December 23, 2009 in Personal Finance

The old song asks, “How much is that doggie in the window?” But the price of puppies for sale depends on where you buy them. Today’s canine consumers really need to ask:

  • Why does that puppy cost what it does?
  • What am I getting for my money?
  • Who benefits from the transaction?

The answers can affect a dog’s lifelong impact on your budget (and heart).

Between 1980 and 2005, pet care costs virtually doubled in real dollars. So, we’re not talking kibble, but serious pet care cash. “The purchase price is probably the least amount you’re ever going to spend on the dog,” says Lisa Peterson, spokeswoman for the American Kennel Club.

Consider these outlets where you can procure pets.

Dog rescues

Shelters, humane societies and other rescue groups operate as nonprofit organizations or as part of local government to serve the needs of homeless pets. Higher demand for puppies means they often cost more than adult dogs. If a dog adoption is $100, a puppy’s might be $200 to $500. Rescue groups typically include vaccinations, spay/neuter surgery, microchip ID, collar and tag ID, leash and other starter items.

The average cost to rescue an animal runs between $50 to $150, with housing, food and additional veterinary care adding $30 to $70 per day. “Adoptions are generally a financial loss,” says Julie Morris, ASPCA senior vice president community outreach. 

When critics cry price gouging, Dave Wintz, with the Larimer County Humane Society in Colorado, explains the tradeoff. “Those higher puppy fees save more lives. An owner-surrendered Yorkie that comes in today and goes out tomorrow allows us to keep that five-year-old beagle for two months.”

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Dog breeders

Puppies from avid breeders range from $750 to $2,000, depending on litter size and breed. “Some are more popular. Some are more rare or have smaller litters. So, cost could depend on that as well, sort of the supply and demand,” says Peterson.

Budgets for a single litter run $3,000 to $9,000, and may include:

  • Getting detailed medical screenings based on breed-specific health risks.
  • Procedures such as insemination or Caesarean sections.
  • Care, feeding, laundry and “whelping” expenses that ensure pups are born safely.

“A reputable breeder will spend thousands of dollars before a single puppy is produced,” says Milan Hess, DVM, a veterinary reproduction specialist near Denver. “Basically, good breeders never make money breeding a litter when you also take into account all the expenses incurred raising, feeding, training, exhibiting, health testing and providing veterinary care for their breeding dogs.”

Some breeders also use systematic neurological stimulation, socialization and training exercises aimed at raising healthier, more stable pups.

“From the moment they are born, I spend as many waking moments with them as I can,” says Brad Phifer, director of pet behavior services at Broad Ripple Animal Clinic and Wellness Center in Indianapolis, who breeds basenji and standard poodles. “I feel such a responsibility to these puppies. I don’t just want to raise them, house them and then ship them off to become someone else’s problem.”

Most high-end breeders mentor buyers for years. And, says Hess, “Good breeders will always take back puppies that don’t fit into their new homes.”

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Pet stores

Puppies sell in pet stores for $800 on average, with high-demand breeds costing more. Those fees include puppy food samples and discounts on other purchases.

Pet store puppies come from commercial breeding operations. Bred in volume, following government regulations for minimum food, shelter, cage size and care, these puppies sell for $50 to $200 to brokers who sell to pet stores. “Pet stores then turn around and sell these puppies for an extraordinary profit,” says Cori A. Menkin, ASPCA senior director of legislative initiatives. “We have seen puppies for sale in pet stores for as much as $2,500.”

Menkin adds that commercially bred puppies often suffer medical and behavioral problems such as aggression or severe anxiety. Typically, these problems stem from:

  • Poor-quality breeding stock not screened for genetic soundness to reproduce.
  • Chronic sanitation issues when so many animals are kept in close quarters.
  • Limited exposure to normal interaction with the mother dog, littermates or caretakers.

Investigators have documented respiratory infections, parasites, serious diarrhea and other conditions, along with genetic problems with hips and knees, which can require expensive surgery or euthanasia.

Amateur breeders

Puppies bred at home by average people typically sell for $200 to $600, with perhaps a collar, a toy and some puppy food included.

These home breeders incur some of the same veterinary costs. Less likely, however, are medical clearances and stud fees, medical breeding or delivery help from veterinarians. While these pups are raised within a family and not in cages, they probably don’t receive the systematic developmental work as pups from more experienced breeders.

Amateur breeders may make a profit of $1,000 to $2,500 per litter based on lower overall expenses.

Free to good home

Puppies available free from friends, family or strangers most likely come from accidental litters. The chances of good overall care and health of the parent dogs and pups are lower, based simply on a lack of dog care knowledge. There is often no way to know the health, temperament or even sometimes the breed, if the male is unknown.

You’re more likely to find free pups in communities overrun with unwanted dogs, where pups taken to a shelter risk euthanasia. However, one study of shelter animals found that “most dogs relinquished to shelters initially were obtained from family or friends at no charge.” Reasons for giving the dog up included behavior problems or a family move.

Clearly, it’s easier to vote with your wallet when the product isn’t a puppy, but what goes into breeding and raising pups during those critical first eight to ten weeks influences the pup’s relative “quality.”

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