Setting Realistic Expectations and Budgets for a Lifetime of Pet Care

By Roxanne Hawn

During pandemic stay-at-home orders and other limits on what people could do and where they could go, many people felt a persistent need for a fresh distraction In some cases, they chose to add a pandemic puppy or quarantine kitty to satisfy that need. It’s understandable and in many cases a constructive coping mechanism.

Veterinarian holding a kitten

That said, some people may not have considered the long-term reality of adding a new pet, including costs for a lifetime of care. Even if they’ve had dogs and cats before, some families may not have had a younger pet in the house in a decade or more. Others may have been lucky so far, with healthy pets in the prime of life who haven’t needed additional care beyond the routine.

Due to advancements in veterinary medicine, clients may need additional information and preparation to provide the best possible care to their pets over their lifetimes — 10, 15, even 20 years.

It’s important for veterinary clients to have access to realistic estimates on the lifelong needs and costs of care. Here’s how individual veterinary practices can:

  1. Harness available national data
  2. Pull real-world data from practice management software
  3. Share important pet care and financial expectations

Available Statistics

Various pet-related organizations and research companies gather data on how much Americans spend on their pets. For example, the American Pet Products Association (APPA) releases an annual report on pet industry spending and future outlooks. Based on data sources from other organizations, APPA estimates the entire pet industry expenditures for 2020 at $99 billion as follows:

Annual Expenditures on Pets chart
Source: American Pet Products Association, 2020

First-Year Costs. The ASPCA also provides estimates of annual expenses and start-up costs for pets, with details broken out by:

  • Species
  • Size (for dogs)
  • Longer coats (for dogs), extra grooming costs each year, ranging from $264 to $408 depending on the dog’s size

ASPCA estimates the first-year costs of raising pets as follows, assuming certain start-up costs including things like leashes, litter boxes, spay/neuter surgery, training classes, aquariums/cages, etc.:

First Year Estimated Pet Care Costs
Source: ASPCA

When breaking out categories of annual and start-up costs, the ASPCA data provides these estimates for veterinary care:

Pet Cost Table
*Costs not included in source material from the ASPCA.

Real-World Pet Costs

For some veterinary practices, however, these cost estimates from national organizations likely feel low compared to the real-world costs in their facility. Even self-reported spending from APPA’s National Pet Owners Survey (2019-2020) puts costs for surgical or routine veterinary visits higher than the ASPCA estimates.

Veterinary Expenses Table

However, estimating ballpark expenses provides a structure upon which practices can build specific estimates for their clients. Wellness plans, if offered by individual practices, also outline a year’s worth of routine care in a budget-friendly format for clients.

The other option is to pull data from practice management software to figure out realistic expected expenditures for the clients you serve. Useful data may include the following:

  • Pull all new puppy or new kitten data about how much those clients spent in the first year and calculate the average
  • Pull all newly adopted dog or cat data to see and calculate how that one-year average compares to what all your longer-term dog or cat clients spend
  • Map out average costs for common routine visits or procedures
  • Map out average costs for the 5-10 most common sick-pet visits and needs

Extrapolating Lifetime Costs

Likely few people track every dollar spent on every item their pets need every year. It’s easy to go along month-to-month and spend as needed, without additional thought to how things add up, until finances get tight. The reality of what people spend is likely much higher than they think. Financial concerns and sensitivities may become more common for families experiencing greater economic impact from the pandemic.

Even if we accept the ASPCA one-year spending for a large dog at just over $2,000 and calculate a lifespan of say 12 years, that’s $24,000 in lifetime dog costs — assuming no expensive emergencies or lengthy illnesses, which can easily run $1,500-$3,000 or more each.

Somewhere in the depths of your practice management software, you’ll probably find at least a handful of patients for whom you provided a true lifetime of care. You could pull those lifetime activities and costs to see how they compare to the national estimates. Practices would probably never share them as true case studies for privacy reasons, but the information could be anonymized to tell a story about an example patient’s lifetime needs for care.

Client Education with Context

The trick in educating clients about the true costs of pet ownership is doing so in a way that doesn’t cause drama. Yes, the ultimate lifetime tally may feel huge if you look at the whole number on day one, but there are ways to tell the story with a context that’s easier for people to process.

Let’s take that $24,000 large dog lifetime cost estimate over 12 years.

  • 12 years = 4,380 days
  • $24,000 divided by 4,380 days = $5.48 per day
$5.48 per day graphic

That sounds like a bargain for the love, fun and entertainment provided by that big, goofy dog. And, remember, the total includes not just veterinary care but also food, toys, and other dog-related expenses.

In addition, look for comparisons to other common expenses — fancy coffee, lunch at a local restaurant, a couple gallons of gas, etc. The best, most gourmet cup of coffee in the world doesn’t compare to the love of a good dog.

These educational conversations and materials for clients also provide a good opportunity to explain ways families can plan financially for pet expenses, including:

  • Budgeted wellness plans
  • Pet insurance
  • Pet-specific savings accounts
  • Pet-specific credit cards
Sample Cost Worksheet

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