A friend who volunteers at a shelter used to write to me about badly wanting to adopt the dogs they had fallen in love with. This same friend was frequently crunched financially and scrambling to pay bills. In one message, they told me about a special needs dog they were worried about. The shelter had offered to pay for the dog's treatments, and my friend was concerned that if they didn't adopt him, the dog wouldn't find a home.
But as their friend, and someone who cares for dogs professionally, my concerns were different.
Raising a team of sled dogs with my wife has put me for the past three years in the role of trainer, nutritionist, sports psychologist, and equipment and logistics coordinator. I travel with the dogs year-round in the Midwest, Canada, and Alaska, often sleeping out on the trail with them in remote areas.
Though my wife and I are living our dream, it's a dream that gets expensive quickly, and we shape our budget — and our lives — around the dogs and what they need.
I worried that my friend's caring nature would lead them to adopt a dog on impulse, which wouldn't serve either them or the dog. Especially since they were highly optimistic about what having a dog would cost. I assured them that a needy dog would be ready and available when they were. The best thing they could do was build a stable life in which a pup could flourish.
Budgeting for a dog should begin long before your dog actually enters your life. Determine when you plan to adopt, and then begin saving up six months beforehand. A pet shouldn't, under most circumstances, be an impulse decision.
First, figure out realistic costs in your region for things like food and treats, habitat and gear, a walker or sitter, vet care, and pet health insurance and training classes. If your financial situation allows, then set that amount aside each month for six months.
The key is that you put away at least six months' worth of expenses in an account that you will not touch until there's an inevitable, no matter how unexpected, veterinary event down the road. Trauma treatment is stressful, and life-sustaining care decisions are gut-wrenching, but both circumstances are even more stressful if you end up having to crowdsource or take out a loan.
Video by Jason Armesto
Once six months have passed and you put aside your canine nest egg, begin visiting breeders or shelters to see which new friend might speak to you. Keep in mind that a lot of well-meaning people prefer to adopt from a shelter, but just as breeders vary in ethical standards, so do shelters.
No matter where you go, soliciting references from canine professionals, such as veterinarians and trainers, is an excellent idea.
Once you have accounted for all these factors, you are financially ready to take on the responsibility of caring for a dog. As time goes on, you can adjust your budget if expenses turn out to be more or less than you anticipated.
Whatever you do, don't cheap out on dog food. Pick the food that keeps your dog fit and full of energy.
Keep in mind that many commercial kibbles contain fillers, so though they may seem cheaper by weight or by the bag, they are not actually cheaper to feed. More important, they may not provide the optimum amount of nutrition to keep your dog healthy. When looking at feed prices, compare calorie per dollar rather than pound per dollar, and seek a minimum 25% protein-to-calorie ratio for adult dogs. Puppies will need a bit more.
Once you've chosen an appropriate food, be careful not to over-feed. Obesity stresses your dog's joints and cardiovascular system, impacting their quality of life and longevity. If you like feeding your dog treats — whether they're packaged dog treats or table scraps — be mindful of the added calories and adjust your dog's mealtime portions to account for the day's snacks.
My personal favorite snack to offer dogs is a beef soup bone (they are commonly available at grocery stores; ask the butcher if you don't see them packaged with chilled meats), which I sometimes refill with peanut butter and freeze. It's relatively inexpensive, nutritious, good for dental health, and provides an entertaining activity as well.
Video by David Fang
Consider purchasing pet health insurance, which generally costs $20 to $60 per month and provides peace of mind — and financial security — should your pet experience catastrophic injury or illness.
Some pet health insurance plans cover preventative care, but even if yours doesn't, or if you choose not to purchase a plan, preventative care is one of the best investments you can make in setting your dog up for a long and healthy life.
Talk to your vet about the proper age for spaying and neutering, and use a calendar to keep track of vaccinations, heartworm preventatives, and flea and tick repellent. And plan to exercise your dog regularly, whether that means frequent walks, playtime, or other physical activities.
Even after you've budgeted for daily care, preventive care, and emergencies, the resource you should plan to devote most to your dog is time. Some of this work can be outsourced. You can hire a trainer and a dog walker and you can send your pet to doggie day care, where they can play with their dog friends while you're at the office. But even if you have the resources to pay for assistance, you should plan to devote daily time to your dog.
One day last winter, I realized just how much dogs have impacted my values and budget. At the end of a long weekend of mushing, my dogs had eaten 60 pounds of ground beef and a $75 bag of kibble. There they were in their matching jackets, snoozing contentedly under fleece blankets. Exhausted and happy, I slurped down a thermos full of ramen noodles, made myself a little bed of straw, kicked off my thrift store boots, and went to sleep beside them.
In all seriousness, taking care of other creatures has taught me that my life is no longer just about me. I take great pride in the care I give my dogs and the relationships I have with them. And no matter how much I've learned, I'm always looking to improve.
Quince Mountain is a writer and dog enthusiast who splits his time between the Midwest, Alaska, and New York City. He is currently training to qualify for the 1,000 mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
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