The high cost of cats and dogs: Are pets worth the money?

Kris and I don't have kids. We have cats. We have four of them.


Our “children”: Nemo, Simon, Maxwell, and Toto.

We'd have more, but Kris won't allow it. She says I'm in danger of becoming the Crazy Cat Gentleman. On the whole, I cannot imagine my life without these animals. They bring us joy and fulfillment, and the cost is minimal.

Under normal circumstances, our four cats cost us a total of about $750 a year, which is roughly fifty cents per animal per day. That's a bargain! The problem, of course, comes from abnormal circumstances. Once every three years or so, one of the cats costs us a small fortune.

In 2001, our beloved Tintin died of diabetes. In 2004, Toto suffered from heat stroke. In 2006, Nemo developed mysterious lesions on his legs. And this year, Simon took his turn at the veterinarian's office. Last weekend, he became lethargic, and he stopped eating or drinking.

I took Simon to the vet on Friday, where they administered a subcutaneous fluid injection to hydrate him. Total cost? $224.70. Unfortunately, his condition did not improve over the weekend. On Monday, Simon and I returned to the vet. They kept him for the entire day, running tests and taking x-rays and, much to his chagrin, force-feeding him with a syringe. Total cost? $422.23.

Nursing Simon through his illness (“fever of unknown origin”, which seems to be vet-speak for “I'm stumped”) cost us $646.93, or nearly our entire yearly budget for all four animals!

The High Cost of Cats and Dogs

Last year, The New York Times ran an article about the financial implications of pet ownership. Alina Tugend wrote:

The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association asked 580 dog owners and 402 cat owners to record the amount they spent in the last 12 months on specific pet-related items. The dog owners spent almost $2,000; cat owners about $1,200. If you want a real deal, small animals came in at just under $300.

In 2001, Steph Bairey at FamilyResource.com researched the estimated costs of common pets. Though she doesn't explain her methodology, she found that:

  • Dogs cost about $730 per year.
  • Cats cost about $355 per year.
  • Rodents cost about $160 per year.
  • A tank of fish costs about $200 per year.
  • Birds cost about $770 per year.
  • Lizards cost about $745 per year.
  • Snakes cost about $520 per year.

These numbers seem high to me. $355 per year per cat? (Or $1200 per year, according to The New York Times?) Each of ours runs about $200. $520 each year for a snake? Kris and I owned a snake for many years. Sanderling ate one $2 mouse every fortnight. With some very minor miscellaneous costs, she might have cost us $60 per year.

Worth the Cost

Some personal-finance bloggers have written that pets don't make economic sense. Maybe so, but neither does television — and neither do children. But not every choice is made based on the economics of the situation. Some things transcend money. For me, pet ownership is one of those things.

Sidenote: While researching the cost of pet ownership, I kept coming across references to pet insurance — health insurance for dogs and cats. Is this for real? I can't imagine buying such a policy. Do any of you insure your pets? Is it cost effective?

I'm pleased to report that Simon is doing much better. He had the vigor to outrun a stray dog this afternoon (by climbing 20 feet up our redwood tree). We don't regret spending $646.93 on his medical care last week, but the process made me think: How much is too much to spend on the health of an animal? Kris and I are fortunate to have savings and solid incomes. We can afford to take care of our animals. But what if it would have cost $2,000 to help Simon? Or $12,000? How much is too much to spend on a cat?

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RobertD
RobertD
11 years ago

Pets can be expensive, but like anything in life they can have benefits as well. The problem most people get into is buying more pet then really fits into your life. If you are of modest means owning a large purebred will be very costly. Purebreds are less healthy than the average mutt is. And large dogs eat more then small ones. But the cost issue comes in when you fail to plan for them in your budgeting process. Often the biggest of their bills show up as an annual expenses (tags and the vet). So you need to have… Read more »

Kermit
Kermit
11 years ago

Tree frogs cost around $150 per year!

JerichoHill
JerichoHill
11 years ago

JD, As you know we have a black lab named Ari who is our wonderful dog. She has insurance, and it is worth it. Last year we upped her insurance to a higher plan, which I think costs 20 a month. For her, x-rays and sedative are the expensive components. After we went to a new plan, Ari developed two fatty lumps, very large (several pounds). We’ve had one removed, and the other comes later next month once she’s recovered. Our insurance saved us over a thousand dollars. Year to Year, Ari doesn’t cost much (500 for the year), and… Read more »

ash
ash
11 years ago

It’s definitely a value issue, which makes it different for everyone. I would never pay for chemotherapy or major surgery, but some people’s pets are worth that much to them, and I can’t argue with that.

For me, I the age of the pet (I have cats) and the nature of the illness are really big factors, and I think I would draw the line somewhere around $1000. But it’s hard to judge, the circumstances can vary so much.

Jason
Jason
11 years ago

I’m a veterinarian and get the question about pet insurance frequently. There are a lot of plans out there and I encourage people to do their homework. My understanding is that generally the premium is starts low and remains low if you began insuring your pet when they are young and keep the policy active throughout their lives. Also, most plans work as indemnity plans (again, as I understand it). So, you’ll still need to pay the veterinarian’s fees up front and then be reimbursed by your insurer. Nonetheless, I’ve had many clients tell me that they wouldn’t have been… Read more »

MarjorieC
MarjorieC
11 years ago

I, sadly, made some poor decisions in the fall which led me to spend outrageous amounts on my pet guinea pig at the vet’s office. Coupled with a vacation with wealthier companions (that was pre-planned when I had savings!), I started 2009 in debt for the first time in 9 years. I regret spending as much as I did, because of my current situation, but I don’t regret it because it was only ‘a pet.’

Regarding pet insurance, does anyone have experience getting pet insurance for an older animal? (My cat is 16.)

gfe-gluten free easily
gfe-gluten free easily
11 years ago

I’ve never regretted money I spent on our pets. Believe it or not, cats and dogs benefit greatly from no grains in their diet. Illnesses like arthritis, hot spots and skin conditions, diabetes, etc. can often be resolved by feeding your pet gluten-free or grain-free foods. They do cost more, but the rewards are worth it. Dogs and cats are by nature hunters, so it makes sense. Grain was added to their food as cheap filler. A vet talks more about the issue here: http://www.dogtorj.com/ Everyone I know, including myself, who has put their dogs and cats on gluten free… Read more »

Another Reader
Another Reader
11 years ago

You can cut the costs of veterinary work by learning to do some things yourself. Administering subcutaneous fluids and syringe feeding can be done at home and it is much easier on the cat. Some problems and diseases can be tested for over a period of time and as you discover or eliminate causes, you eliminate expensive tests and procedures that would otherwise be recommended. However, when you are dealing with an undiagnosed ailment where the cat has stopped eating and is dehydrated, a blood panel and abdominal x-rays are hard to avoid. Keeping your cats indoors will cut your… Read more »

Barb1954
Barb1954
11 years ago

Our two cats are indoor animals — at $500 for a purebreed Abyssisian, we wouldn’t risk their health by letting them outside. Plus who wants to get a kitty kiss from a pet with chipmunk breath? The extra amount you quoted for cat ownership could be the cost of cat toys — they do get bored with the same old play things (hey, don’t we all?)and need some variety. But as I like to say about our fur babies — they’re loving, adorable, and they don’t require a college fund!

lulugal11
lulugal11
11 years ago

I have a cat (Dinero) and a Betta fish (Rex). Dinero costs me $10 a month in pet rent because I live in an apartment. I do not have insurance on him and don’t plan on getting it either. I spend about $9 a month on litter because he poops a lot and I buy the expensive odor control clumping litter. It is a high cost but it is worth it because you simply CANNOT smell the poop at all…even when you are in the room with the litter box. I have tried cheaper brands but this is the only… Read more »

Avery
Avery
11 years ago

My cat costs me about $250/year between food, litter & deodorizer, box liners, etc. I don’t buy him a ton of toys (he is WAY happier with the rings of milk jugs) or treats. Luckily, my aunt is a vet and will update his shots every couple of years for me in exchange for Thanksgiving Dinner! He is solely an indoor cat, so there is no reason he needs to be vaccinated every year according to her. However, I did have a kitten prior to him that got very very sick at about 6 months of age. It’s a long… Read more »

Kitty
Kitty
11 years ago

I live with 5 cats and they are certainly less expensive than children (or husbands for that matter!). I agree strongly with the previous commenter that there are certain things you can learn to do yourself and if you have a good vet they will teach you to do these things. I administer sub-Q fluids regularly to my 19 year old. A case of lactated ringers (enough to last 4-6 months) is only a few dollars more than one session administered by a vet. I also agree that keeping your cat inside is the best money-saving thing you can do.… Read more »

E
E
11 years ago

Just wanted to say, I’m sorry to hear Simon was sick – I just went through the EXACT same thing with my 8 1/2 year old cat Gabe (who, oddly, is a ringer for Simon!)

Same results from the vet, same costs, and thankfully, my buddy is home and back to his usual self. And I realized that I need a separate, special fund for kitty emergencies.

Roxanne
Roxanne
11 years ago

The little monsters are worth every penny.

Mine went to the vet last night while I fly off on vacation. So I woke up this morning without corgi butt in the face. Not cool.

Life isn’t worth living if you don’t wake up to a dog every morning.

And if you don’t like the cost become a serial-vet-dater. Saves a fortune. 🙂

Chris
Chris
11 years ago

We don’t have children but have one cat. We pay monthly pet insurance, which so far has covered all the shots, exams etc. he needs for $29/month. So far, it’s saved us a bunch of money.

DJS
DJS
11 years ago

We spent money on cat toys when our two were younger, but we quickly found there are countless low-cost and no-cost ways to entertain these two. They love wadded-up paper–it’s easy to bat around. Bring out a cheap feather duster and they go bananas. Now that these two siblings are about to turn 18 years old, they seem to prefer empty Amazon.com boxes to curl up in. I swear one of them stands by while I open the box, knowing he’s about to get a new, cozy bed. The cost of caring for our cats has been minimal through the… Read more »

R.D. Hammond
R.D. Hammond
11 years ago

There is no upper limit.

Seriously, you’re taking care of a living thing. Would someone say, “Oh, at one point do we cut off the spigot on our kid?”

I realize this is an extreme view, but still.

Tordr
Tordr
11 years ago

Pet insurance is expensive but so is unexpected veterinary expenses. So from a financial standpoint it does not make sense to insure your pet. That is unless you cannot bear the burden of unexpected veterinary bills, or if you are going to get one of your pets pregnant. The point about insuring a pregnant pet is that there is a much greater chance of problems with the pet during a pregnancy. My story: My parents have dogs, and one of the dogs had puppies last summer. There where complications during birth so my parents ended up with a veterinary bill… Read more »

Sarah L.
Sarah L.
11 years ago

We’ve insured our Weimaraner since he was young (2.5 yrs. old). It’s around $50/month right now (he’s 11). Our policy includes a cancer rider and also some wellcare coverage for some basic “maintenance” care we get every year, like heartworm exam, some vaccines, annual health screen, heartworm and flea/tick meds. The wellcare part definitely pays for itself, and in recent years the regular coverage has also paid for itself. This was not always true when the dog was younger and healthier. We’ve had mixed success with payments for larger medical issues. With our current dog the insurance has paid quite… Read more »

The Personal Finance Playbook
The Personal Finance Playbook
11 years ago

My wife and I really want to get a dog sometime in the near future. The cost is something that’s been bothering me a little bit. For my wife, it’s the extra work required to keep everything clean.

Hopefully we’ll have one soon;)

mountainLaurel
mountainLaurel
11 years ago

I think pets fall into that category of yeah, from a pure budget-spreadsheet point of view they may be a financial loss, but are you really going to deal with a complete lack of fuzzy joy in your life? What else are you going to do with that cash that will give you the same amount of happiness – buy a bigger TV? About the insurance -I like the savings-account idea from Jason @5; I just can’t imagine buying insurance for a pet in a year or so when I graduate college & won’t have health insurance myself, but finally… Read more »

Mac
Mac
11 years ago

Having just spent $1000 over a month to treat our blocked cat, I can relate. The unexpected expense has definitely has definitely altered our plans in the short term. We did have an Emergency Fund set up for Vet expenses, which was promptly consumed in the first two visits to the vet. Our thought was to apply what the monthly premium for pet insurance would be to the emergency fund, that way if we never had a vet emergency the money would still be there, rather than consumed by premiums and lost forever. Now, after having an emergency, we are… Read more »

Kathryn
Kathryn
11 years ago

I think it’s so interesting how often people discuss what’s financially savvy, without factoring in quality of life. What is the point of being smart about your money if you’re not living your life in a way that is authentic and full. I’ve even heard that some studies show that pet owners tend to be healthier and have a longer life expectancy than non-pet owners…

cherie
cherie
11 years ago

Just went through a bad financial mess with our pet – ugh! Our 8yo lab who always ate lumber of all kinds and got upset tummy-ish acted oddly – I assured the kids [here’s where it was stupid] that it was the asme and took her to the vet – I then proceeded to find out she had CANCER and needed a spleen removal to live – maybe I spent over $5000 for that surgery solely to avoid having my children think an upset tummy winds up in death – if I’d kept my mouth shut [as I will from… Read more »

brooklynchick
brooklynchick
11 years ago

I don’t have kids (or a live-in partner), and having grown up in a cat family (my mom’s all time high is 7), I have virtually no upper limit on medical spending for my two little guys, as long as it improves their quality of life. So I’ll pay $200 to get their teeth cleaned because their gums are inflamed, $2/can for food that won’t give them the runs, but I wouldn’t pay for chemo that made them feel cruddy. Believe it or not, I did have to go into debt to pay for one guy to get his thyroid… Read more »

Melissa A.
Melissa A.
11 years ago

Pets are so worth it. I love my cat so much and would be devastated if something happened to him. I can’t wait to get another one.

brooklynchick
brooklynchick
11 years ago

Re: Tordr #18

Sorry to preach, but PLEASE get your pets spayed/neutered, and please get your pets from a shelter. Thousands of healthy animals are killed in the U.S. because no one adopts them.

I know its off-topic, but I had to. 🙂

Cara
Cara
11 years ago

If I didn’t have my two cats, I’d be spending money on shrink bills and Prozac. My fuzzy friends are the best therapy I could ask for.

brooklynchick
brooklynchick
11 years ago

As other have said, owning a pet improves your mental AND physical health, probably saving you some money and definitely improving your quality of life.

http://health.discovery.com/centers/aging/powerofpets/powerofpets.html

Ok, seriously, I’ll stop now. JD, if you are a crazy cat gentleman I am a crazy cat lady. Sigh.

Emily
Emily
11 years ago

Yes their worth it! They’re as much companions as they are hobby or sport, depending on what you do with them. I personally draw a line in the sand at $XX that I’ll spend in an emergency for a pet. Try horses, they’ll knock your sox off for expenses! If you board them at a nice facility you’re looking at $6000/year just for board/feed, plus routine vet costs around $250/year, plus hoof care (trims and shoes) any where from $180-600/year….. yes, they’re worth it!

Mary
Mary
11 years ago

I used to have three cats, and am now down to one who is 13 years old. I love the little guy, but I don’t think I’ll be in a rush to get another one after he dies. He hasn’t been a very expensive cat to take care of, but the day by day maintenance and the reduced housing choices makes Hypothetical Future Cat an easier concept to reject. Sometimes the best treatment is the big ticket item versus a series of smaller, distributed costs. I had a tabby who developed an overactive thyroid when she was 12. The “best”… Read more »

Jeff
Jeff
11 years ago

Don’t forget the cost of pet rent in certain places. Many of us don’t have houses and have to pay rent for the cats. Mine in particular cost $25/mo per cat, and I have 2 cats. That’s $600/year before I pay for anything else.

Plus, I get to dryclean my couch cushions once a year or so after one gets pissed off and decorates my couch. Total Cost, ~50

J

Christine
Christine
11 years ago

It’s not just medical bills that might crop up. Our cat has done a nice job destroying the carpet in our apartment. I wouldn’t be surprised if we lost our deposit because of her. Still love her somehow, the devil.

Bridgette
Bridgette
11 years ago

I have two dogs – one older rescue (he is about 9) and one purebred puppy (8 months now). Every month, I spend about 100 on high quality food for them. Yes, they eat well, but I do believe that it keeps down the vet bills. My older dog has had some major issues in the past keeping down “regular” dog food, so I switched him to a raw food diet about 9 months ago – and he couldn’t be happier. It seems the biggest cost is the 1st puppy year. Between shots, spaying, new crate and pen, and everything… Read more »

kelle
kelle
11 years ago

Excellent advice from Jason the vet. Children and animals would be safer kept in the house, but it’s not mentally healthly for either. Small pets are also excellent teachers for children. It pains me to see my cats bring in a dead chipmunk to show off for me, but it’s their nature. I don’t think I would ever try to save money by playing vet. A friend told me an interesting story about her uncle who learned to spay (farmer, not vet) female cats and would do it for the locals for the cost ($2-3)of whatever he put them to… Read more »

Jessica
Jessica
11 years ago

We bought pet insurance through VPI last year for our cat Baxter. A few months later, when he ate too much grass and it became impacted in his intestine, the vet bill for surgery and care was a whopping $1000. VPI paid $800 of that…. certainly WELL worth the investment of $86 per year. That’s what we pay for a young healthy cat, and includes an employer discount and another discount for insuring multiple pets with VPI. Pet insurance also gives us peace of mind, because if something like that happens again, we know we won’t be scrambling for money.… Read more »

Allen
Allen
11 years ago

Although pets can be expensive, they are a great additions to your life and well worth the expense. I save money for my dog in a separate ING account so that when emergencies arise, and they will, I can make a decision based on quality of life for my dog, versus “can I afford this”. I spent $2000 when he was 4 years old because and I have no regrets. He is currently almost 7 years old and do wonderful.

Joel
Joel
11 years ago

I’ve also come across a pet savings plan. Similar to an HSA (without tax benefit of course), but is a great way to save for those unexpected (and expected) expenses. Quite honestly it makes some decisions a little easier when you have already saved up some or all of the unexpected cost.

http://www.petvetpro.com/pethealthsavingsplan.php

amber
amber
11 years ago

Three years ago we discovered that our beloved 15 year old tortie had cancer, and that her kidneys were shutting down. If we had thought for a second that dialysis, kidney transplants, or any other medical procedures would help her live longer, I don’t think we would have batted an eye at spending the money.

But she was in pain, and tired, and ready to go, so we made the choice to euthanize right then. We still miss her horribly.

Patricia
Patricia
11 years ago

I have 3 cats and I tend to feed them all high premium foods and I refuse to feed them anything cheaper, recession or no recession. I also keep them indoors because it actually keeps them safer and prolongs longevity according to the ASPCA website. I used to have pet insurance but I got rid of it years ago when Clark Howard said it was a waste of money. So instead, I set up an ING Direct “Pet Fund” and each month I automatically save a small amount of cash for each pet which I use when I have to… Read more »

Lara
Lara
11 years ago

This is something we’ve struggled with a fair amount in the recent past. I almost hesitate to post this after all the serious pet lovers who have proclaimed the costs to be worth it. We try to be responsible pet owners. Our pets are spayed/neutered, vaccinated, fed, brushed, exercised, and receive plenty of petting. However, if medical costs begin to get high we will generally choose to put the animals down. We live rurally and our cats are barn cats that we have primarily to keep the rodent population under control. Our dog is a very large mutt that we… Read more »

Danielle
Danielle
11 years ago

My dog Hunter, and my cat Jezebel, are like my children. Jezebel has cost me plenty over the years with a myriad of different and near deadly illnesses, but it has been worth every penny because of the joy I get from having her with me. Hunter is only 2, but I’d imagine his vigorous nature will eventually lead to the same, and that too, will be worth it to me. As far as pet insurance goes, I’ve considered it, but it just seems like too much money. I put aside money from every paycheck into a ‘pet fund’ for… Read more »

Kristin
Kristin
11 years ago

Pets are definitely very expensive-our dog costs us about 2.5k a year, when the dog walker is included (we work long hours). That said-he is a part of my family. I would do anything to keep him happy and healthy.including spending thousands of dollars- I know someone who paid for a heart transplant on her dog. Honestly-if I was in that situation and my dog was young, I would do the same thing. I figure having Seb makes me happier staying home, so I save money that way.

Dave
Dave
11 years ago

Two dogs and a 10-gallon aquarium with 13 fish and 4 shrimp… I pay approximately $600 a year for coverage on the dogs. Except for a prescription or two, at discounted prices, I think the highest I’ve ever paid out of pocket at my vet is $17. They give me a printout of the list prices of the services my boys receive at every visit. I’d estimate I’ve saved roughly $5,000 over the lives of both of my boys. Add in a monthly bag of food and we’re up to $1200 a year. I buy them the good stuff. The… Read more »

Andrea
Andrea
11 years ago

Your incredulity about pet insurance made me laugh because I cannot imagine *not* having pet insurance for our kitty! It’s only £10/month, and completely and totally worth it in case he has a major accident or illness, which could easily dent a huge hole in our finances. That said, we also had/have pet rats, which we do not insure because 1) it’s almost impossible to get insurance for small rodents and 2) any treatment for illnesses they have are normally relatively inexpensive, even for serious maladies. But cat and dog serious illnesses/emergencies are expensive enough that having the insurance is… Read more »

Liz
Liz
11 years ago

I skimmed the last several, don’t know if anyone mentioned grooming or heartworm preventative for dogs. Large (hypoallergenic) dog grooming $60 month, heartworm preventative around $8 month.) I love my dogs, but have come to the point that I’m not sure I can afford the hideous vet bills any more. Down to one dog from two, and asking myself what I can afford. Several expensive dog deaths in the past had me grateful that this last untimely death cost only around $400 – hurts the heart even worse! Another bill for a simple deep cut had prevously cost me $400.… Read more »

MITBeta @ Don't Feed The Alligators
MITBeta @ Don't Feed The Alligators
11 years ago

I’ve written before about how much our dogs have cost us in the last 8 years: over $30,000!

Check it out the whole story here: http://www.dontfeedthealligators.com/blog/the-cost-of-unconditional-love

Aman@BullsBattleBears
11 years ago

Pets are just like family members. I dont question if a child is worth the monthly expenses nor do I question if my elderly parents are worth the money either. To maintain any life costs money and if that life is important enough, you will go through any means to support it. Well that is how I feel anyways.

dora
dora
11 years ago

This completely ignores the most bank-breaking pet fee: sitting. Were it not for pet sitting, we would probably spend $500/year on Otis (dog). As it is, even with all our friends who help, we probably spend $600/year on dogsitting. Most dog boarding places in any city i’ve lived charge about $30-$50 *a night*. When a friend pet-sits for a weekend or more we usually get them a big gift, like a $50 gift certificate to a store they like. We have found trustworthy college students to stay at our place with him for $20/night, but even that adds up if… Read more »

Erica
Erica
11 years ago

Re: Pet Insurance – YES! We have two small dogs, both of which we have insured via Banfied’s “premium” plan. We pay $70 per month ($35 per day) for the plan. It pays for itself in one vet visit to have their teeth cleaned per year. It’s like paying for that one visit, only we get to spread it out over the whole year, interest-free! Plus, all their vaccines and any vet visits are at no additional cost on the plan, and we get like 15% off any special Rx they may need, including Heartguard and flea meds. Very worth… Read more »

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