Liz Pulliam Weston: What a pet will really cost you

The Basics

Will your pet bankrupt you?

Before you adopt that cute mutt or exotic fish, be sure you know what the animal's needs are -- and that you have a plan to deal with unexpected expenses.

By Liz Pulliam Weston
MSN Money

We have one really nice rug in our house: a Turkish wool number that my husband inherited from an aunt.

That is, of course, the rug our new dog decided to eat. The pooch didn't complete his task, but repairing the damage set us back $500.

That sum paled compared with what a relative could have faced in vet bills when her dog developed a series of serious but treatable ailments. The bills topped $16,000. Luckily, she had bought pet insurance right before the first diagnosis, and most of the bills were covered.

Readers had similar stories, and not everyone has pet insurance to cover the costs. Diane Jarvis Powers of Thousand Oaks, Calif., looked into coverage after her dog's first surgery to remove strings from a rope toy that blocked his intestines, but decided the insurance was too expensive and had too many exclusions. Little did she know the dog, a purebred Sheltie adopted from a friend, wasn't done: He then scarfed down T-shirt strips her son had thrown in the trash, requiring another surgery.

"That 'free' dog has cost us $10,000 so far," Powers wrote on my Facebook fan page.

Dogs aren't the only animals that cost their owners money. Readers described surgeries to treat horses with colic, cats that required diabetes medication and dental treatments, and even a lizard that received two months of expensive care before it died.

The point is: Pet ownership can be expensive, above and beyond the costs of acquiring, accommodating, feeding and grooming the animal. Bad luck or poor preparation could leave you facing catastrophic bills.

What Americans spend on their pets
  Share of total


$18.28 billion


Vet care

$12.79 billion


Supplies/OTC medicine

$11.01 billion


Grooming, boarding, other services

$3.45 billion


Live animal purchases

$2.21 billion



$47.74 billion

Source: American Pet Products Association, 2010

And that's assuming your pet never hurts anyone. As I wrote in "Your dog's bite could bankrupt you," a single act of aggression could cost you $25,000 or more. Even owning certain breeds of dogs with a reputation for aggression can mean losing your homeowners insurance.

If owning a pet is important to you -- and believe me, our dog has brought immense joy into our lives, in addition to minor property damage -- then here are some suggestions for how to cope:

  • Do your research. Before you seek out or agree to adopt a pet, make sure you understand the setup and continuing costs in both money and time. This chart from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals outlines the first-year expenses you can expect for various types of animals, ranging from $235 for a fish to more than $1,800 for a large dog. Rescue groups and discussions with other owners of your type of pet can help you understand the time commitment involved. Also, check with your homeowners insurance company to find out if it blacklists any dog breeds. If so, consider other breeds or shop around, since insurers differ considerably in what they will and won't cover.
    Become a fan of MSN Money on Facebook

  • Pet-proof your house. Just as you'd take safety measures before bringing a baby into your home, you'll need to consider hazards to your new pet. That means removing or securing toxic plants, electrical cords, small objects and even clothing (especially underwear, which both dogs and cats will eat). If you have both a dog and a cat, you'll need to figure out a way to prevent the canine from treating the litter box as a candy dish. (Yuck, I know, but what's called coprophagia isn't uncommon with dogs.) Daily vigilance in keeping hazards away is essential.

  • Invest in training -- and diversions. Our dog trainer Paul Owens, a co-author of "The Puppy Whisperer," notes that if you don't keep your dog occupied it will become "self-employed" in positions such as gardener (digging in the yard) or interior decorator (chewing up the furniture). Proper training and appropriate toys can help. Ask friends for referrals to trainers or check with a pet store. Chain pet stores often offer affordable group classes.

  • Consider pet insurance. Experts are still divided about whether pet insurance is worth the money. Consumer Reports advises setting up a savings account to pay for vet care, but if you're the type of person who would do anything to save your animal, pet insurance can make more sense.

Liz Pulliam Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "Your Credit Score: Your Money & What's at Stake." Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. She also helps middle-class families cope at Building a Brighter Future.

Published Dec. 31, 2010

More from MSN Money

Rate this Article

Click on one of the stars below to rate this article from 1 (lowest) to 5 (highest). LowHigh
1/04/2011 6:59 PM
.22 cal = 11 cents.  Don't bankrupt yourself and torture a poor animal! 
1/04/2011 12:49 PM

Being as I work in a veterinary clinic, I know the costs of the work of a veterinarian. Some things aren't cheap, but when you look at a $15.00 vaccination for your cat or dog, that $15.00 is paying for the professional care of your animal, you wouldn't want someone in a dark alleyway to give your beloved pet some off brand crap for free and then have your animal react and have to go in to the vet anyways.

Also, I have seen so many people come in and can't afford to pay their bills because they have so many animals, I realize you have a kind heart and want to adopt all the animals you can, but in reality you're hurting them, and yourself, more than you're helping anything if you can't afford their care anyways.


The reason the prices at the vet are going up, is because their prices are going up, don't blame the vet, blame the companies that are charging the vet. Just because that particular place says you have to do a heartworm test every 6 months doesn't mean you have to. Our clinic requires every other year. You have options to go to another clinic or ask if they have a waiver you can sign saying you CHOOSE not to take the test and you realize the risk of not taking it.


Lastly, pets are optional. If you think you can't afford a pet, don't get one, it's as simple as that. I don't care how "ooooh it's so cute!!! We have to get it!!" cute it is. If you can't afford it, don't get it, you'll move on with your life, the world isn't going to end because you can't have a pet.

1/04/2011 11:16 AM

Have had pets all my life; dogs, cats, fish.  Our last cat developed very aggressive cancer a few month ago.  Tumor the size of a softball developed almost overnight.  Vet said we could try removal and amputation of entire hind leg, then Chemo, but at her age, (over 13 years), was likely she wouldn't survive operation and would be very "sick" the remainder of her life.  Since she wasn't in any pain, we said no.  Kept her until her quality of life deteriorated to point where she couldn't function. 


Have 18 year old dog that is now in last stages of renal failure.  Here again, Vet said we could spend thousands of dollars on "Treatment", but that it likely wouldn't do any good and could make his situation worse.  So again we've chosen not to, but make him as comfortable as possible until it's time.  We are hoping he will pass, before it get to point of having to put him down.  Even though he is a "small" dog, (only 35 lbs), He has repelled "intruders" from our house, on more than one occasion, before I was forced to use other means to protect my family.  And I do mean literally chased them out and back over the fence.  There are few things as frightening as hearing "Go get 'um boy", then a growling, snarling dog heading your way in the dark.  So I think he's earned his keep over the years.


They are animals, but they are still "part of the family".  The cat slept on the foot of my daughters bed from the time she was old enough to sleep in a "big girl bed".   

1/04/2011 10:45 AM
That is for sure. My cat has cost me to the tune of over $7,000...I stopped counting. It can really hurt you in the long run if you don't get pet insurance (which I didn't have), but the vets weren't sure if she would live or die...BTW after doing bloodwork on her when I took her in, they said "We don't know why your cat is still alive", and they estimated a 40% chance of her making it. Well, she's still with me! But I would definitely get pet insurance...but check the exclusions...policies differ across providers. Do research on pure breeds...there's a lot of documentation on the ailments they'll have when they get older.
1/04/2011 9:38 AM

Before you buy or acquire a pet, research from others with animals and read about the care that is required to care responsibly first before taking that step.  You won't go bankrupt but at least you know what is in store for you.  If you can afford to spend on your pet, do so.  But do it for the comfort of the animal not because you want them to look like a dressed up rat.  I love my dog but I make sure she is in great health, eats quality food and exercised regularly.  With that said, other than a small coat for cold weather she is mostly a-play-in-the-dirt, chase squirrels and run through rain type dog (english cocker).   She is a pet after all not human but they are living and breathing so I take care that she is comfortable and cared for. 

1/04/2011 9:36 AM
Look, I have had my dog for about 13 years now. I love her, but she is still just a pet. I can't imagine spending that kind of money on her. I struggle with the fact that I need oral surgery and will have to shell out 20% of the cost for that and that's for myself! Honestly, if given the choice between spending more than a couple hundred dollars on her and putting her down, I'd put her down. And some of you will go nuts and jump all over me for that, but look. You have to have priorities. Right now mine are my 3 children and keeping them sheltered and fed. I guess if I had unlimited money then I might feel differently (maybe), but in the end she is just an animal.
1/04/2011 9:31 AM
Like I said, the husband learned his hard lesson too.

BTW, I'm sure something like your face should be put away out of sight as well, please tell me you detach your head to hide it in a closet?

1/04/2011 9:24 AM

Hey Gumby:


I hope that after you taught your Boxer puppy that "hard lesson" to not chew your husband's fake leg gel socket, you taught your (presumably more intelligent than the puppy) husband not to leave it laying around accessible.   Something like that should be put away out of sight, anyway.


1/04/2011 4:13 AM

People and their pets make me laugh .. i know fool after fool who spend more money on their pets then they do on them self or their kids.


I you want to live with a Dam Animal .. move to a barn.


I love it .. when a man or women in a 2k outfit / perfect hair & Makeup ... 500$ Shoes > is covered in Cat or Dog Hair.

1/04/2011 2:23 AM
I have 3 large dogs, in my home and i consider them my children.They give unconditionly love and are very loyol.And just like childen they have a yearly check up.That way i save money because if they have something wrong, i catch it early.And most vet's don't charge alot for a yearly check up. If you are going to have a pet, money should not be and issue.Love them, groom them, exersize them, and feed them good dog food!You read labels on the food you eat, read the lable on the bag of dog food.There are some good dog food's that don't cost an arm & a leg.If you can't do any of this,"Don't own a pet"
1/04/2011 12:22 AM
I agree 100 percent, no way would I spend that kind of money on my pet.  We have 2 dogs and 1 cat, they are well taken care of, we buy mid-range food, I don't let them run around the neighborhood and are always on a leash when being walked.  They have a warm bed to sleep on, we play with them and while they're not the best disciplined, we try.

I'm sorry, I don't consider them children though.  I have real ones of those, though at times you probably can't distinguish one from the other :P .  Our animals are good pets and part of our family.  Though I admit, we don't love them so deeply that we'd want to "fornicate" with them as it seems a few on here are itching to do.

I think it's so sad how some people won't share a bed with their actual children, but will with their dogs... so gross.  I digress though.

That about the rug reminded me of our Boxer.  We weren't used to having dogs, she was our first and a puppy at that.  My husband left his prosthetic leg next to the couch like he always did and without us noticing, the puppy stealthily got the silicon gel socket and chewed it to shreds.  To make matters worse, he had JUST gotten that new gel socket a month prior (insurance will only cover one every couple of years and he had been in desperate need of it).  Our out of pocket cost to get a replacement?  $1,300.

That was a hard lesson learned, both for my husband and the dog.
I forgot to mention that with service animal ID most pet stores give a pretty big discount as well as most vets cut their fees almost in half. In most states you are exempt from licensing which saves about $30.00 a year.
It also cost in pet deposits, additional rent cost, and travel cost including airfare and hotel fees. I registered my dog as a service animal and no longer have to pay any of those fees and my dog fly in the cabin with me. The guys at the registry are real helpful and if there is any way your animal qualifies they will help you find it. I found them at the service animal registry dot com.  Good luck and lots of love from your pet.
1/03/2011 8:42 PM

Maybe not bankrupt, but darn expensive!  We found out that our 10 month old puppy has patellar luxation (knee problems) and it will be $1,600 a knee to fix.  They have to bring in an orthopedic surgeon and they do one knee at a time 8 weeks apart.  We don’t have pet insurance and will have to come up with the $3,200 (plus other expenses) out of our own pocket.  It sucks – but oh well, its just money right? :)

1/03/2011 6:38 PM

What is making it so hard for us "pet" (I have 2, black, furry daughters, some call 'dogs' :)   owners:  VETS !!!   They have become the rip-off artists of the new millennium !!!

You think Auto Mechanics are bad ?  Wait till you have a pet and start with their health care ... you will be SHOCKED at how unscrupulous and DISHONEST, VETS are !!!   I live in the Tulsa, OK area - it is HORRIBLE !!   This is just for routine meds: Heartworm - they want to do 'the' test every 6 months - even though the records prove they have had their meds !!!  Note:  The heartworm test has DOUBLED from mid 2008 !!  Along with EVERYTHING ELSE at the Vets !!!

She didnt say not to have a dog or kill yuour dog or any other pet. She just advised to be aware of the financial consequences of having a pet......She is even a dog owner so all the PETA freaks can come down off of high alert. By the way I love my little RESCUED Yorkie and did have a 800 dollar bill to save her life. I would do it again too but this time I will have pet insurance to help me deal with these costs.
1/03/2011 6:26 PM
Blah....blah.....blah....what a stupid article....really?!  Let's see I have two cats and one dog...have I gone bankrupt?? No! Why?  Because I take damn good care of pets and they are a part of my family.  Also, I spend my money wisely and I save my money.  I also have an emergency savings account just for those unpredictable moments.  Let's think this in perspective shall we?  Pets are just as expensive as having children.  What if one of your children or yourself suddenly breaks a limb or has to go to the emergency room, all of a sudden you're faced with piles and piles of bills?! Then what?  Everything costs money nowadays learn to value and spend your money wisely.  In addition, there are so many types of insurance that people should invest and that is health, car, life, and pet insurance.  Although, I do think that there should be affordable and better insurance for pets.  

Secondly, so many poor animals are being euthanized unnecessarily because there are ignorant people who claim they don't have time to take care of a pet but sure enough have time to fornicate.  There are so many benefits to having a pet.  It all comes down to being responsible, financially efficient, and smart.  
1/03/2011 5:48 PM

We ran into an amazing situation several years ago, with end-of-life decisions for our last the age of 21 years.  She ended up at an emergency clinic at 1:00 am on a Saturday. When the vet wanted to run $800+ in tests, we said it might be time to put her down. (We'd already talked to our regular vet about her many conditions and ailments.)


The emergency room vet said she didn't do "convenience euthenasia," and we could either guarantee the bills, whatever they turned out to be, or we could take our poor cat and leave.


Be aware: There is a movement afoot, in several parts of the country to have pet owners declared pet "guardians," which would take away your right to make end-of-life decisions on your pets. That would be up to the veterinarians...and the lawyers...and the courts. You would be left with no decision authority, but full financial responsibility. No thanks!

1/03/2011 5:36 PM

"Pet ownership can be expensive" Whoo whoo! Big news there. Except this writer obviously does not live in the real world where the NUMBER ONE cause of death for animals are euthanasia for behavioral problems because the wrong people have pets and don't put the time and money INTO their relationship to make it work.


People generally do not value veterinary medicine and to say they will bankrupt themselves over it is laughable. I wish more people would do right by there pets and spend money on a living animal that is a dependent and requires 100% human care than say, buying the latest flatscreen tv.


Children are more likely to bankrupt immature parents than

domestic animals.


40 billion is NOTHING compared to the pseudoscience that Americans are willing to spend money on for their own health.


What a joke this article is on  so many levels.

1/03/2011 5:34 PM
We have always had multiple dogs (2-4) and the costs just continue to increase each year.  In 2010 we spent $8,400 on food, vet bills and misc. for my three rescues.  However, the costs are no surprise so we knew what we were getting into.  We wouldn't have it any other way.
Please help us to maintain a healthy and vibrant community by reporting any illegal or inappropriate behavior. If you believe a message violates theCode of ConductPlease use this form to notify the moderators. They will investigate your report and take appropriate action. If necessary, they report all illegal activity to the proper authorities.
Additional comments(optional)
100 character limit
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?