Are Pets Frugal: Annual Pet Costs

In the next in my series of ponderings about what constitutes frugality, I tackle pets. Many people would argue that pet ownership isn’t frugal because it’s a 100% optional expense. Pets are more than a mouth to feed, though; they also provide numerous benefits to their owners. Although it depends on the type of pet you choose, pet costs also aren’t as high as you might think.

Cat Care Costs

Cats are much cheaper than dogs. You can often get a cat for free from friends and neighbors, or you can adopt one for the cost of the shots and spaying or neutering from a shelter, pound, or pet rescue organization.

The initial costs can be high – for example an indoor cat will need three rounds of shots, plus the costs to have them fixed. You’ll also need to buy a litter box, litter, toys, food dishes, and scratch pads or a scratching post. Aside from the vet costs, start-up costs are around $200, but it can vary. You can buy a good scratch pad for $7 or splurge on a luxury cat tree with sisal posts for $500. We have a sturdy sisal post that cost around $50, but our cats prefer the $7 corrugated cardboard pads.

The costs also depend on whether you have an indoor cat or an outdoor cat. Outdoor cats require annual vet visits and more shots. Indoor cats rarely need to visit the vet until they reach their senior years. Vet costs vary by region, but ours are around $45 a visit, plus the cost of immunizations and lab tests. Getting them fixed was around $100 each. We have a very good vet, but you can also find low-cost clinics that provide excellent care. Our total year one cost for vet visits, neutering, and shots was around $300.

Food costs are fairly low – around $15 a month for high-quality wet and dry food.

Litter can also run about $10 a month if you buy good litter (which I recommend.)

If you travel, your cat can usually last a couple days without you, but after that you’ll need to hire a sitter to drop by to clean the litter box and replenish food, or ask a friend to do it. Sitter costs vary by region, but assume about $25 a visit. Friends are free, but you should at least take them to lunch or make them dinner as a thank you. You can also pay the neighbor kid about $20 for a week.

For longer trips, you may need to look into a kennel, which can run $30 or more per day.

The Los Angeles Times estimates that the average family spends $244 a year on their cat. We spend more than that, but we buy them very high quality food. The total is around $600 a year for our two cats.

Dog Care Costs

Overall, dogs cost more than cats. Most dogs are not indoor-only, which means they require more vet visits and shots. The Los Angeles Times says the mean cost to own a dog is $395 a year.

Dogs are rarely available for free. They’re usually purchased from breeders, where prices vary widely depending on the breed. However, you can adopt a stray mutt from the pound for around $50.

Initial start-up costs include shots, pest removal, spaying or neutering, dog bed, food bowls, collars, and leashes. The total cost can be around $350, depending on local vet costs and the accessories you choose to buy.

If you travel, you’ll either need to hire a sitter or ask a friend or neighbor to walk your dog at least once a day and freshen the food. Sitter costs can be around $25-30 a day for drop-in visits. A kennel can be as high as $55 a day. Check with a local humane society to see if they offer lower fees.

Food averages about $20 a month, but largely depends on the kind of food you choose.

Unlike indoor cats, dogs also need yearly vet visits and shots, which can add another $2-300 to your annual vet bill.

However, the costs of owning a dog are outweighed by the health benefits. Because you have to walk your dog, you’re guaranteed daily exercise that will help keep you fit. Dog ownership has also been shown to reduce stress and improve blood pressure.

Reducing Pet Costs

There are a few ways to reduce your pet expenses:

Get a mutt. Mixed breed animals are cheaper to buy, and usually have lower healthcare costs. Purebreds may have genetic weaknesses that make them more prone to illness.

Use a low-cost clinic. Pet stores often offer low-cost weekend clinics for basic immunizations and check-ups.

Buy insurance. Most owners don’t have insurance because of the high deductibles and premiums, but you should consider if you have an expensive breed prone to illness. You could also opt to put the premium in a savings account where it will earn interest until you need it.

Don’t panic. Cats and dogs sometimes exhibit strange behavior. Unless it involves bleeding from strange places or an obvious infection, wait a few days to see if it clears up before you visit the vet only to be told, “Yeah, cats do that sometimes.”

Double-check pet deposits. If you live in an apartment, your landlord may ask for a pet deposit. Before you pay up, make sure that they’re allowed by state law. In California, they must be refundable. The pet deposit plus the security deposit can’t be more than two times the monthly rent.

I firmly believe that pet costs are worth it. Although it’s not a frugal choice, it’s also not a huge expense that doesn’t provide a benefit. We wouldn’t give up our cats unless we had a dire situation. Do you think pets are worthwhile expense? Tell me in the comments.

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