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Spending

The True Cost of Owning a Pet

How much is that doggy (or kitty, or birdie) in the window really? The total price tag is probably a lot more than you think.

One look at those puppy-dog eyes and wagging tail and it’s easy for all your money smarts to fly out the window. Nonetheless, it is important to consider your lifestyle and budget before bringing home Fluffy or Fido. While there are many foreseeable expenses, such as food and toys, other costs may come as a shock. Need a dog walker, for instance? That can cost as much as $5,200 annually. Pet boarding can extract hundreds of dollars from your bank account, especially if you travel several times a year.

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Maybe your budget can easily accommodate regular pet-care expenses, but are you prepared for the higher costs of emergency care? It’s a question that some pet-adoption groups pose to would-be owners: How much money are you prepared to spend on Fido in an emergency? $1,000? $5,000? $10,000? What about for your hamster or parakeet?

Robert Long, managing editor for Kiplinger.com, and his wife have spent more than $13,000 on their 7-year-old beagle, Bailey, this year alone. A sudden and extreme case of Rocky Mountain spotted fever in May led to irreversible blindness and the surgical removal of Bailey’s eyes. Two months later, a ruptured disc in Bailey’s back required emergency surgery to resolve temporary rear-limb paralysis. “You don’t want to think about the worst-case scenario," Long says, "but you should.”

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Over the years, the Longs had budgeted for emergency pet care, and they have pet insurance, so the financial hit wasn’t as bad as it could have been. The Longs are getting back more than $4,500 of their expenses from Bailey’s insurance. “Bailey is our family,” Long says, “so we just told the vet, ‘Do what you need to do.’ It didn’t occur to me until this was all over that some owners might have had to consider euthanasia as an option if they weren’t as prepared for all the bills.”

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As veterinary procedures become more advanced, people are less likely to put their pet to sleep when it gets severely sick or injured. Owners will likely incur at least one $2,000 - $4,000 bill for emergency care at some point during their pet’s lifetime, says Dr. Louise Murray, vice-president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital, in New York City.

The prospect of such high costs weighs heavily on many pet owners. Almost half said they were extremely or somewhat worried that they would not be able to afford veterinary care if their pet got sick, according to a 2010 survey by the Associated Press and Petside.com. “The biggest problem I see are people who assume that everything will be fine until their pet is 18 years old,” said Murray. “That’s just incredibly rare. You want to have a plan.”

Preventive care is also important in corralling costs. Having a pet is “kind of like owning a car,” Murray says. “If you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, it will end up being a lot more expensive in the end.” That means getting your pet spayed or neutered, going to the vet for annual check-ups, keeping your pet’s vaccinations and preventive medicines up to date, feeding you pet the proper food, and keeping your pet confined indoors or in a yard and out of harm’s way.

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Although the cost of routine care is more predictable, it varies widely from animal to animal, and even from breed to breed -- and also from owner to owner. For instance, fish and reptiles can drain your wallet by increasing the cost of your electric bill. Larger breeds of dogs will eat a lot more food than, say, a Chihuahua, and long-haired pets will need to go to the groomer more often. If you have allergies, you may need to get a hypoallergenic pet, which usually costs more both initially and in the long run. If you are away from home a lot, you may need to consider doggy day care or a dog walker, two services that add significantly to your total cost of ownership.

Check out our slide shows to learn about all the expenses you should anticipate for your dog, your cat, or your small animal.

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