The Calculus of cats and dogs

The other day, I made a passing comment in my article about judging (or not judging) others. I mentioned that although my friend Michael is in dire financial straits, he’s still making life decisions based around the fact that his family has two dogs. (They’re renting a larger, more expensive home than they otherwise would, for example.) “What about getting rid of the dogs?” I asked.


This suggestion struck a nerve with a lot of people. Many GRS readers argued that giving up pets during financial crisis is irresponsible. Tiffany’s response was typical:

Sorry, but dogs are like kids, you can’t just get rid of them in hard times. Certainly, you shouldn’t take on dogs when you’re not financially able to (and similarly, you should do your utmost to not have kids when you can’t support them). If you’ve already got dogs when the financial hard times hit, well then too bad, they’re still your responsibility. You can’t get rid of the kids, can’t get rid of the dogs. No real pet owner would want to, either.

Let me quell some concerns: I own four cats, and if Kris would let me, I’d own a dozen more. Plus a couple of dogs. And some birds (I really want a parrot). And some fish. I’m an animal person, and am often amazed that I still eat meat. (That cognitive dissonance is a topic for another time.)

I’m about as pro-animal as you can get. (Except that I’m not vegetarian — yet.) In general, I actually agree with those who scolded me. Pets are not furniture. They’re not possessions to be disposed of carelessly. They’re thinking, emotional beings, and ought to be treated with consideration and respect.

As many of you know, one of my pet projects (ha!) is an ongoing documentation of animal intelligence; I read everything I can find on the subject. (My friends are always sending me stories about amazing animals because they know I love them.) At the same time I started Get Rich Slowly, I started an animal intelligence blog, though that site has long since faded to nothing.

People Are Passionate About Pets

Despite my deep respect and admiration for animals, I don’t think this issue is as crystal clear as many GRS readers make it out to be. This debate is interesting, and for a variety of reasons.

  • First, it shows that different people value different things. If my family were in a rocky financial situation, the pets wouldn’t be the first to go, but they’d certainly be on the list of options.
  • Second, when talking about spending on pets, we get to explore questions like “How much is too much?” When do you stop spending on pets? Do your pets take priority over your children? Over your home? Over your self? Again, different people have different answers.
  • Third, this clearly demonstrates one of my mantras: Money is more about mind than it is about math. Everyday, all of us make financial decisions based on factors other than the numbers. Numbers are important, but they’re far from the only factor.

Last fall at MSN Money, my pal Donna Freedman — who will share her reader story here on Sunday, by the way — wrote about the financial implications of pet ownership:

When people say “I’d never give up my pet,” they’re usually speaking from a position of privilege. Sure, they may feel broke right now, but they’re still in a place where they can say what they would “never” do. If you were ever truly destitute, you’d know better than to make that kind of claim.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you lived in your sedan with four cats or out in a culvert with a husky-shepherd mix. Maybe all of you survived. But most of us aren’t cut out to take that kind of risk — and frankly, we shouldn’t. It’s too dangerous. A human life is worth more than the chance to nurture a corgi or a ferret for a few more years. Besides, Fido deserves better than car camping and eating old Wonder bread from the food bank.

As you might expect, her article received a lot of comments — over 1200 responses, in fact — many of which were nasty. But, you know what? I think Donna is right, and agreeing with her doesn’t make me a heartless bastard.

My Best Friend

I’ve had my cat Toto since she was a kitten. (In fact, I’ve known and loved her since the day she was born, 01 May 1994.) Aside from Kris, Toto is my best friend. When I’m home, she’s usually by my side, helping me write about personal finance. But Toto is getting old. Her body is failing, and it breaks my heart. She’s often in pain. The vet isn’t sure exactly what’s wrong with her, so we keep trying different things. With each vet visit, my costs mount. So far, I’m okay with that. I’ve maybe spent a thousand dollars in the past few months, and it’s bought me more time to cuddle with my cat.

But where do I draw the line? How much do I spend to keep Toto alive? (Especially when her quality of life is beginning to deteriorate?) Do I tap the money I have saved for our trip to France and Italy just to buy her a few more weeks? What if I were still in debt? How much would I spend then?

The calculus of pets is complex; there are no easy answers.

A Vet’s Voice

As I was finishing this article, my vet phoned. She was calling to give me Toto’s latest lab results: Her kidneys are beginning to fail and she may have thyroid problems (still waiting on a last set of tests).

After we finished talking about Toto, I told Dr. McDaneld about the discussion at Get Rich Slowly. It turns out she volunteers with the Humane Society to provide veterinary care in low-income areas throughout the country. She shared her thoughts about folks who find themselves unable to afford their pets.

“I don’t like to see pets neglected just because their owners are in financial distress, but it happens,” she told me. “When somebody’s not financially able to care for their pets — even the bare minimum — then that pet really is best off in another situation.”

But Dr. McDaneld also noted that for some, pets really are members of the family. Sometimes, an animal can be a person’s closest companion. “People’s relationships with their pets can run a wide gamut,” she said. “Some people would lose their house and health before they’d give up their pets.”

Fortunately, there are programs to help pet owners in need. “There are a lot of groups out there trying to help people who want to be responsible pet owners but are in financial trouble,” Dr. McDaneld said. She gave me three examples in the Portland area:

  • The PAW Team (Portland Animal Welfare Team) provides free vet care to the pets of people who are homeless or in extreme poverty.
  • FIDO (Friends Involved in Dog Outreach) offers a number of programs to assist dog owners, including Animeals (meals-on-wheels for cats and dogs) and a Dog Food Bank (for dog owners in financial need).
  • Cat Adoption Team, which provides a cat food bank.

There are sure to be similar programs in most major cities. The bottom line: If my friend Michael gets into a situation where he can’t afford to keep his dogs, there are organizations that can help.

Pets Aren’t People

That said, animals aren’t people. Somewhere — and where, I do not know — there’s a line between what you do for your children and what you do for Fido or Fluffy. I believe that it’s this line that bothered so many people in Wednesday’s article; I was suggesting that Michael give up his dogs much earlier than some readers would consider such an option.

So, where is this line for you? How long do you keep a pet, even when you can’t really afford it? Do you sacrifice your family’s well-being for that of the animal? How do you prioritize when you have to make a sacrifice? Is it ever better to give up an animal than to fail at other obligations?

Note: For more on the calculus of cats and dogs, visit The Simple Dollar. Yesterday, Trent weighed in on this subject, including a link to an article from The Humane Society about finding a responsible home for your pet. Trent also pointed to Petfinder, which lets people find new homes for their pets.
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