Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The PET Trap

I love my greyhound, who is a wonderful, loving pet.  But realize that even a small dog or cat will cost hundreds of dollars a year in vet bills, pet food, and pet medications.  If you are on a strict budget, think hard before getting a pet.  And watch out for pet hoarding - if you have four, five, or six pets, perhaps you need to step back a bit and think about where this is going - and whether you have a mental health problem.


I love pets, don't get me wrong. So in a way, I hate to write this next post. However, many folks fall into the Pet Trap, and it can be an expensive trap at that. Think carefully before you start acquiring pets. As in my "Hobbies Run Amok!" article, pets can go from being an inexpensive hobby to a financial nightmare in a hurry.

Logically, one does not "need" a pet, of course. Pets don't provide food, clothing, or shelter. For many of us, pets fill in an emotional need that is as real as our physical needs. However, for some, pets become an obsession that takes over their lives.

Before taking on a pet, assess the real costs involved, both in terms of immediate and long-term cost, as well as the opportunity cost. Purchasing a pet is often an inexpensive transaction. Since so many are discarded (usually because their owners cannot afford them - a lesson right there) you can inexpensively acquire a dog or cat at your local shelter. Paying large sums of money for a "designer" breed is, to me, a horrible waste of money, when in many shelters, these breeds are available for free.

In addition, by purchasing a pet from a store or breeder, you are adding to the animal population problem - by encouraging people to breed pets for sale. Many breeding operations are little more than "puppy mills" where dogs or cats are cranked out to satisfy the current whims for accessory animals (when fashions change, these animals end up at the shelter). As a result, many of the "popular" breeds are inbred and prone to expensive and heartbreaking genetic disorders, which can add significantly to the cost of owning a pet.

But the question of designer animals brings up another point: What is your real reason for adopting the animal in the first place? If the color, size, and type of the animal is more important than its character and nature, then are you buying a pet as an expensive show-off accessory, or because you want a companion? It is an ugly question, but in most instances, the answers are equally as ugly.

The sad fact remains that many folks obtain pets for reasons other than the desire to have a pet. They want a show-off dog to impress other people with, or to impress people at the local kennel club. The idea that living beings can be a hobby is, to some folks, somewhat perverse.

The same is true of the rural Bubba (on urban dweller) who buys a large, aggressive dog and chains him to a tree in the front yard. He wants a dog that will "impress" others with its ferocity - in an attempt to bolster his own status and perhaps cover up some personal insecurities. If you are buying a dog to impress people with its breeding, you are no better than the person who buys a pit bull to frighten people.

There are some folks who buy aggressive dogs as a form of security - to protect their family. And believe it or not, there is an industry of folks who breed and train security dogs and then sell them for very high prices. These dogs are trained to be kind to children, but also to rip the throat out of anyone coming over the fence. I guess for some folks, such security measures might be necessary. But for the bulk of us, who struggle to pay the monthly bills, the prospect of a home invasion is pretty dim (and the pickings for a home invader pretty slim!).

Regardless of whether you pay $5000 for a show puppy or the $250 adoption fee at the shelter, the initial buy-in is only part of the overall cost. Veterinarian bills will run about $200 to $500 a year for a dog or cat, for basic shots, flea prevention, heart worm prevention, and the occasional illness or injury. Vet bills can skyrocket, as we shall see below.

Dogs and cats can go through a surprising amount of food, and animal food is not cheap. Our greyhound probably eats up $50 to $100 of kibble, canned food, and treats a month. Over the 10-15 year lifespan of a dog, this can amount to thousands of dollars. For cats, add in the cost of litter on the other end of the transaction as well.

Accessories, such as collars, food bowls, litter boxes, leashes, blankets, beds, clothing, and toys can also run into the hundreds if not thousands of dollars over the lifetime of the animal. And these things are not cheap, either. People will spend surprisingly large amounts of money on pets and the pet industry knows this.

If you ever have to leave home, boarding your pets can be as expensive as staying in a cheap motel. Most veterinarians charge $50 to $100 a day or more. Most boarding places charge at least $15 to $50 a day. If you want to take a two-week vacation to Mexico, the cost of boarding your pets may exceed the airfare.

Thus, for a typical medium-sized dog, which may live to be 10-14 years, you could easily spend $10,000 or more in initial purchase price, veterinarian bills, food, accessories, boarding and the like. Considering that a typical automobile should last the same amount of time, buying even one dog is about the same cost as having a second car. If you can't afford a second car, think long and hard before getting a dog or cat.

A special note on horses: A lot of folks obtain horses as pets. These are hugely expensive compared to cats or dogs. Buying a horse often costs as much as a car, and the upkeep can easily exceed that of an automobile (this is one reason cars replaced horses as a means of transportation). And horses live a long time, too. I have a friend who bought a horse, and discovered he could not ride it, as it had a bad back. Because of that, he cannot sell the horse, as no one will buy it. His wife refuses to have the horse put down. He pays monthly boarding fees and annual vet fees and hopes the horse doesn't live too long. They haven't seen the horse in years. Explain to me what the point of that was, again? Poor fellow will have to work an additional 5-10 years to make up for the loss in his 401(k). Think long and hard before buying a horse. If you do not own the land on which to keep the horse, chances are, it will be a very, very expensive proposition.

Another special note on exotic animals: Some other folks like to obtain exotic animals (snakes, ferrets, rare birds, etc.) as pets. Usually this is to impress other people or for other, not so nice reasons (watching snakes eat mice or kittens, for example, I kid you not). In many cases, these animals end up at shelters once the novelty aspect has worn off.

Now of course, there are ways to minimize pet ownership costs, and I highly recommend them. Veterinarians are scandalous when it comes to billing. Most vets charge more per hour than most human doctors do, and that isn't right. It does pay to shop around for routine services such as vaccinations, flea and tick treatments, and the like.

Recently, while on a trip, I realized our dog's rabies vaccination had expired.   A current certificate was required to stay in a Florida park.   I used our GPS to find a local vet, and hit "call" which made the call through the bluetooth on my $100-a-year GoPhone (sometimes this technology shit actually works).   I found a local vet that would do the shot for $35 (for a three-year certificate - likely the last my dog will need).   The technician, not the vet, did the shot, and as a result, I avoided the $80 "office visit" fee they normally charge.   The same was recently true for a Bordetellla shot ($25) and a heartworm test ($20) - both performed by a low-cost animal hospital, by a technician, not a veternarian.

My old Vet would have charged $80 or more for an "office visit" for each shot - a scandalous amount of money to feel the dog's glands and to weigh her.

It is possible that we over-medicate our pets as well.  I had a cat live to 20 years old. I took him to the vet for his rabies shots and the like and the vet said "If I give your cat these shots, it will probably kill him". I asked about whether this would mean my cat would spread rabies or feline distemper or whatever. She just smiled and said, "This cat is so old and spends all its time indoors, what is it going to catch?" At that point, I started to wonder if the whole vet thing was a financial racket.

At least that vet was pretty honest about it. My previous vet ran a lucrative practice in a wealth suburb of Washington DC. He had several expensive cars - Mercedes, Porsche, BMW, etc. and each one had a license plate with his initials and a number on it (indicating how many cars he had). When I saw a Porsche with "XYZ 10" on it, I realized I was giving him (or the Porsche dealer) too much money. He charged $70 for each office visit, plus $100 for each shot (feline distemper, rabies, etc. etc. plus testing for "feline leukemia", heart worm, etc.). Three cats, you do the math.

Like anything else, pricing is all over the board, and there are considerable savings to be had.  The most expensive vets charge three to five times as much (if not more) than the least expensive.   And the level of care is about the same.

The reality is, the vet business is big business, and we treat our animals for more diseases that we treat ourselves. The rationale is very simple. As pet owners, we feel responsible for the care and health of our animals. When they become sick, it breaks our heart, and we feel helpless. We'd do ANYTHING to see fluffy purr again. And unscrupulous vets know this.

I've seen heartbroken old women spend thousands (if not tens of thousands) of dollars on chemotherapy for a 15-year-old cat. The cat dies anyway, of course. They only live to about 15-20 years, at best. But an unscrupulous vet will suggest to the owner that it is their duty to spend enormous amounts of money trying to heal a sick animal, when the best course of action is probably euthanasia.

Which brings us to the sticky part. Whenever you buy a pet, be it a kitten, dog, or goldfish, chances are, you will outlive the pet. Each pet comes with it, the unpleasant and heart-wrenching experience of having to have it 'put down' later on or to see it suffer. Animals age quickly, and in the time it takes to pay off a car loan, that young puppy has turned into a middle-aged and arthritic old dog. Making the decision when it is appropriate to put a dog or cat down is difficult. Again, as the steward of this life entrusted to your care, you want to see the animal live as long as possible. But often, animals reach an age where they can no longer function. In the wild, they would be killed by other animals or die of exposure or starvation. As pets, it is up to use to decide, and it is not a pleasant decision to make.

While I love my dog, living with a dog does limit your lifestyle choices. In the US, we are somewhat dog-phobic in public places, so often you have to leave your dog at home. In Europe, you can take your dog to a restaurant in many places. In America, only some outdoor restaurants allow pets, and even then, some patrons will complain if the pets are unruly. To some extent, this is a self-fulfilling prophesy. If your pet is with you constantly, chances are, it is well trained and obedient and calm. However, pets left at home alone for long periods of time tend to develop behavior problems and thus be inappropriate for public spaces.

When planning any activity, you have to plan for the pet. Will the pet stay home or come? If they come, then you need to take a car the pet can fit comfortably into. If you plan on going into places where pets are not allowed, you cannot leave the pet in the car, if it is a hot day. It does limit your freedom. If you are contemplating getting a pet, consider this aspect carefully. If you are used to picking up on a moment's notice and flying to Cancun, things will change once you have a pet.

Now some folks take the pet thing too far. Like hoarding disorder, pet ownership can become psychological problem in some cases.  Newspapers are full of stories about old ladies found with 50 cats in their home, many starved to death or dying, or some in the freezer (??) and the whole house filled with cat waste. Or they may have a similar number of dogs - or even horses. Most of these stories have unhappy endings. The animals have to be put down, and the crazy old lady has to go into a home. In some instances, they clear out all the animals, only to come back a year later and find the house filled yet again. It is very sad.

But for every crazy lady living in cat waste, there are probably five people who have large numbers of pets who are well fed and cared for. Every neighborhood has a "crazy cat lady" who has a dozen cats or more. A friend of mine fell into this mold. She had several cats, and once it became known she had cats, everyone in the community started dumping litters of unwanted kittens on her doorstep. She became the "crazy cat lady" not by choice, but by public acclaim. Finally, she had to put her foot down, as the cost was driving her to the poorhouse. She took the unwanted litters to the humane society, as much as it pained her, and also chased away "cat dumpers" from her property when she could.

Another friend has a collection of eight dogs and eighteen cats, along with other animals. What started out with one dog, quickly morphed into a major problem. How this happens is anyone's guess, but I suspect it is related to hoarding disorder - the desire to accumulate things, even if they have no intrinsic value or cost the hoarder money (my friend has a hoarding problem as well). While the animals are well cared for, the cost is rather staggering, even with all the money-saving tips they have tried. They found a local vet who gives them a bulk discount, and they administer a lot of their own immunizations and drugs themselves. However, having that many pets can be problematic.

As a greyhound owner, I get to meet other greyhound owners at various meets and events. Some folks have two, three or more dogs, which is quite a challenge. But others go even further. I met one lady, in her late 70's who had seven greyhounds! No matter how you slice it, that is a lot of dogs for an elderly person to take care of.

For example, if you lose your job (a distinct prospect in this day and age) how will you take care of your pets? Sadly, shelters are being flooded with animals from people who say they "cannot afford" their pets or who have been evicted from their homes and cannot find an apartment or home that accepts pets. For my friend with the 8 dogs and 18 cats, it has created a problem for them in that they cannot move anywhere. No landlord will accept that many animals, and most houses they have found to buy or rent are too close to busy highways and other dangers for the animals. Then animals live a long time, so suddenly they are stuck in a position of having to stay where they are, as the pets have basically locked them in.

Having a pet thus has an opportunity cost. If you get a new job in a new city, you have to find a new home, often renting, and this means you have to find a place that allows pets. If you are young, it pays to be mobile and have freedom of movement. And yet many young people chose to get large dogs, which limits their freedom of movement. Believe it or not, I've met young people who have turned down lucrative job offers, because they felt that could not move to a big city and find a place to accept their pet, and also be able to work long hours and leave the pet home alone.

And in that regard, owning a pet as a young person is particularly problematic. When I was in college, a friend of mine's cat had a litter of kittens. Typical of an irresponsible college student, he failed to get the pet spayed. So now he had a litter of "cute" kittens to get rid of. They thought it was "cool" to have a pregnant cat and watch the kittens be born, but once they arrived in the world, it became clear that the cute kittens would quickly become a nuisance - that is unless they wanted to have eight cats as pets.

Foolishly, I let them talk me into adopting one. Having a cat when you are in college is never a good idea. Trying to find an apartment that allows them is hard. Sneaking them into the dorm is difficult, too. Constantly moving is hard on the animal, who prefers to stay in one place. Not surprisingly, the cat ran away during a move, and was never seen again. I still have nightmares about that cat.

Multiply that experience by about a million, and you'll have an idea of what the pet population problem in the US is like. Visit your local animal shelter sometime and see how many animals are dumped there. Animals that were indifferently bred by folks who had no common sense or thought as to what would happen once the animals were born.

For that reason, if you decide to get a pet, have it neutered or spayed immediately. It is not "cool" to leave the animals intact and let them breed uncontrollably. And breed they will, as that is how nature works. I have some other friends who thought they should leave their dogs "intact" so "the dog could enjoy a sex life". The intentionally let the dog breed with another friend's dog (who was also not neutered, for the same stupid reason). The resulting litter of mutts was "cool" they thought, until it became time to find homes for them. As you might expect, they asked us to take on one of the puppies (no, thanks) and as you might expect, they ended up keeping more than one.

I was angry at them for bringing five more dogs into the world for the only purpose of briefly amusing themselves. While they are otherwise nice people, they are horribly irresponsible in many respect. Dogs live a good long time. Creating life so that your dog can get laid is, to me, pretty lame. Spay and neuter your pets, please. The world doesn't need another litter of mutts or kittens.

A final note on pets has to do with age. As I noted earlier, in most instances, you will easily outlive your pets. A cat may live to be 20, tops, and a dog maybe 15. So if you buy a pet, you will probably outlive it. However, for older folks, this may not be the case. If you are 60, 70, or even 80 years old, a pet may outlive you. Moreover, as your health and abilities decline with age, you may find caring for a pet beyond your capabilities.

I had a parent, over 80, once say that they were thinking of getting a puppy. This was the same parent who had our family cats put down once I left for college, as they were a "nuisance." A rambunctious puppy is hard to handle at age 30, much less at 80. Once the dog gets larger, if not trained, it could knock you down and break your hip. But worst of all, the dog will likely outlive its owner, which means arrangements must be made to care for the dog when the owner inevitably dies or has to go to assisted living (nursing homes generally do not allow pets).

Yet, oddly enough, the elderly are consistent pet owners. Small yappy dogs appear to be most popular with the over-60 set, as these dogs will lie in your lap for hours, sort of as an infant substitute. For seniors living on a fixed income (i.e., Social Security), the cost of a pet should be carefully taken into consideration.

Of course, it is perfectly understandable why seniors are pet owners - for the same reason we all get pets. A pet can be a companion and help stave off loneliness and provide emotional support. Daily walking of a dog can be the only exercise a senior gets. One suggestion I would have, if you are elderly and thinking of getting a pet, is to consider adopting a adult pet from the shelter. Such animals are generally already house trained (and trained in general) and thus will be less likely to pee on your rug or eat your couch. And also, since they may already be 5-10 years old, they may be less likely to outlive you. There are a large number of such pets readily available for adoption, simply because many elderly pet owners pass away and leave pets behind.

A word about Greyhounds: We adopted a retired racing greyhound, and I have to say they are great pets. They come to you as an adult, so you don't have to deal with the whole puppy and training thing. No chewed furniture, no messes on the rugs, and a dog that knows how to walk on a leash better than its owners know how to walk it. They also sleep all day long and thus are fairly low maintenance. However, they do want to be with you at all times, and they are very emotional animals. A Greyhound left alone for long periods of time can become psychotic. If you are not home for 10-12 hours a day, consider whether getting any pet at all makes any sense.

A word about "Puppies": Many folks want "puppies" and that is fine and all, but consider carefully before buying a puppy. Puppies are "cute" but they often turn into less-cute adult dogs. Children are attracted to puppies for all the wrong reasons. For example, one friend of mine had an 8-year-old son. They had a dog (a very nice dog at that) that was grown. Their neighbor adopted a golden retriever puppy, which needless to say was as cute as a button. My friend's 8-year-old said "Mom, can't WE get a puppy as well?" oblivious to the fact that his own dog was laying at his feet.

Now you may say the kid was a brat, and that may be true. But his direct emotional reactions (unfiltered) at least were honest. He was jealous that his friend has a "oh so cutesy-wootsy" puppy, while he was stuck with a smelly old dog. Of course, an 8-year-old can't reason as well as an adult (or can they?) and realize that puppy-hood lasts only a few months at best. Perhaps someday, they will genetically engineer a dog that remains a puppy for 15 years and then keels over dead. If they do, it will sell like hotcakes.

The sad fact is, even adults fall for the while "ooooh!, Puppies! Cuuuuute!" thing, and often will adopt (or worse yet, buy) a puppy, thinking in the back of their minds, that it will always remain small, soft, fluffy, and lovable. But a Labrador Retriever puppy quickly grows up into a large, wiry-furred, stinky and flatulent animal, which may not be as cuddly as a puppy. At that point, it ends up being ignored and neglected, which is sort of sad.

Again, don't get me wrong, pets are a fine thing. Just go into it with your eyes open. Make sure you have $10,000 to spend on a dog before you get one (because over a decade, that's what it will cost). Consider your own motives carefully, and make sure you will be happy with an adult dog before you impulsively buy a puppy. Look to your local shelter for an adult dog. Rescued adult dogs are often very grateful and graceful companions, and cost less to own.

And if you are living "from month to month" or living on Social Security, ask yourself if you can afford $50 to $100 a month in pet costs, before you acquire a pet.  You don't want to add to the shelter population of abandoned animals when you realize you cannot afford to care for the animal - or when it outlives you.

Good Luck!

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