In the summer of 2012, John walked Cooper through our southern Indiana neighborhood.
Suddenly, Cooper yanked the leash and dove into a storm drain and came up with… a one dollar bill.
He’s our highest grossing dog to date.
Of course, if we look at his net… actually, I guess he’d still be in the best shape because he’s the only one who ever produced any money, that single dollar! 🙂
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In all seriousness, dogs are expensive.
I find myself in conversations with people about all sorts of pet-related topics and cost often comes up in generic terms, and when I look online I see the same generalities around concrete topics. I’m totally guilty of this, too. We say things like: this dog food is inexpensive or this veterinary practice offers lower-cost services or this treat is too expensive or whatever, but inexpensive/expensive/low-cost/whatever to whom? Talking about money feels weird, I know, but when we speak in generalities, it doesn’t help anyone.
I started to google for actually helpful info for when people ask questions about the costs of dog food or veterinary care or whatever, just to have on hand.
There is so much bad information out there. On the INTERNET. Can you believe it?!?
In my head, before I started researching this, I thought I’d pull the numbers from reliable sources, average them together, then make a helpful chart. I definitely did not anticipate the extreme variation in the data. For example, in a simple search on the average cost of dog food for a year, I found articles that suggested dog owners budget anywhere between $100 and $900 per year. Vet visits were the same: Estimates varied from $25 to $125 for an office visit.
Imagine if you never owned a dog before! How confusing would that be?!?
Plus, a lot of super important things were left off of pretty much all the lists while unnecessary items were factored in.
Here’s my big problem with all those charts and lists: They’re income exclusive.
They all indicate that pet ownership is only for those with fat wallets, and you guys know by now that I’m firm in my stance that pet ownership can be accessible to all. But if you’re someone who’s just starting out looking for a pet, all those charts might make you think you’ll never be able to afford it.
Yes, you have to know the realities of the costs associated with committing to a pet for life. I know that when we adopted Emmett, there’s no way we could’ve ticked all the financial boxes listed in those posts, nor could we have predicted the unexpected costs. I’ll get into this more in a minute, but… anyone who’s willing to sacrifice the time and money to bring a pet into their home should be able to find a way.
All this preamble is to say: I’m approaching this a little differently than those quick-glance charts. Stick with me because at the end I’d love to know what you think I missed OR what you’d add/correct.
The REAL Cost of Owning a Dog
Food and treats: What to feed your dog is a highly contentious topic. Some people have chosen dog food as their hill to die on. I’m not one of them. Yes, you can feed your dog for $100 a year. No, it won’t be the best quality dog food, but you can always supplement with fresh veggies or protein. Yes, you can feed your dog for $1200 a year. Will it make you a better owner? Nope. Not one bit. Here’s how to figure out the cost for your dog’s food per month: Take your family’s budget and figure out what amount is set aside for your dog’s food each month. Then, go to a site like Dog Food Advisor and figure out the highest quality of food you can afford each month. Just like in people, generally speaking, the healthier the food, the healthier the dog; however, dog ownership should never be income-dependent, so figure out what you can afford and do your best.
Supplies: Every dog needs a leash and collar. You can find them for under ten bucks for nothing fancy (like this). Emmett had one green nylon buckle collar his entire life, so no need to spend big here unless you want to! You also need food and water dishes, and you can’t beat a simple stainless option like this for price or durability. Of course, you can get super fancy dishes, too, so it’s just down to your budget again. Splurge if you want to; scrimp if you need to! (Check out my tips below for some ideas on this…)
Veterinary Care: Every dog needs to go to the vet at least once a year. That routine vet visit cost varies widely by type of facility and geographic location, not to mention the services your dog needs. Right now, at least according to PetMD, the average cost of an office visit is $50. Remember, that’s the office visit. That’s what they charge you to walk in the door. If you need tests, vaccines, or services like X-rays or dental work, it’ll be more. Just for comparison: Cooper’s annual visit last fall, which included a refill of his allergy med and a box of flea/tick preventative, cost $371. So, when you see people say “$50” know that you’ll never actually pay that! However, there are tons of options when it comes to veterinary care. For instance, google for “low cost vaccine clinic near me.” You might be pleasantly surprised to discover you can get your pet’s shots done for a fraction of the cost at a nearby clinic. Same goes for spay/neuter if you didn’t get your pet from a rescue (they usually take care of that prior to adoption–another reason to go the rescue route!). More tips on budgeting for veterinary care below!
License: Some cities or counties require dogs to be licensed. The fees vary, of course, but they’re pretty low: $10 to $30 or so per year with un-fixed animals always costing more. But don’t skimp here! If you don’t license your pet and get fined, you’ll pay way, way more!
Toys: All dogs need toys. Toys provide stimulation–mental and physical–and enrichment. Some dogs live a happy life with a worn-out tennis ball while others get bored and need something new each week. Most estimates I found said to budget $35 a year on toys. I wanna know what kind of dog can stay interested in $35’s worth of toys because it’s certainly not Cooper. In hindsight, that was Em. He needed a couple toys to carry around. Lucas could thrive on $0 worth of toys because all he needed was to find himself a good stick and he was a happy little clam. That said, this category is dog-dependent, but stretch your money! Don’t put out all your toys at once. Rotate! Buy a few toys your dog likes and switch them every week or so. It keeps them feeling new, fresh, and interesting, while prolonging the life of the toy. You can also DIY with stuff around your house (like our old-faithful “bug” or our plastic-free puzzle toy).
Beds and crates: I’ve spent a lot on dog beds and cat beds over the years, only to have most of them go unused… Beds and crates are lifestyle choices. If you want your dog to be crate-trained, you need to buy a crate. If you want your dog to sleep in bed with you, you might not need a bed. If you’re crafty, you can sew your own stuffable dog bed with fabric you have around the house–even old T-shirts. Otherwise, the best dog bed deal I’ve ever seen was at, of all places, Aldi! They had humongous bolster beds for around $20, though their stock changes so frequently you’d have to pounce on the deal when it comes back. Other options: Goodwill or Tuesday Morning. Again, though, this is a category where you can spend as much or as little as you need to.
Cleaning supplies: When you welcome a pet into your home, you’re going to need to clean stuff. They have accidents. They puke. They shed. If you’re on a tight budget, this is an awesome place to save. Commercial cleaners are super expensive, and you can clean your entire house for a few cents per clean using vinegar and baking soda. Truly, it’s how I clean my entire house. (There’s this awesome cleaning blog with tons of free printable recipes, like this one for vinegar or I have free cleaning guide, which you get as part of the zero-waste pet 7-day email challenge.) The only cleaner I recommend you purchase is an enzymatic cleaner for accidents so that you don’t encourage more accidents by leaving some scent behind. Options range in price from $4 to $30. I suggest finding an affordable option that sells refill jugs like this or this–they’re much cheaper in the long term than individual spray bottles.
Training: So many charts say to budget $110 for a puppy class. OK… for one thing, at least where I live, puppy classes tend to cost more than that. For another, not everyone adopts a puppy. And, for one more, every dog is an individual. Your dog might need a lot more training than one puppy class. Plus, classes are great (with the right trainer, of course) to help a dog stay challenged and enriched his entire life while building your bond through the teamwork associated with learning together. All that said, training can be expensive. Group classes are always cheaper than individual, and some shelters offer free or reduced-cost training classes for pets adopted from them–still another reason to go the rescue route! Honestly? If you can’t afford training, you can DIY with videos on YouTube and books from the library. Focus on positive, science-based resources (Victoria Stilwell, Patricia McConnell, etc.) and then consider joining an organized pack walk for extra, usually free, enrichment.
Things That Happen
Replacing your chewed-up stuff: I’m only slightly joking. Depending on the dog, of course, and how well you can remember to pick up your shoes, you might get off with minimal costs here. That’s not been the case for us. For various reasons over the years, we’ve lost shoes and purses and an entire rug to chewing, we’ve replaced or repainted trim around doors, we’ve accepted that our coffee table and ottoman just have chunks missing, and we’ve tossed more than one chair with toothpick arms. And that’s among lots of other things I’m not remembering AND other things that weren’t chewed, like the set of blinds Lucas took down when he thought he heard something outside.
Emergencies: Is there a single pet anywhere who gets through life unscathed, free from medical emergency? In our experience, that’s unimaginable. We talked about that $50-per-visit fee with veterinary care. Well, if your little one gets injured or sick after hours, that fee jumps up big-time. And then, of course, there are the services involved with stitching a wound, inducing vomiting, administering IV meds, or whatever is required. It’s difficult to budget for medical emergencies because, obviously, you never know they’re going to happen!
Medical conditions or illness: Diabetes, cancer, arthritis, etc. etc. etc. Our dogs can suffer from many chronic conditions, just like we can over our lifetimes. These things add up, especially when it comes to maintenance medications. Just like with medical emergencies, it’s impossible to know what to expect with a new pet, but it’s so, so important to go into pet ownership knowing you might just end up treating a chronic condition and be prepared for that expense. How? I have some tips below…
What other categories or areas do YOU think someone needs to budget for when owning a pet? Did I miss anything? Hopefully I’ve covered the big ones, now onto some ideas on how to actually pay for all this…
Tips to Budget for Pet Care
I wove a handful of budgeting tips throughout the categories above, but here are a handful more that can add up to big savings:
Buy second-hand supplies. This one step alone can save thousands over the life of your pet. Check online resources like the Nextdoor app or craigslist.org. Visit thrift shops like Goodwill or Habitat for Humanity ReStore. You’ll be amazed at how many free or extremely cheap pet supplies you can get. And don’t focus only on pet-specific supplies; a heavy ceramic dish makes a great food bowl or a decorative floor pillow can serve as a pet bed. Just be sure to wash and sanitize anything you pick up used.
DIY. You can make just about anything your pet needs, from his daily meals (working with your vet, obvi) to his bed to his toys to his grooming supplies. If you’re inclined, you can find recipes or tutorials to make absolutely everything for a much, much lower cost.
As for the vet… First, as I mentioned above, find out if there’s a low-cost clinic near you and what services they provide. Then, call around to area vets and ask specific questions: What is your cost per visit? What’s included in that cost? How much does a standard service like a dental cost? Do they offer payment plans? Do they accept CareCredit if it comes down to that? Do they offer any discounts or promotions throughout the year (for example, $100 off a dental during Dental Health Month)? Compare the answers from at least three or four vets. One tip: If you live in a metropolitan area, consider vets outside the city because oftentimes care will less the further out you get from the city.
Track down savings. When you find a food that your dog thrives on and fits your family’s budget, sign up for their email list, like their Facebook page, and follow them on Instagram. Brands love to hand out coupons to loyal customers. Newt, for instance, eats Wellness cat food. Every month their email newsletter contains a coupon for $3 off their canned formula, which equates to a few free cans if I combine it with my store loyalty card. Target recently advertised buy-one-get-one-free for their store brand of dog toys, so I stocked up and stashed a few in a closet to rotate in throughout the year.
Be a squirrel. For areas where you can’t predict or skimp–think, emergency vet care or medications to treat an illness–be prepared. Squirrel away for those instances. I know that it’s much easier said than done. However, I have two money-saving tips that can work for literally any budget if you adhere to them. First, get a jar or a can or a canister. Stick it where you toss your keys and purse. Every week, gather up all your loose change and $1 bills and toss them in the jar. When the jar is full, take the change to a bank or a CoinStar and convert it to bills. Combine with the bills that were in there already and stick it in an envelope. Repeat. It sounds almost too simple to be effective, but you’ll find yourself with a couple hundred dollars a year with this method. The second tip is a little tougher to stick to but makes a huge impact: When you shop for pet supplies with coupons, if you shop at a big retailer, they will ask if you want cash back. Say yes! Get the lowest amount (usually $10), take it home, and stick it in an envelope. Here’s the thing: If you’re using coupons, you’re not technically “saving” money. You’re simply not spending it. So, save it for real with this method! You don’t need to get cash back every time you shop–though you could and that emergency fund would build up faster–but when you use coupons, this method essentially “banks” the money you didn’t spend. Of course, be sure you don’t touch that cash in either envelope until you really, truly need it to take care of your pet!
The bottom line: Pets can be expensive. However, if you focus only on those charts and graphs found online, pet ownership feels income exclusive. That doesn’t have to be the case! When you adopt a pet, you adopt that pet for life. With a little planning and some savvy saving, pet ownership can be accessible and affordable!
Need help calculating how to budget for pet care in your family?
Check out this FREE pet care cost calculator. Input your family’s numbers and spend/save accordingly!