How Owning a Dog Can Bite You in the Wallet

Personal Finance
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By Jeff Bogart

Learn more about Jeff on NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor

During the holiday season, many children pester their parents for a puppy. Maybe you’re one of those parents whose kids are trying to convince you that they’ll take care of the new pet, and that you won’t be stuck having to clean up after it or take it for walks.

You might even be starting to consider your children’s pleas. After all, is there a more endearing scene on Christmas morning than an adorable puppy, wearing a bow and peeking out of a box? You can almost hear the kids shrieking with delight.

People tend to make emotional decisions when choosing a pet (we do that with other investments, too). The reality is that the cost of owning a midsize dog throughout a reasonably long life span could add up to the price of a down payment on a house or even a year or two of higher education.

Paying up for your pup

In “The Cost of Owning a Dog,” veterinarians Dr. Race Foster and Dr. Marty Smith report how pricey owning a dog can be. Starting with the initial costs (which can be as high as $1,500 and include purchase price, vaccinations, toys, crates, beds, possibly training classes, and adoption fees or payments to the breeder for purebreds), they break down the costs year-to-year over a 14-year life span.

Ongoing costs, which can add up to $200 per month, include visits to the vet, food, and products and services such as grooming, training, boarding and flea control.

Here are their total estimated costs for a 50-pound dog throughout its 14-year lifetime:

  • Low estimate: $4,242
  • Medium estimate: $12,468
  • High estimate: $38,905

As your dog ages, it’s not uncommon for it to develop a hip problem, allergies or some other illness, leading to the higher estimates. Because of modern medical technology, veterinarians can now perform once unheard-of operations and procedures on suffering dogs and cats, significantly increasing both their life expectancy and their owner’s happiness. However, these latest procedures can be costly. The authors write that they routinely saw clients who spent over $2,000 on a single veterinary problem.

I should mention that the authors live in the Midwest. If you live in a more expensive city, such as New York or Los Angeles, expect the costs to be even higher. Of course, most of us won’t end up spending nearly $40,000, but some might spend even more.

>> MORE: How pet owners can prepare for financial emergencies

Pets vs. retirement savings

At these totals, it makes sense to consider whether owning a pet can actually have a significant effect on your current financial situation. Spending $5,000 for an emergency pet visit, for example, can deplete short-term savings or cause you to go into debt by putting that bill on a credit card. Paying off this debt could even affect your long-term financial goals if you can’t afford to make retirement plan contributions because of the vet bills.

One way to help keep these bills from getting out of hand would be to buy pet health insurance. This type of insurance can help alleviate the financial burden of caring for the animal members of your family. A multitude of pet insurance companies exist today, all varying in services covered, cost, customer service and claim reimbursement. Like any other insurance coverage, you’d need to compare the benefits they provide and the cost of the insurance premium, the deductibles and the copays.

Apart from the cost analysis, there is another factor that might be the single most important item on the ledger: your time. Plain and simple, dogs take a lot of it. Walking, feeding, cleaning up, training and even home repairs are part of the time commitment. If you’re not willing or able to spend a significant portion of your free time with your dog, you may want to consider getting a less-time-consuming pet instead. Or maybe consider not getting a pet at all.

Make no bones about it (I couldn’t resist): Owning a dog can add up to big investment dollars. Before putting your finances at risk, make sure that you can truly afford a dog.


Image via iStock.