How you can put a price tag on a the furry friend who sits in your lap or curls up at your feet? It’s almost unthinkable — yet every year people are forced to give up beloved pets because they can no longer afford to keep them. An unexpected illness or accident can put a sudden strain on household finances. Talking about the costs may sound harsh to animal lovers, but it makes good financial sense to budget for the care of a family member.

If you’re looking to bring a new cat or dog into the household, here are the numbers you’ll need to factor in:

Initial costs

All new pets require some basic necessities to get them started, including: a carrier or crate, food bowls, a bed, collar, toys, grooming needs, spaying or neutering and microchip or tattoo. Add it all up, and the total can run into hundreds of dollars.

And that doesn’t include the purchase or adoption of a pet:

- A purebred cat or dog can cost between $500 and $1200, depending on the breed.

- Adopting an animal from local shelter cost between $85 to $100 for cats, and $135 to $275 for dogs. There may be an addition $75 deposit which is refunded when you have your pet sterilized.

- “Free” pets offered through the classified often need a veterinary examine, testing and treatment for parasites and vaccinations. According to the Kitchener-Waterloo Humane Society, these costs could amount to hundreds of dollars. (see their Comparison Chart for more details).

So what’s the total? A guide published by the British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BCSPCA) places one-time costs at $282 for cats and $340 for dogs. These estimates include shelter adoption costs, so you’ll need to add the difference if you go purchase from a breeder.

What this guide doesn’t include is other incidental expenses you might find. For instance, many new puppy parents purchase baby gates to provide safe boundaries, and go to “puppy school” to socialize and train their youngsters.

You may want to buy a book about raising your pet, or invest in additional chew toys, scratching posts and other protective measures for your carpet and furniture. Cleaning supplies are also a must, and it never hurts to have some specialty products on hand if your pet gets sprayed by a skunk.

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Ongoing costs

What do you need to budget for in a typical year? Include food, routine vet check-ups, vaccinations, flea prevention, grooming and licenses. Your total costs will vary depending on the size and type of your pet. Smaller breeds of dogs and cats cost less to feed, and their smaller-sized accessories are less expensive to buy. If you take a yearly trip, you’ll need to add $15 a day for dogs and $10 for cats to your vacation budget for boarding or pet-sitting costs.

The BCSPCA places ongoing yearly costs at about $700 for a cat and $860 for a medium-sized dog. These estimates are in keeping with official data — Statistics Canada reports that pet owners spent an average of $770 on pet-related expenses in 2006. To put the numbers in perspective, that’s less than one fifth of what the average Canadian household spent on recreation, and half of what was spent on tobacco and alcohol.

There are ways to cut down costs. For example, learning to groom your pet at home will save money. Nail clipping costs $15 each visit — a savings of $90-$180 a year. You can also save money by brushing and bathing your pet at home — as much as $40 per trip.

Be wary of other cost-cutting measure. Cheaper brands of food can lead to health problems later on, and less expensive toys won’t last as long as good quality, durable products. Don’t expect “outdoor” cats to save you money on litter. You’ll need to budget more for veterinary care to deal with parasites and increased health problems, in addition to the risk of injury or death.

On average, indoor cats live twice as long as their outdoor counterparts.  Aging pets will also require more medical care, so expect that pet costs won’t be uniform throughout their lives. Veterinary medicine has made numerous advances over the past few years, so there is better disease detection and treatment options available today. It’s important to discuss with your family how far you will go to keep an aging pet happy and healthy.

Emergency care

Pets of all ages are susceptible to serious illnesses and injuries, which can quickly add up to thousands of dollars. These unexpected costs can be hard to absorb without an emergency resource. Preventative measures could be as simple as making more room in your emergency back-up fund or setting aside a lump sum.

Another option is pet insurance. Premiums range from $120 to over $500 a year, depending on the pet and level of coverage. As with any insurance policy, shop around for the best rates and features, and read the policy very closely for conditions and exclusions. Some policies only cover accidents and illnesses, not bills for routine check-ups and vaccines.

As an alternative, some experts suggest setting up a savings account or cashable investment and making regular deposits. It may not completely cover costs if an accident or illness occurs early in your pet’s life, but it might save you thousands of dollars in premiums in the long run. Your money remains in your control, and even earns a little interest in the process.

The bottom line

It’s difficult to predict the lifetime cost of owning a pet. Multiplying average yearly costs by the expected lifespan doesn’t account for the changing needs of pets as they grow up. Time commitment is also a factor, and adding a second pet doesn’t always translate to double the expenses.

However, there’s another side to this equation: the benefits. You can’t attach a dollar value to things like companionship, decreased stress levels, lower blood pressure, disease prevention and warding off depression. There’s a reason that “pet therapy” programs are popular in hospitals and long-term care facilities: Pets are good for people.

Money shouldn’t be a deterrent, but having an idea of the costs and budgeting accordingly means that neither owner nor pet will meet with any unexpected sacrifices down the road.

Sources: British Columbia SPCA, Statistics Canada: Spending Patterns in Canada 2006

Note: These figures are from Canadian sources and are quoted in Canadian dollars. To see how costs compare in the U.S., see the ASPCA website for details.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ PK-Photos

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by:
Elizabeth Rogers