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A Budgeting Guide for Pet Owners

Kate Ashford
A Budgeting Guide for Pet Owners

If you own a pet, you’re in good company. Sixty-eight percent of U.S. households—84.6 million of them—own one, according the American Pet Products Association. Most of those animals are dogs or cats, but there are also a fair number of fish, reptiles and small animals.

And pets are great—in fact, people love their pets so much that they even buy them things for Valentine’s Day, to the tune of an expected $886 million this year, according to the National Retail Federation.

But as wonderful as your furry (and scaly) friends are, however, they’re not always so budget friendly. “Outside of the normal food, toys, treats, etc., there are just things that come up,” said Ben Myhre, a food blogger at RamShacklePantry.com. Myhre lives in Fargo, N.D., and owns a St. Bernard named Kate Winslet and several cats.

“We didn’t expect to have to buy insulin for a cat, and we didn’t expect to have to pay to put the dog on a water treadmill,” Myhre says. “And when you bring a cat into the kitty ER at 2 a.m. and they end up intubating her, the bills can rack up.”

Average cost of owning a pet

The amount you’ll spend on your pet depends on a few factors. First, dogs are the most expensive pet to own, costing anywhere from $395 to as high as $2,455 in the first year alone, with up to $1,967 in each additional year, according to PetFinder. That includes food, toys, supplies, vaccines and routine care, heartworm and flea/tick prevention.

But that’s just an average, and there are other things that will add to your bottom line, including grooming, training, boarding fees and emergency veterinary care that might pop up.

Cats tend to be less expensive, but not dramatically so. PetFinder estimates first-year expenses for a cat of $405 to $2,285, and up to $1,825 each year after that.

Though lifetime costs can vary dramatically depending on the type of animal you have, and its size and breed, PolicyGenius estimates that small breed dogs will cost you $5,980, while larger breeds will cost you $7,800. Cats will cost you $7,640.

table comparing estimated costs of owning a dog vs a cat

What to include in your budget

As you’re thinking about what Fido or Lulu is going to cost you in the short- and long-term, here are some things to keep in mind.

pet food in a bowl

Food

There are many varieties of food on the market these days, and you may wonder whether you need to go grain free or choose a specialty food.

“The truth is, most dogs do not have food allergies, and a tried and true dry food is still the gold standard,” said Jeff Franklin, owner and operator of Cobra Canine, a dog training center and kennel in Virginia Beach, Va. “There are expensive foods as well as cheap, and you do get what you pay for. Select a food that isn’t bottom grade but has good solid ingredients included.”

Franklin suggests looking for “real food” items—“Just as with people, if you can’t pronounce or understand the word in the list, it could be questionable,” he said. Expect to spend up to $500 a year for this.

vaccine shot

Veterinary care

“Just as humans have yearly physicals, eye exams and shots, animals also need to have regular veterinary checks throughout their lives,” Franklin said. Plan on spending $150 to $400 a year to keep you pet in good health.

pet toys

Toys

“Dog bones and toys are an expense that may not seem necessary, but it would be unfair of us to expect an animal, which is bred to chew, not to have an outlet for their natural tendency,” Franklin said. Plan to spend $30 to $50 a year on this category.

heartworm and flea/tick prevention

Heartworm and flea/tick prevention

“Heartworms are much more prevalent in untreated dogs than one would imagine, and a simple chew once a month can make sure that your pet won’t have to endure months of suffering,” Franklin said. Fleas can make your pet scratch incessantly and can infest your home, and tick-borne illnesses will add to your medical costs. Plan on up to $200 a year for these preventatives.

grooming scissors

Grooming

If you have a short-haired cat or dog, you may not need much in the way of trims, but if you’ve got a long-haired animal, you’ll likely need regular hair care. You may also have to pay for baths and nail trimmings, depending on your comfort level and your animal’s cooperation. Costs will vary depending on your needs, but professional regular grooming could reach as high as $1,200.

bandaids

Insurance

If you don’t have the funds to pay for a pricey pet illness out of pocket—or you’d just rather not—pet insurance can help. On average, dog owners pay about $45 a month for pet insurance and cat owners pay about $28. You may also need to purchase additional insurance coverage if your renters or homeowners insurance limits or doesn’t cover injuries caused by your breed of dog.

pet hotel

Boarding

If you travel frequently—or even if you just take a regular vacation each summer—you must consider boarding costs, which can run from $15 to $50 a day.

pet collar

Walking

If you work full-time and you can’t get home in the middle of the day, you’ll have to think about whether you need someone to walk your pet when you’re not at home. Dog walkers charge, on average, $15 to $20 for a 20-minute walk.

How to create a budget that includes Fido

Budgeting for your pet involves a bit of guesswork, because while you can estimate some costs, you can’t foresee others, such as unexpected illnesses. Pets tend to eat things they shouldn’t, or they develop chronic diseases or cancer. Myhre spent about $2,500 on the 2 a.m. emergency vet visit for his elderly cat.

“Generally speaking, I’m a fan of setting a monthly budget for pet costs to keep things simple,” said Benjamin Yeung, a financial planner in Columbia, Md., who owns two cats and a snake. “Routine vet exams and vaccinations can be averaged out over the year, with a little cushion, just in case.”

Millennials spend $1,285 per year on their dogs, according to a TD Ameritrade study. So a millennial dog owner might budget for about $107 a month for pet care. An app like Mint can help you track expenses year-over-year, so you can base the next year’s budget number on what you spent the previous year.

That said, it’s also crucial to have an emergency fund — both because you should have one anyway (right?) and because surprise medical expenses can be steep. Even if you have pet insurance, it will likely take some time to be reimbursed for your bills.

If you don’t have an adequate emergency fund, experts recommend three to six months of living expenses in an interest-earning savings account. Get there by having a regular amount of money automatically transferred from your checking account on paydays until you’ve stockpiled enough.

How to mitigate costs

Take care of your pets: Getting regular physicals and keeping up with vaccines can help you catch problems early and head off parasite issues. You can even brush your dog’s teeth to prevent periodontal disease (if he’ll let you).

Do your own grooming: If your dog will let you clip their nails and give them a bath, you’ll save a bundle in the long run. That said, if this creates anxiety for you or your pet, then it’s a task best left to professionals.

Consider pet insurance: As mentioned above, pet insurance can prevent you from going thousands of dollars into debt if you run into a major medical issue. That said, understand that you might pay for a policy for years and never use it—and that’s okay.

“The point of it isn’t to get back more money than you put into it,” Yeung said. “The point is that when something expensive happens, you want to take cost off the table.”

Look for a policy with few restrictions — one that covers most things outside of preventative care. It should reimburse for actual vet bills and cover a high percentage of costs. If you can, find one with an annual deductible rather than a deductible per incident—“it makes budgeting much simpler,” Yeung said.

Bottom line

Pets are a part of the family for many people, and they can add a lot of joy to your life as long as you’ve planned for their presence: “If potential pet owners were shown this list prior to adding an animal to their home, we believe that less animals would end up in shelters,” said Franklin. Budgeting realistically for pet costs can help you enjoy your furry companions without stressing about how they’ll affect your bottom line.