There are three things that are inevitable: death, taxes, and the fact that young people will make a 15-20 year commitment to a pet the minute they get their own place for the first time. I did it. I bought a kitten as a high school graduation gift to myself. Six weeks later, I was on my own, not earning enough to pay for cat food and not able to afford a pet deposit. Jackson was a great cat. He lived past 18, and he was my parents’ responsibility for about 99% of those years. My decision was a classic young person’s mistake: taking on a major commitment without understanding all the ramifications, then dumping it on someone else. Debt is the same way. (We just dump the consequences on Future Self). Pets and debts are two of the biggest strings tying us down when we contemplate travel or relocating for career purposes.
We’re planning a trip to Europe right now. Choosing flights and booking tickets are as nothing compared to the stress of finding a reliable pet sitter for our dog and our parrot. It costs $55 a day to board them at the vet in our old city. The local cheapie option is literally a kennel, where all the dogs sit in cages and cry. It’s one rung above “I’m reporting you.” Ms. Feather Pants is simply not welcome at most boarding operations. We think it’s because she’s gray. Blatant discrimination.
First World Problems, I know. At least they’re cheaper than kids. Think about it, though: on some of our trips, we’ve paid more to board our animals than we’ve paid for our own hotel accommodations. Sometimes we bring them with us, and then there is a room surcharge. Spike is turning 8 this week, and Noelle will be 18. Hopefully, they have a lot of years left in them; the fluffy lizard might outlive us all. That means we have to continue to plan around them, not just for short trips, but for major moves, as well. If we want to relocate internationally, there are all kinds of complicated, ever-changing regulations regarding permit applications, vaccinations, health certificates, and microchips. It turns out there is such a thing as a “pet passport,” even for parrots. Many countries require a lengthy quarantine, which is a pretty big bummer for lonely little animals. I don’t even want to think about the bill.
This is where debt comes in. We’ve reached an interesting cultural moment when many of us regard our pets emotionally in the same way we do family members. Certainly many of us would rather hang out with a creature that bathes with its tongue than with our biological relatives. We refer to our fur babies as fur babies, as kids, as grandchildren, as best friends. So, when they get sick or injured, we’ll pay whatever it takes to give them the best care possible. I’ve seen vet bills rack up thousands of dollars on people’s credit cards even when they are destitute and/or unemployed. We want to give “forever homes” to strays and feral cats, but we don’t care as much about feral men, aka “the homeless.”
I know several people who have four cats, and some who have more. (Cat ownership has tripled since the 1970s). A common topic of conversation in my social media feed has to do with people who are forced to move and can’t find a place that will take all their pets. Invariably, their friends urge them to lie. This is part of what raises rents and pet deposits and causes ‘strictly no pets’ policies. Look at it from the perspective of a landlord who has to do an expensive remodel because the whole place is soaked in urine down to the subfloor. Having pets (yard chickens, goats, horses) can seriously restrict where you are allowed to live. Our dog barely meets the 25-lb weight limit imposed by most property managers, and if he could open the cupboard with the dog cookies, he’d surpass it. He’s also not on any lists of restricted breeds; whatever your opinion on those lists, they are indeed up to the landlord to enforce. We once spent an entire day looking at five houses rented by the same property management company, only to learn that Miss Sneaky Beaky counts as an exotic pet. Donkeys were not on the list but parrots were. Back to the listings we went.
Rent/mortgage is the single biggest expense for most people. Paying hundreds of dollars in pet deposits over the years can really add up, in the same way that storage units and pay cable can. We see these as fixed, non-negotiable expenses, so we shrug them off. There are going to be many occasions when that $250 or $500 lump sum would have been really helpful. We don’t have it, thanks to our furry little ingrates, so we put unanticipated emergency expenses on the credit card.
The credit card. The card-zuh. Plural. Most of us don’t know exactly what we owe to the last penny, because we don’t want to know. There is only one thing as scary as an accurate, up-to-date balance sheet, and that is stepping on a scale and finding out how much we weigh. We never stop to calculate how much we’ll pay in interest for every pizza, set of new tires, or vet bill that we charge. I did, and that’s part of why I paid off all my consumer debt 10 years ago. I still owe on my student loan (at 40), and that’s bad enough, but at least that is fixed at 3.2%.
Many of us are travelers at heart. We want to see this big old world. We’d go right now, if it weren’t for two things: who’d watch our critters and how we’d pay for it all. It is absolutely possible to finance the travel dream by getting a menial job over there. I know several people who’ve done it; one came back with the experience to vault himself into a new career with a much higher salary. I would have done it myself, after college, when I found myself single, childless, and with no strings. I was going to teach ESL in Japan. I studied Japanese for three years, and I was sure I could pass whatever certifications were necessary to teach English. It turned out, though, that I’d have to pay for my own flight, my visa, and my rent and expenses for the first month. I owed money on two credit cards and I had zero savings. Incidentally, I also had a pet, the dearly departed Mr. Puffy. I put aside my maps and applications and spreadsheets – a whole sheaf of papers – and resolved to get a temp assignment until I had saved enough. The second day on that job, I met the man to whom I am now married. Still haven’t been to Japan.
Do it while you’re young. Everyone says that. There was a brief period when I could have, if I’d known what I know now. I found out about a year too late that I could have worked in Europe as a nanny until age 26. If I had the information, if I hadn’t bought that kitten in the pet store window, if I had known how valuable just a couple thousand dollars would have been – I would have done it. I’d probably be well into a career at the UN by now. Now I’m trying to pretend that a two-week vacation is anything like living abroad. I already know I’ll be sound asleep every night before the best nightclubs even open, because I’m middle-aged and dancing all night doesn’t even sound like fun anymore.
There are always going to be pets in my life. I probably should have been more intentional about which pets and when, though. When I decided to buy a kitten, it was pure, 100% spontaneous impulse. If I’d given it any thought, I could have waited a year or two, and just spent more time with my cat-mommy friends. It wouldn’t have been the same specific cat, but I’m sure it would have done just as good a job of barfing on my carpet. Our current canine love-ball will probably be our last personal dog. The plan is to pet-sit, volunteer at a shelter, or borrow running buddies when we need dog time. There are lots of ways to enjoy animal companionship. Then there’s the one sitting next to me with the silver feathers and the golden eyes and the ruby-red tail. She requires a multi-generational contingency plan because she could live past 70.
That tends to put pet ownership in a different context – the context of retirement planning. If we’re going to give them “forever homes” then we need to think about our debt, our savings, and our ability to give ourselves forever homes. Wherever in the world those homes may be.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.