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"My pet comes first": The high cost of pet ownership

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Photo by Los Muertos Crew / Pexels
Photo by Los Muertos Crew / Pexels

Since the pandemic, more American households own pets than ever before, and they are spending more on them, too. In 2022, Americans spent $136.8 billion on their furry friends. According to Forbes, 66% of American households (86.9 million homes) own pets — 74% have at least one dog, and 53.5% own at least one cat.

The number of pet owners is even greater in Seattle. According to the latest US census, there are currently more dogs than children in the city.

While pets certainly enrich our lives, just what is the cost of housing them, and how far are Americans willing to go to spoil their animals?

Dogs are kids
On average, dog owners in America spend about $730 on their pooches each year, according to Forbes; however, many pet owners in Seattle estimate spending more, according to Lending Tree. In cities with higher populations of young people, the cost of pet ownership is also higher, both sources say.

While millennials are more likely to raise a dog than a child, Gen Z is the most likely to treat their pets like a child. Thirty-two percent of 18-25-year-olds buy clothing for their pets, 35% buy them birthday cakes, and 39% purchase presents for birthdays and holidays, according to Forbes, which also says that young people are the most likely to invest in specialized pet food, dog walking services, daycare, and behavioral training.

Justin Walker and Maia Larsen said they spend nearly $1,000 a year on their Chihuahua, Tinkles.

"It's only getting worse," Walker said with a laugh as he carried a armful of specialty dog food out of Mud Bay.

Photo by RDNE Stock Project / Pexels  

Sacrificing for our pets
People in Seattle also report making sacrifices in their personal lives for their pets. According to Forbes, nearly 40% say they live on a tighter budget for their animals, 14% report moving into a house with a yard specifically for their dog, and 6% have broken up with a significant other who didn't get along with their dog. People living in Washington state are also some of the most likely to stay at a job that allows them to bring their dogs to work or work remotely to care for them.

While inflation has led many Americans to cut costs everywhere, from the grocery store to the gas pump, Walker and Larsen said it would take a lot to consider changing Tinkles' lifestyle.

"Yeah, I would [cut costs for myself first,]" Walker said.

"We'd do away with amenities for us for sure," Larsen added.

Cat owners feel the same way. Taylor Richmond is the owner of nine-year-old Thor. "He's a big boy and a butthead," he said of his black and brown tabby. Even though Richmond works at Mud Bay and receives a significant discount, he still estimates that he spends around $1,000 a year on his cat. He said he would also make cuts to his life before doing anything that would impact his cat.

Most pet owners in Seattle agree. Washington state ranked seventh on the Forbes list of most dedicated dog owners. Of the Washingtonians surveyed, 43% said they would spend up to $4,000 to save their dog's life. However, 42% of Americans also reported that a $999 vet bill would cause them to go into debt, according to Forbes.

Inflation leads to overcrowded shelters
Despite Walker and Larsen's commitment to providing premium care for their dog, which echoed the sentiment of several other Mud Bay customers, Seattle-area shelters are reporting a drastic increase in animal intakes this summer, most of which are due to financial hardship and inflation.

"Anytime we see an increase in owner surrenders, it's a good indicator that we're heading into a recession," the chief operating officer of Seattle Humane told the Seattle Times earlier this month.

Shelters across the country are facing capacity issues. From July 17 to 24, the Humane Society for Tacoma and Pierce County waived all adoption fees after taking in 460 animals.

Between 2021 and 2022, 3% of pet owners had to give their animals up for adoption, according to Forbes. The top reason for rehoming their beloved animals was inflation. Other reasons included the rising cost of rent, the inability to afford a pet's medical bills, and the cost of pet deposits for apartments.

For Walker and Larsen, the idea of giving Tinkles up is unthinkable.

"I would never," Walker said. "She's been through some things."

"She's not going anywhere," Larsen added.

"I would never give [Thor] up," Richmond said. "I've moved back into my mom's place, because I didn't have a place to live, and I would do that again or something similar before I did anything to him. My pet comes first."

When vet care is too much
Willow owns a Daschund mix named Whiskey. Their dog has a moderate skin condition, which isn't too much for Willow to handle. However, they understand the issue that costly vet bills can cause.

"If it was a situation where their life could be extended, but I can't afford to keep their life going, I would give them to someone who could afford them — if crowdfunding and stuff, which is unfortunately what a lot of people have to do, didn't work out," Willow said. "That would probably be the point, to extend his life if that would be good for him."

Unfortunately, the high costs of caring for an elderly or special-needs pet can often land the animals behind bars. Pets with expensive health needs are the least likely to make it out of shelters. As more Americans report buying a dog from a pet store or breeder, the average number of animals euthanized in shelters continues to rise, according to PETA. As of 2022, it was 1.5 million, according to The Zebra, an insurance comparison site.

Some pet owners, like Chase Fisher, already feel the strain of added vet bills. Fisher has a five-month-old kitten named Lasso. "We think he has worms, but we're trying to avoid going to the vet to have to pay for that kind of stuff, so we're here to get [over-the-counter] medication," Fischer said as he browsed Mud Bay's selection of homeopathic remedies. "We have to think about the cost a lot more."

While Fisher would make cuts to Lasso's treat and toy supplies when budgeting, he still says it would take a lot for him to consider rehoming his pet. "I would give up things of my own before I give him up," he said.

Vet care can be one of the biggest costs to pet owners — and it's often one they don't consider before adopting. The average household spends $326 a year on vet costs, according to Forbes, though a serious incident can cost more than $1,000.

Dog owners are the most likely to face high vet bills. "We see a lot of dogs," Amber Liu, the receptionist at Urban Animal on Capitol Hill, said. "Just in general, cats are a little bit more hardy, so they don't need as much care. When we see cats, it's pretty traumatic things they need to be treated for."

The great vet shortage
The cost of vet care is skyrocketing in America, partially due to an increase in pet ownership during the pandemic. Despite the high demand for vets, the number of professionals in the field continues to decrease. Even before the pandemic, veterinarians were feeling overworked and underpaid. The stress of the job has led male veterinarians to have a suicide rate 2.1 times higher than the average American, and female vets are 3.5 times more likely to kill themselves, according to VetAdvantage.com.

A 2018 study from the American Veterinary Medical Association found that 6,291 full-time vets would be required to accommodate the desire of current doctors to work fewer hours. The existing vets were even willing to take dramatic pay decreases. The study also predicted that 22,909 additional vets will be needed by 2030 to keep up with the increase in pet ownership.

According to a new poll from PetLab, Washington ranks sixth in demand for veterinarians. The need for care is straining Urban Animal, where employees report seeing an influx of new clients daily. "We just keep collecting more... because a lot of people have their vet, but they can't see them for months, so they just come to us instead," Liu said.

The vet shortage in Washington means that the average time between scheduling an appointment and receiving care is one to two months. The increase in new pet owners has led many established clinics to refuse to take on new clients.

"COVID has caused other clinics to stop taking new patients," Liu explained. "People were getting pets a lot during the pandemic, and people started coming to us because they either couldn't get into their regular vet or a vet near them was not accepting new patients. We get a huge influx of patients every single day — new patients and new clients — because of that."

Urban Animal is a walk-in clinic, like urgent care for animals. While it does take appointments for surgeries and dental cleanings, most of its patients are brought in and treated on the same day. However, this can mean long wait times, especially when an emergency comes up.

"Our walk-in is helpful for people if they need something immediately or the day of, like a health certificate later in the day. It's a good way to work the clinic," Liu said, though she acknowledged that the walk-in style can be difficult for some.

"We do have an estimated wait time," she said. "Right now, it's about four hours, but we've quoted people four hours, and they might not [be seen] for six hours, maybe, because we have emergencies run in, and it throws a wrench in things."

Keeping vet care affordable
Urban Animal is working hard to keep up with the demand. The Capitol Hill location recently hired a few new doctors and technicians. Other locations, like the downtown clinic, have moved to appointments only.

"I think if we could see more, we would love to," Liu said. "I know the owner is pushing us to keep seeing more and more patients every day. It's just really tough, because we have emergency cases that take up our doctors' time. I feel like, at the moment, we're seeing as many as we can."

Urban Animal knows that the cost of vet care is often a determining factor in whether or not people can keep their pets. Because of that, it has a few programs to help keep its clinics affordable.

"We are partnered with Doney Coe pet clinic. Right now, they're working out of our White Center location," Liu said. For 35 years, the Doney Coe Pet Clinic has provided free veterinary care for low-income and houseless pet owners in the Seattle area. The clinic is open one day a week and, like most Urban Animal locations, only takes walk-ins.

"It is hard, because you have to line up and stay in line the whole time, but I've heard it helps people who struggle to pay for things. We donate our expired meds, or if people bring in meds they have already opened, but they're unused, we give those to Doney Coe," Liu said.

Pet stores and veterinary clinics have been hit hard by inflation. Willow, who works at Mud Bay, has noticed a steady price increase since inflation set in. "I've only been here for two years, so I don't have a long history here, but I have noticed that when we do price changes, they always go up. So, yeah, the prices have increased."

Urban Animal has launched a new "Affordable Care Together" subsidy to help keep its costs from increasing for those who cannot afford it. The program adds an optional 15% to every vet bill. Clients are asked to give a little more, but those who can't may opt out.

"Although this subsidy is optional, it is our hope that those who can [will] keep it on their invoices to help others. Urban Animal is confident this additional amount will still provide care [that's] comparably priced or less than other area practices," the clinic said in a statement.

"It's not necessarily the low-income clients getting the [ACT] subsidy. It just helps everyone overall," Liu added. "The owner of our company decided [that] instead of raising the cost of everything across the board, we just left it up to the clients, if they're able to add a little bit more money — not necessarily a donation, it's more of an optional [amount added to] the bill to help us keep our costs lower. It helps you over time. It is optional, so people can opt in or out of the subsidy."

As the cost of pet ownership continues to rise in America, experts recommend putting money away or investing in pet insurance.

Adopting a pet is a big — and often expensive — decision. Those who do so, however, should be ready to make a lifetime commitment.

For anyone struggling to find affordable vet care, Urban Animal offers low-cost walk-in visits five days a week. The Doney Coe clinic is also available on weekends in White Center at 9610 17th Ave. SW, Seattle, WA 98106. Its website is https://doneycoe.org