How to budget for a pet

It's hard to put a price on owning a pet, especially considering the many joys they can bring to someone's life. Adopting a cat, dog or other animal provides invaluable companionship and can be a small way of giving back to the community, but before doing so, it's essential to understand the costs involved. If you head into pet ownership with a good idea of how much you can expect to spend on their care, you have a better chance of improving the life of your animal, your family and yourself.

Basic expenses

For the sake of simplicity, we will look at the fundamentals of budgeting for either a cat or a dog. With so many breeds and special needs that could crop up among these two groups of animals, there are already numerous factors at play in determining the average cost of ownership.

The budget for any companion animal will need to account for at least these basic needs, some of which are one-time expenses while others are recurring:

  • Food.
  • Veterinary care (including potentially neutering or spaying). 
  • Equipment (carrier, bed, toys, etc.).
  • Adoption fees.
  • Training.
  • Grooming.
  • Petsitting (either for routine dogwalking while you're at work, or occasional boarding during vacations).

Many of these expenses can vary widely and involve a good deal of uncertainty, so it can be hard to assign dollar values to these budget items without knowing the specific pet's needs. A writer at PetEducation.com broke down spending for her own cat - she found total ownership costs amounted to $862 in the first year and around $520 each year afterward. For the typical dog, PetEducation found costs can come out to nearly $2,000 in the first year and about $800 in subsequent years.

By far, the biggest budget item involved in pet ownership is related to health care. Just like most people, it's recommended that pets take a trip to the vet once or twice a year for a checkup and vaccinations. Vet bills are often higher in the first year of ownership because dogs and cats need to receive several vaccinations at once, and generally should also be neutered or spayed. Some animal shelters might roll these costs into their adoption fee.

There is also the chance that a dog or cat will need to make special visits to the vet once in a while for illness, injury and emergencies. Just like with humans, dogs and cats are susceptible to infections, chronic diseases and other ailments that might require ongoing treatment - and therefore increase costs. That's why lifetime care cost estimates for dogs and cats can vary by tens of thousands of dollars.

DogOwning a dog can be a great addition to the family, but one you'll need to budget for.

Pet insurance

The most obvious way to prepare for unexpected vet bills or other surprises is to pad your savings account with extra cash. However, more pet owners are considering special insurance plans for their dogs and cats that can ease some of this financial burden. 

Pet insurance is almost identical in concept to our own health insurance plans: Owners pay a regular premium, a deductible for claims, plus co-insurance that kicks in beyond the deductible. But since pet insurance is not subject to the same laws and regulations as human health insurance, there are a few important distinctions to note:

  • Pet insurers are allowed to deny coverage to animals due to pre-existing conditions.
  • Insurance plans can vary widely between providers in what they cover.
  • The cost of pet insurance and pet health care is not tax-deductible.

According to The Wirecutter, which spoke with veterinarians and other experts about pet insurance plans, comparison shopping and enrolling your pet early in life are two of the best ways to save on these plans. And they did find that over time, pet insurance could save pet owners a sizeable amount compared to simply stashing an equivalent amount in a savings account, but it's hard to say what's right for everyone. 

"The idea of self-insuring—setting aside money every month for medical bills—is smart for small fees, but it's just not realistic in a catastrophe, where fairly common treatments can run into the tens of thousands of dollars," The Wirecutter wrote.

No matter how you accomplish it, pet owners need to prioritize savings for the health and happiness of their companion, as well as the rest of their family.

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