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The cost of owning a pet

When considering getting pets, most people tend to not focus on the amount of money they will have to dish out to keep their furry, slimy and scaly friends happy and healthy. But with few exceptions, pets are not cheap.

Courtney Barnfield, communications officer with the Toronto Humane Society, says that when bringing pets to the Humane Society, people mostly give excuses such as moving or having developed allergies. "But just because money isn't mentioned as often doesn't mean it's not the underlying reason," she says.

Here's what you should bear in mind about short- and long-term costs when thinking of getting a pet:

Initial costs
You probably can't buy a purebred puppy or kitten from a reputable breeder for less than $1,000, and it will probably be closer to $2,000. A great alternative is to get an animal from your local SPCA or Humane Society. At The Toronto Humane Society, cats are $25, dogs are $50, rabbits are $20 and the smaller animals vary between $4 and $65. A real plus is that animals from the Humane Society are up to date with their vaccinations, which can otherwise cost $200 or more.

After you get your pet, you will have initial costs -- such as $50 for a bird, hamster or rabbit cage. Dogs and cats are even more expensive, because in addition to getting them vaccinated, you need to buy toys, bones, a leash and a litter box.

Regular costs
As far as caring for animals goes, typically, small ones will cost you less than large ones. You may pay about $50 a year on food for a budgie and about $100 a year for cat food. For a medium-sized dog, expect to pay at least $400 a year for decent food.

Taking your dog or cat to the vet twice a year is the minimum Barnfield recommends (that's if nothing's wrong). Barnfield, who has three dogs and three cats, says you should be financially prepared for additional visits to the vet, and she says the minimum you should expect to pay per visit is $150.

"Being the guardian of a pet is a lifetime commitment. Some small breed dogs can live 15 to 20 years and cats can live 15 to 25 years." Barnfield says to think about how much you will spend regularly on food and care for your pet and multiply that by how long your pet will likely live. If you're thinking of getting a parrot, for example, then you should know they live between 40 and 80 years.

Barnfield considers buying premium food an investment. She likens pets eating cheap food to people eating fast food every day. She says pets are more at risk for health problems if they eat cheap food.

If you only want the basic grooming for your cat or dog, it's worth investing in a nail clipper and brush -- you can get each for less than $15 -- or you can pay for grooming. Barnfield warns that if you aren't having your pet professionally groomed, you should ask your vet to educate you about how to do it properly before you attempt it.

Travel costs
You typically aren't allowed to travel with pets on busses, but can often bring your pet on planes and trains. Depending on the size of your pet and its cage, on a plane, it will likely cost you at least an extra $40 for one-way travel; on the train, you'll probably pay at least $10. If your pet is small enough, you may be able to take it as carry-on, for free.

When thinking about travelling with your pet, keep in mind that pet accommodation on trains and planes aren't first-rate, so you may consider leaving your pet with a caretaker back home.

When Barnfield and her husband go on vacation, by plane, they figure out how much their trip will be, and then factor in how much it will cost to have the dogs stay at their "play care group" (she says she'd never put her pets in cargo because she doesn't think it's good for them). She pays $75 a night for each of her three dogs to stay at Toronto's Urban Dog Fitness and Spa. Of course, leaving your pet with a trusted family member or a friend is a good (and usually free) option, too.

Unlike most other animals, dogs can't be left alone for more than about seven hours at a time. Susan Rupert, of Urban Dog Fitness and Spa, says there are some people who don't realize what they're in for when they get a puppy. "Once they get dogs, they have to start looking at services to manage if they have a full-time job," she says, giving examples such as dog-walking or daycare.

Hiring an experienced dog-walker costs between $15 and $25 an hour.

The truly unexpected costs
Pets, and particularly outdoor pets, will likely get themselves into a few emergency situations in their lifetimes, such as your dog eating a dead bird and becoming seriously ill, which would require that you see a vet immediately.

If the emergency occurs outside your vet's regular hours -- and, for some reason, it usually does -- you can expect to pay at least $100 just to see a vet at an emergency clinic. And any kind of blood tests and medication are extra.

The golden years
Dafna Izenberg, of Toronto, had a cat named Mama for three years. Unfortunately, Mama got sick, and Izenberg paid her vet almost $5,000 over the course of six weeks to try to save her life. She finally made the difficult decision to put her cat down because she realized that Mama was suffering.

"I wish that I had called it quits earlier," says Izenberg, "not only because she was suffering, but also because it was a lot of money." Izenberg says she'll consider buying pet insurance if she gets another pet. For more information, check out Bankrate.ca's story about pet health insurance.

She advises that when people get pets, they should not only think about the regular and short-term costs, but also about the costs that will likely arise as the pet gets older. Even if your pet doesn't get sick in her old age, you can expect to dish out more cash than you did for her when she was younger. Just as older people need to go to the doctor more often, so do older animals.

Maya Saibil is a writer in Toronto.

-- Posted: Sept. 21, 2005
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