So you bought your kids a puppy for the holidays. And now, looking at your vet bills, the cost of dog food, and several pairs of chewed shoes, you may be wondering if perhaps you should have just bought them an Xbox.
Maybe you should have. Many pet owners buy a dog without thinking through the financial costs of their prospective pooch. According to Dogtime.com, a news and information website for canine lovers, every year, about 13 million American households adopt a dog or a puppy and within 12 months, half of them have been taken to a shelter.
"I often try and talk people out of getting a pet and [play] devil's advocate," says Harrison Forbes, the author of Dog Talk: Lessons Learned from a Life With Dogs, host of a nationwide radio pet show, and a semi-regular pet expert on television, including The Today Show. "There's an odd peer pressure, especially in the shelter world, that we always need to be pumping up the benefits of pet ownership, and that's great. I'm fully on board. But it's like home ownership. Owning a house and having a dog is the American dream, but you only want to do it if you can afford it. You don't want to have to give either up because you didn't think it through."
Robin Ganzert, president of the American Humane Association, agrees. She is, of course, unabashedly on the side of the canine: "My dream would be for every child to have a pet in their lives." But in the same breath, she also acknowledges, "So many folks are trying to do the right thing and going to shelters to adopt dogs, but that doesn't mean they're equipped to do it. They still need to go through the same thought process as you would if you were buying a dog from an expensive breeder. A lot of dogs are recycled back into a shelter or abandoned, and it's not a good life for them."
If you have a new puppy and are overwhelmed by the costs or you're thinking of getting a dog this year, here are some factors to consider before you do anything rash, like replacing your furry pal with a gerbil, or before you get too caught up in daydreams of throwing a Frisbee at the dog park and watching old Benji movies together.
The lifetime costs of owning a dog. Odds are, the cost is more than you think. A variety of sources have different numbers but they're all high. PetInsurance.com places the average cost of owning a dog—over the dog's lifetime—at $20,000. In 2011, Bloomberg.com crunched numbers and came up with an eye-popping $59,668.88 for a mutt over its lifetime, but the study assumed the New York City-based family would be sending the animal to doggie daycare, expensive kennels, and would buy virtually every available accessory. RaisingSpot.com, which provides tips on raising a dog, suggests a dog that lives 12 years might cost you anywhere between $4,620 and $32,990.
In other words, if your car is one broken head gasket from putting you into financial ruin, now is not the time to get a dog. If you're doing OK, well, keep in mind that if a dog costs you $20,000 in the long run, that averages out to a little more than $1,500 a year—a much friendlier number.
Set-up costs. If you're buying from a breeder, you might easily pay in the neighborhood of $1,000, or much more. If you're buying from a shelter, an adoption fee might be closer to $100. However, you'll also need to set aside money for vaccination shots and for the dog to be spayed or neutered (if the adoption fee doesn't cover it). Your dog will need some smaller items such as a collar, a leash, and a dog license.
"The average cost for supplies to set up a small dog is around $300 to $350," says Dawn Burch, the veterinary relations manager for Petco. "The average cost for supplies to set up a large dog is around $400 to $450."
Dogs will be expensive at the outset, says Forbes. "Fifteen years ago, a lot of shelters' adoption fees were, like, $20, and there's a lot of hard evidence that those low costs helped make it easier for people to return their pets," he says. "Shelters that make you pay $300 to $500 for a dog have way less returns than the ones who give animals away dirt-cheap. When you shell out some money on the front end, you take owning a dog a little more seriously."
Ongoing costs. Food will be the biggest strain on your wallet, but vet check-ups need to be factored into the budget. You may need to put your dog in a kennel when you travel, or you may want to send your canine to a doggie daycare if nobody's in the house all day. Of course, there are treats, rawhide bones, dog beds, sweater vests, pet insurance, and an untold number of dog accessories you could purchase as well.
Experts warn not to skimp on food and veterinarian services. "If you go to a grocery and buy a 30-pound bag of dog food for $10, there are health consequences for that with increased vet bills later," according to Forbes, who acknowledges that consumers often feel they have no choice but to go for the cheap stuff. "When you have to pay your gas bill, dog food always ends up being cut."
Forbes, who has worked for a number of dog-food brands in the past but is no longer affiliated with any, says if you're pressed for cash but want to buy something relatively healthy, Pedigree, Purina One, and Iams are sound choices. But he adds that the expensive dog food usually has the best nutritional value.
If you're having trouble caring for your dog and think the shelter is your only option, Ganzert says your local shelter or animal control might be able to steer you to places that can help you access free or inexpensive dog food and low-cost vet care.
Training. Raising a dog on your own can be mentally taxing. Ganzert suggests getting help, whether through an obedience school in your neighborhood (a five-week course can cost between $50 to $350) or a guide book. Or you could opt for the cost-free alternative of watching a dog training TV show, says Joel Silverman, who hosted Good Dog U on Animal Planet for 10 years and currently stars in the TV show Dog & Cat Training with Joel Silverman.
"One of the biggest reasons dogs are returned to shelters, I believe, is due to training issues," says Silverman, who also cites gifting someone a dog as a return-to-sender route. He believes dog owners should choose their pet to ensure a better bond and match.
Cleaning. You may want to buy cleaning agents, a carpet cleaner, or have a carpet-cleaning service on speed dial. "Look at your house and home facility and what's likely to be impacted, because you're going to have accidents the first year," Ganzert warns.
[Read: 5 Ways to Save on Pet Costs]
And unless you completely puppy-proof your home, you can expect to encounter costs to replace items such as shoes, books, and toys.
Economic benefits of having a dog. Ganzert says furry family members save people more money than they spend. She cites studies that show dogs help lower people's blood pressure, and show that children who are exposed to dogs at an early age often avoid developing asthma. Kids who have dogs and are walking them and playing with them are less likely to be overweight, adds Ganzert.
Silverman sides with Ganzert as far as thinking the positives outweigh the costs: "These aren't really major expenses. This is your best friend, right?"