'm willing to spend as much as we need to keep the dog healthy,” Kim said. “But we live in the country. Our cats go outside. As much as I love them, we have to be realistic about it. They have great lives, but those lives will probably be short.”

“Well, now that everybody is up-to-date on their basic shots, now that we know everybody is healthy, maybe it's time to stop doing annual checkups for the cats,” I said. “What do you think about taking them in only if they're sick or hurt?”

“I think that's how it should be,” Kim said. “That's how we did it when I was growing up.”

“Same here,” I said.

Special offer: My brother Tony owns a business that produces animal nutritional supplements, including dog treats. For the rest of 2018, he's offered to give GRS readers a 20% discount (and free shipping) on orders for dog products totalling over $20! Visit Majesty's Animal Nutrition and use the promo code tally20 at checkout. (I have zero financial stake in this, by the way.)

Cutting the Cost of Pet Ownership

Kim and I have decided that, in effect, our cats only have catastrophic health care coverage. (Although I'm worried that this could be a false economy. We'll see.) Meanwhile, we're discovering ways to cut the cost of pet ownership — especially on the everyday stuff. For example:

  • We've been drying dry dog food and dry cat food from Amazon via their “subscribe and save” program. About once every three months, we need an extra bag of food. When we do, I buy it at Costco.) We also buy treats via Amazon.
  • We're buying wet cat food at the local Wal-Mart, which seems to have the best prices.
  • We've learned to buy our pet toys at the thrift store, not the pet store. Two weeks ago, for instance, we bought Tally six or seven stuffed animals (stuffed animals intended for kids, not for dogs) and paid less than $20. Once garage sale season begins, we'll explore that route too.
  • When we can remember, we buy cat litter in bulk at a local pet store. It's way cheaper than buying smaller packages.
  • When possible, we're paying people we know to take care of our animals when we're gone. Not only is this better on our pets, but it's less expensive for us.

Thankfully, Tally's destructive nature has diminished as she's become a teenager, which saves us money. She hasn't shaken it completely — she ate my best hat a few weeks ago — but mostly she's learned what she can chew on and what she can't. (More importantly, Kim and I are very vigilant about leaving stuff where the dog can get to it.)

We would love to hear experiences from other pet owners. Do you have animals? How much do they cost? How much do their annual vet visits cost? Do you have pet insurance? Why or why not? If you do have it, how do you feel about it? What other tips do you have for keeping the cost of pet ownership low?

On a semi-related note, here's an amazing story about a woman who adopted an older dog — only to discover it's the same dog that she had to give up when she was a girl.

More about...Planning

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