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Published November 1, 2023

Prepping for — and Coping With — the High Cost of Pet Care

Budgeting, creative cost-cutting and pet food assistance programs are ways to keep your pet healthy and by your side.

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Two years of rampant inflation has forced Canadians to make some painful choices, including surrendering pets they can no longer afford to local animal shelters.

Shelters across Canada are overwhelmed with the number of cats, dogs and other pets they’ve had to care for in 2023. From January to August, the Winnipeg Humane Society alone took in 954 dogs and 2,887 cats. Economics aren’t the only reason animals wind up in shelters, but rising food and veterinary costs are among the leading factors today.

Relinquishing a beloved pet due to cost of care is a difficult decision that hurts everyone involved, and it can put added pressure on a shelter’s limited resources. 

There are several ways to avoid this potentially heartbreaking situation, though, including budgeting, cutting costs and availing yourself of local charities dedicated to keeping pets where they belong: in a home with a loving family.

Before getting a pet: Research and budgeting

Pets often catch their owners off-guard in two ways: by making us feel more love for an animal than we ever thought possible, and by costing us far more than we anticipated. 

There’s no preparing for that first shock, but it’s critical to plan for the second if you’re serious about living with a pet long-term.

According to the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association, the estimated annual cost of owning a full-grown cat in the province is more than $2,800, while the average cost of owning a dog is around $4,100. If your heart is set on a kitten or puppy, expect to pay several hundred dollars more than that for the first few years.

Vet costs vary from clinic to clinic, so it’s a good idea to call around your community and compare how much you might have to pay for regular procedures like examinations, vaccines, blood work and dental care, says Heidi Marston, director of pet placement initiatives at PetSmart Charities of Canada. Keep in mind that some clinics might not be accepting new patients. 

“It’s also a good idea to research species and breeds prior to welcoming a pet into your life,” says Dr. Matthew Richardson, president of the OVMA and a veterinarian/practice owner in downtown Toronto. “Certain breeds are more prone to health concerns, and being aware of the potential expenses over the life of the pet is important.”

Richardson also encourages prospective pet owners to start a dedicated savings account for paying unexpected expenses and to consider the benefits of pet insurance.

“There is a fee, but it allows your pet to get the best medical care when needed without worrying about the cost,” he says.

Another option to consider, particularly when shelters are overwhelmed, is to foster an animal rather than adopting or purchasing one. You’ll get a sense of the responsibilities involved with pet ownership without making a long-term financial or emotional commitment you may not be ready for. 

“People are able to enjoy the experience of having a pet in their home while providing care for an animal in need,” says Anja Richter, director of intake and animal care at the Winnipeg Humane Society. “It’s a win-win.”

Growing together: Reduce pet care costs

When you’re ready to welcome a pet into your home, there are a number of things you can do to keep costs under control, such as:

  • Adopting from a shelter. Getting your pet from a shelter that has already vaccinated, spayed or neutered it can reduce those initial vet bills, Marston says.
  • DIY-ing when possible. Making your own pet toys and learning how to groom your pet can cut down on ancillary costs, says Richter. 
  • Learning basic pet care. Treating mild diarrhea, removing ticks and trimming your pet’s nails on your own can all save you a trip to the vet, Richter says.

When it comes to lowering vet costs, the experts agree: preventive medicine is the most effective method of avoiding large vet bills. Vaccinating your dog or cat against parvovirus, for example, will be cheaper than treating it. Regularly cleaning your pet’s teeth and getting it spayed or neutered can also nip future expenses in the bud, as can regular check-ups. 

Cutting back on food costs, another major expense, doesn’t necessarily mean opting for low quality kibble. There are healthy, cost-conscious alternatives on the market, Richter says, including local brands that keep their prices down by spending less than the national brands do on advertising. A little online research can help you find these brands and learn what you should be looking for when comparing ingredient lists. 

“Feeding your pet a healthy diet doesn’t have to be expensive,” Richardson says. “To decide if a certain food fits your budget, consider the cost of feeding per day, not just the cost of the bag or can. A veterinarian can suggest a food that is suitable for your pet with your budget in mind.”

If things get rough: Avoiding the shelter system

There’s only so much you can do when battling high prices — just ask the world’s central banks. If you’ve exhausted every reasonable option and still can’t afford to give your pet the life you feel it deserves, consider asking for help.

Seek out local food banks and see if they run food assistance programs for pets. Your local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or Humane Society may also provide free or low-cost food. Marston also suggests visiting Pet Help Finder to find affordable food and pet care alternatives.

Your province may also be home to charities that aim to help keep families and pets together. The Farley Foundation, for example, subsidizes vet care for families in need in Ontario. Ask your vet if similar charities exist near you.

If all else fails, Richter suggests trying to rehome your pet yourself.

“You know your pet the best and the environment it needs to thrive,” she says.

Finding a new home for your pet can be stressful, especially if you’re rehoming a breed that might need special care. Richardson says many dog and cat breeds have breed associations that can help place the pet in the care of someone who’s familiar with the breed, increasing the chance of finding a forever home.

About the Author

Clay Jarvis

Clay Jarvis is NerdWallet’s mortgage and real estate expert in Canada. Thus far, his entire professional writing career has revolved around real estate. Prior to joining NerdWallet, he was the…

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