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What Your Pet Really Costs You

By Liz Pulliam Weston on Articles.MoneyCentral.MSN.com

It's easy to forget about long-term costs when you first see that fluffy tail and those big eyes. Educate yourself first, choose the right pet or breed, and learn how to reduce the expenses.

If you've ever owned a big dog, you know they're expensive to feed.

So you might be surprised to know that your petite pussycat, who turns her delicate nose up at every other meal, is likely to cost you more over her lifetime than the typical large dog.

How can that be? Although cats typically eat less than most dogs and usually incur lower vet bills, they tend to live longer. So while dog ownerships translates into a financial commitment of about $8,000 over the animal's lifetime, the typical cat will set you back more than $10,000.

The annual totals include food, recurring medical care, litter (if required), toys and treats, licenses (if required) and pet insurance (on which I have mixed feelings; read "Should you buy pet insurance?" for more).

Setup costs include various gear, training classes for dogs, spaying or neutering, and other initial medical costs, such as worming, basic blood tests and insertion of a microchip ID tag.

These estimates don't include:

  • The expenses of purchasing or adopting the animal.

  • Modifications you may make to your home, such as a dog door or gates.

  • The sometimes extraordinary price tags of veterinary care if a pet suffers an accident or develops a serious disease.

Now, anytime I write about the financial costs of pet ownership, I inevitably hear from outraged animal lovers who say you can't put a price tag on the unconditional love a pet offers.

Perhaps. But those of us who advocate responsible pet ownership -- including the Humane Society of the United States and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA, which provided the cost figures I'm using in this column -- believe it's important to be realistic about the expenses involved so you can budget appropriately for your pet.

"Finding the love of your life in a dog or cat body is the easy part," said Stephanie Shain, the Humane Society's director of outreach. "The hard part is slowing down a bit and really thinking about what this involves. . . . Can you afford this pet?"

Unfortunately, it's the folks who don't think about the costs who are doing their pets and themselves a disservice:

  • Shelters are filled with animals abandoned because their owners can no longer afford them. The nation's mortgage crisis has increased the number of "foreclosure pets," those left behind because families can't find apartments that will accept them or can't afford the increased deposits required. As the economy deteriorates, Shain said, more owners discover the costs of food, litter or veterinary care are too much for their shrinking budgets.

  • Pet owners pinched by costs may be tempted to shortchange their animals by not getting regular veterinary care, for example, or resorting to cheap foods that can cause health problems.

  • At the other extreme, pet owners can sacrifice their own financial stability trying to care for pets they can't afford.

If you're deep in debt and struggling to make ends meet, you may long for the comfort of some furry companionship, but now isn't the time to add another pet to your household. Get your finances on track first.

If you're overwhelmed by the expenses of the pets you've already got, Shain recommended contacting local shelters, animal rescue groups and human services agencies, such as food banks, to see what help might be available.

"Shelters and rescue groups understand there's a problem, and they're trying to help," Shain said. Such aid can include pet food banks, free litter and programs that include discounted veterinary care, including spaying and neutering "so six months from now you don't have six cats instead of one," she said.

If you're considering getting a pet, here's what I'd recommend:

  • Get a detailed cost estimate. The ASPCA guidelines are just a starting point. Costs and life span can very enormously by breed. A Great Dane, for example, can easily cost three times more to feed than a typical large dog. Some breeds are also prone to genetic or other health problems, which will affect your vet bills. Talk to your vet and people who own the breed you want for details.

  • Consider the time commitment as well. Cost isn't the only factor that leads people to regret pets. You may discover you don't have sufficient time to devote to the animal. Think about the animal's needs -- for walks, grooming, training (a must for dogs) and how that will fit with your lifestyle.

  • Reduce costs on the front end. Adoption from a shelter or rescue group is typically far less expensive than buying an animal from a pet shop or breeder However, rescue groups may require "donations" of hundreds of dollars for a placement (do your research).

  • Save up in advance. You should be able to pay those acquisition costs, along with all the other setup expenses, in cash. If you don't plan to buy pet insurance for your dog or cat, set up a special savings account for veterinary care and transfer a few hundred dollars to it each year.

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