Animal Overhead: The Actual Cost of Owning a Pet

Albus Atlas
If someone said you could improve your health by sitting on the couch, you’d want to know more, right? Well, the answer could be the purring furball or the drooling pooch sitting next to you. Some of the perks of owning a pet are well known; there is, of course, unconditional love and constant companionship, but there are other health-related benefits. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control, pet ownership can actually decrease your blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels as well as help to increase your frequency of outdoor activities and improve socialization. It can also aid in combating feelings of loneliness, depression, and anxiety and even help fight against the development of allergies and asthma. But it comes with a price.

Pet ownership in the U.S. is at an all-time high and has tripled since the 1970s. The Humane Society estimates there are 83 million dogs and 96 million cats personally owned in the U.S. This begs the question, just HOW much is that doggie (or kitten, hamster, bunny, lizard, guinea pig) in the window, let alone the free kitten from Nana’s farm? From the cost of the actual animal, to set-up fees, vet visits, grooming, and food, the price of your average four-legged friend can easily run upward of $10,000 over their life span.

Jared Eide, store manager of PetSmart in West Fargo, has been around animals his entire life. He took his first job out of high school at the now defunct Dakota Tropicals and went on to head up the specialty department at Petco, until landing his job at PetSmart in 2005. The quintessential “pet guy,” Eide has owned his share of dogs, cats, iguanas, chinchillas, and fish. He currently has an English bulldog named Roxy and a green cheek conure named Carl.

“The first thing I tell people when they’re thinking about getting a pet is to sleep on it.” Eide says doing research on the cost and care of an animal and taking time to digest that information can help prevent problems in the future. “It may look cute and fuzzy in the store, but it will be shredding your pillows and digging in your yard.” The major reasons people get rid of their pets are bad behavior and misunderstanding the costs and time commitment required. “It’s not that they don’t love them; it usually comes down to, ‘Can I get a tank of gas or feed my dog?’”

Eide says if you’re unsure about pet ownership or concerned about costs, look at less expensive options or animals with shorter life spans like tropical fish, hamsters, or guinea pigs. “I like to recommend tropical fish for kids. They’re a great teaching tool for biology and chemistry.” He says smaller pets, who generally have shorter life spans, are also a great way to teach younger kids about the death of an animal, which can be more traumatizing with a dog or cat.

Eide recommends adoption, since those are the animals that need homes the most, and he warns against buying animals from unknown sources. The prevalence of puppy and kitten mills in the U.S. is growing, so if you don’t know exactly who the breeder is, you could be unwittingly contributing to animal mistreatment, or you may end up with a sickly pet who is susceptible to myriad health problems.

Carol Stefonek, co-founder and co-director of CATS Cradle Shelter, a no-kill, cats-only shelter in Fargo, sees pet adoption as a great option to purchasing. With the help of other area organizations, the shelter, which opened in 2011, has dropped the number of euthanized, adoptable cats from roughly 600 a year to zero—impressive by any standard!

Through their rescue, education, and adoption program, CATS Cradle takes in more than 500 cats and kittens a year, hoping to find adoptable, forever homes for them. They have some fairly rigorous adoption requirements. Candidates are intensely interviewed by staff. “We go by our gut feeling,” says Stefonek, “and the main requirement is, do you have enough love?”
Adoption fees at CATS Cradle are $109 and include a FeLV/FIV test, deworming, distemper and rabies vaccinations, spay/neuter, and a microchip.

Pet collage

Vet Costs
Raina Wagner, vet appointment assistant and head receptionist at Animal Health Clinic, Fargo, has been an animal lover her whole life and says regular vet checks are a must. “All pets should have at least a yearly visit. Pets that are sick or have health issues need to be seen fairly regularly, for medication, to make sure nothing serious has changed with their health.”

Wagner says that while costs range for different services, it’s something people need to plan for when bringing a pet into their family. At Animal Health Clinic, a typical wellness exam is just over $50 and includes a thorough check-up of the animal’s general health, weight, heart rate, and temperature. “Vaccinations vary depending on what your pets need and what their exposure risks are,” says Wagner. For example, an indoor cat will need different vaccines than an outdoor cat; dogs usually require a wider array of vaccines. Basic vaccinations run from about $20 to $40 per vaccine.

Responsible pet owners will have their animals spayed or neutered. Vets generally require a wellness exam before surgery, and again, costs vary based on age and size of the animal and other surgical options available. Basic costs for a canine spay/neuter for a puppy under eight months and less than 25 pounds range from $220 to $290, and for cats, spay/neuter costs range from $200 to $300.

Boarding, Pet Sitting, and Daycare Costs
So, what happens to your sweet pet when you get invited to Cousin Sally’s wedding in Florida or when you know there won’t be anyone to feed or play with your pet during the day? Luckily, there are several pet care options. Let’s start with boarding. Most boarders, also referred to as pet hotels, have private accommodations based on a daily or overnight rate. Generally, these places only offer services to cats and dogs and structure their prices accordingly. Local rates range from $14 to $22 a night for dogs and $12 to $15 for cats. Some boarders have daycare rates (mostly for dogs), which range from $15 for a half day to $25 for a full day, with discounts for multiple days.

Boarding your pet isn’t always an option. Some animals don’t tolerate the social aspect of boarding or simply do not do well outside their home. Chad Jacobson, owner of Pioneer Pet Services, started an in-home pet sitting business in 2006 along with his wife, Roxanna. They not only come to the client’s home, they also cater to a wider array of animals than traditional boarders. Jacobson says they’ll pretty much consider any small domestic pet. “Dogs and cats, of course, rabbits, tortoises, fish, birds, snakes, and ferrets. We even had a guy who asked if we’d care for his caiman, which is a small crocodile.” Jacobson charges per visit and spends 15 to 20 minutes on feeding, potty break, meds, and playtime. Jacobson charges a per visit/per day fee; his rates are $14 for one visit, $27 for two, $39 for three, and $50 for four.

Dogs, Cats, and Rabbits
Average cost: Approximately $1,000 per year.
Lifespan: 
Small Dogs—13 to 16 years
Medium Dogs—10 to 12 years
Large Dogs—8 to 9 years
Cats—15 to 20 years
Rabbits—8 to 12 years

Guinea Pigs
Average cost: Approximately $600 per year.
Lifespan: 5 to 7 years

Hamster
Average cost: Approximately $300 per year.
Lifespan: 2 to 3 years

Grooming Costs
Rub-a-dub-dub, three cats in a tub. Well, maybe not. But in truth, all animals, even those that groom themselves, can use a little sprucing up from time to time. Pet grooming, especially for dogs, is an often overlooked necessity, and major cost, of pet ownership. Unless you’re well-versed in the art of nail clipping, anal expression, claw trimming, or bath-giving, you may have to call a professional. John Shipley and Tina Bratton handle the grooming at PetSmart in West Fargo.

Shipley says, “Depending on the dog, they should be groomed every six to eight weeks,” and stresses the importance of clipping nails—they get hard to trim after a certain length. Bratton emphasizes the need for grooming in longer-haired breeds. “People don’t realize how painful matting is for an animal. Matts pull on hair and can cause pain and even tear at the skin,” says Bratton. Estimates for basic grooming for dogs run $40 to $60 depending on the size of the dog and include a basic shampoo, nail trim, ear cleaning, and anal gland expression. Cat grooming varies in price and depends on the behavior of the cat.

Time Costs
There is a financial cost involved in pet ownership, but before becoming a pet owner, you must also consider the time costs. There is the day-to-day time it takes to care for a pet, but there is also the life span of responsibility, as well. Some animals can live for decades, and much of it has to do with the care the animal receives. On average, cats can live 15 to 20 years, dogs from eight to 16 years (depending on the breed), rabbits up to 12 years, guinea pigs up to seven years, exotic birds up to 90 years (you read that right!), lizards up to 20 years, snakes 20 to 30 years, and tortoises up to 100 years (in very ideal circumstances). That means, if you decided to get a kitten your freshman year of college, you could be well into your 30s when he goes over the “rainbow bridge.”

In addition, experts say the amount of time you spend with your pet will directly affect its behavior and ability to socialize with people and other animals. And while each animal has its own set of unique time needs, almost every pet should be held, hugged, played with, and exercised multiple times a day, every day.

For many, pet ownership is something akin to having a child. Costs have to be considered, time commitment and lifestyle need to be taken into account. Eide and Stefonek both agree the most important thing to remember when getting an animal is that it is a lifelong commitment and not something to be entered into lightly. If you’re considering a pet, do the research, crunch some numbers, and then decide if taking or leaving that doggie in the window is the best choice for both of you. For most pet owners, the benefits far outweigh the costs.

A North Dakota native, Megan Bartholomay is a freelance writer and editor with an addiction to grammar, cats, wine, and good food. She lives in downtown Fargo with her husband, Mike, and their bevy of fuzzy babies.

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