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How to Be a Financially Responsible Pet Owner

Updated on January 27, 2020
Liz Woodward profile image

Liz has her own pride of lions and a tiger and has been visiting cat shows and reveling in her cat ladiness for 15+ years.

Pet ownership can be one of the most rewarding activities. Whether you're a cat person or dog person or your beloved has feathers or scales, pets can bring joy to your day, but pet ownership also comes at a cost. Ownership is more than just cuddles and feeding. It includes grooming, bedding, litter, treats, toys, and vet bills. Whether you are considering your first pet or just want some suggestions to be able to afford Fluffy or Fido, you've come to the right place.

Choose the right pet

Pet ownership starts with choosing the right pet to fit your needs. Not only should you consider things like if a Great Dane will fit in your studio apartment or if a family member has allergies to Polly's feathers, but you should also consider all of the supplies and special needs each species and breed may need. The cost of pet ownership doesn't end at the adoption fee.

Dogs need more than a leash and collar. Most breeds will need grooming: brushing, nail clipping, washing, and hair cuts. Cages and crates are often needed to give dogs a timeout location or to prevent bored or untrained dogs from destroying the house while their humans are away.

Cats may seem lower maintenance than dogs without the daily walks, but there are still litter boxes that need to be cleaned. Cats will also need grooming supplies, and many breeds will require occasional trips to the salon. One of the biggest and often overlooked costs of owning a cat is the furniture and scratchers.

Small animals like lizards, fish, birds, and rodents may seem like cheap pets, but they each need their own habitat, whether it be a terrarium, aquarium, or cage. Lizards need bedding and a heat source. Fish tanks should also include a filtration system and an air pump to keep the water clean and oxygenated. Birds need perches, toys, and paper or litter.

If you aren't sure if you are ready for the long term commitment, check with your local pet rescue or shelter about fostering opportunities.

Take care of their health

The first step in preventing big vet costs is taking care of their health, and good health starts with good nutrition. While food is one of the most obvious costs of owning a pet, some owners think that going cheaper is the key to cheaper pet ownership, but in reality, a better diet can help prevent expensive (and horrible) health issues such as kidney stones, kidney disease, obesity, and diabetes. Look at the ingredients, do some research, and consult your vet to find the solution that best fits your pet's needs. Stick to appropriate amounts of food; don't overfeed by leaving bowls out for grazing or feeding too often. Always ensure your pet has fresh water in a clean bowl. A special tip for feeding cats is to use either metal or glass/ceramic plates instead of plastic and wash them frequently; failure to do so will cause bacteria buildup and cause chin acne which can range from "dirty chin" black crust to full-on pimples that can cause pain.

Tips for cheaper food: Shop smart by comparing multiple stores. Many stores offer price matching that includes other local stores and may even include websites like or Amazon, and some stores accept competitors' coupons as well. Join rewards programs for rewards and coupons, and download the store's app for even bigger deals. Many retailers offer special discounts for signing up for auto-replenish. Also, when you find a food that works for your pet, check the manufacturer's website and social media for even more deals.

Keep your pet active. Animals are prone to loneliness and boredom just like humans, and obesity can strike when animals aren't active enough. While you won't want to go overboard with more toys than your pet will use, pick a couple of quality toys that your pet enjoys, whether it is a feather on a stick for Fluffy or a set of tennis balls for Fido. As mentioned earlier, cats also need scratching furniture or scratchers; failure to meet this major behavioral need will result in scratched furniture. Cheap toys may also be made with boxes (think of kids with forts), tin foil or paper balls, or scrunched-up pipe cleaners. A rotation of toys is especially important for birds to prevent nervous picking and molting.

Pet insurance is growing in popularity, helping to cover large pet costs similar to human medical insurance, but is it worth it? It depends on a few factors. Costs of plans depend on the age of the pet and breed. If your pet is already elderly with health issues, the cost of insurance will be higher than when they were a kitten. On the other hand, some plans cover items like spaying or neutering (very handy if your new pet wasn't already spayed or neutered) and dental cleanings (This is more of a medical procedure for pets than it is for humans.). Check for discounts from your employer, vet, current insurance carrier (Geico and Esurance both have options.), and discount programs for which you're already a member (AAA, AARP, etc.), and check for multi-pet discounts to make the insurance more affordable. My advice is that (depending on the number of pets), if you have a hard time saving to pay for an unexpected vet bill, you should highly consider getting pet insurance to cover all of the checkups and eventual emergency trip to the vet, but if you have multiple pets or your pet is already elderly, you might not get the best value for the service.

Groom your pet

Not only do you want Fluffy or Fido to look fresh and presentable, but good grooming is part of a happy, healthy pet. Cats are well known for their hairballs, and as they get older, grooming themselves can get tougher. Cats, at the very least, need brushed and occasionally bathed. Some medium and long-haired breeds like Persians and Angoras need even more care and possibly even trips to the kitty salon. If you have the patience and train your cat, you can do some or all of these chores yourself, but be prepared for the occasional scratch or struggle if your feline isn't used to it. Dogs need all of this plus an occasional gland expression.

Birds are famous for their baths and will usually be happy with a plain-old bowl of water or a light mist from a clean squirt bottle (Do not reuse a squirt bottle from a cleaning product!). Squirt bottles can usually be purchased for about a dollar at the dollar store or grocery store.

Reptiles and amphibians also need occasional cleaning with plain warm water, but their habitats need special care with animal safe cleaning products. To save some money, you can use household products like bleach or vinegar (one-half cup of bleach to one gallon of water or vinegar either straight or 50-50 mix with water).

The real poop

Taking Fido for a walk can also cause expenses; think of all those little bags purchased to clean up the messes (unless you're one of those people that doesn't clean up after your dog). Instead, use shopping bags, and don't be afraid to use them for more than one walk (if you have a safe place to store them in between walks).

Fluffy's litter box can also get expensive with all of that litter, and clay litter contains known carcinogens. An option that many cat owners have switched to is natural litter or pine pellets like what would be used in a wood furnace. The pine pellets are compressed sawdust that break down when they get wet. Rather than scooping clumps, scoopers sift the dust out the bottom of the box.

What if you are having issues affording your pets?

I would often give up something for myself rather than not be able to afford to keep my cats. If you are in that type of situation, there are charities that can help. I have linked below some trustworthy sources for recommending charities to fit different needs and locations.

© 2020 Liz Woodward


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