What to do when you can't afford your pet

If you can't afford to care for your pet anymore, there are good alternatives.

By , Guest blogger

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    A dog named Bailey plays fetch at the future location of Hurricane, Utah's proposed dog park. If you can't afford your pet anymore, there are ways to find a good home for it.
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Hey, look, today I’m going to wade into something that’s bound to get hundreds of angry comments!

Yesterday, I read an article over at Get Rich Slowly where J.D. wrote the following (with my own emphasis added):

“Thanks for finding that place,” Michael told me as he took a bite of mashed potatoes and gravy. “But we’ve decided to rent someplace else. We found a place in Rock Creek for $1300 a month.”

“Wow,” I said. “That seems like a lot.”

“Not really,” he said. “That’s pretty good for similar places in Portland. Plus, it gives us space for our two dogs.”

I sighed inside. Sure, that may be a good price compared to similar houses, but I know there are tons of places to live in Portland for less than $1300 a month — if Michael and his wife are willing to make some sacrifices. I wanted to pursue this line of questioning — What about getting rid of the dogs? Why not look at the $500/month place I found? — but I let it go. You can only argue with your friends so much, right? We moved on to other topics.

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This is an issue that comes up over and over again whenever pets are mentioned in a personal finance context. What do you do with a pet when you’re in a financial or personal situation that makes caring for them incredibly difficult or impossible?

It’s not an easy thing to think about for many pet owners. My experience with pets in the past has been very, very bittersweet, so I think I’ll relate my own experience with pets so you’ll have some idea where I’m coming from.

I have had two dogs in my life that I dearly loved. When I was four years old, my parents got a Lhasa Apso / poodle mix as a puppy. I immediately fell in love and insisted that we name the dog “Lolly” (short for Lollipop). Over the years, Lolly was a constant family companion – and I think my dad loved that dog more than even I did. One of her favorite things to do was to walk along the side of the gravel road by our house, past three other houses, and visit my aunt and uncle’s house, and they would often feed her, too. One of our neighbors used to complain constantly about her presence, threatening us and the dog repeatedly. One day, he left a tray of antifreeze alongside the road by his house – and Lolly drank it. She came home with antifreeze still in the fur around her mouth, became very ill, and died two days later in a very miserable way.

To replace Lolly, when I was about fourteen, my parents bought a rat terrier that we named Patch. I was incredibly attached to Patch and I spent most of a summer bonding with him and training him to do various tricks. We would stand out in the yard and play fetch together for hours. He also loved to go to the river and run into the water chasing sticks, bringing them back for me to throw again. He slept on my bed most nights. One day, while I was gone, my older brother ran over Patch with his truck, and I never got to say goodbye to him – he was buried before I returned home.

I know the feeling of bonding with a pet. I know the strong desire to protect a pet. And I know the sense of loss that people can feel when they lose one. It hurts.

So, what does a pet owner do when they find that they’re not emotionally, physically, or financially capable of properly caring for a pet?

The first step that should be taken is to ask yourself whether or not there are changes you could make in your life to allow that pet-human bond to continue. If you can’t afford dog food but you can afford cable television and a cell phone, spend some serious time thinking about your priorities. I can’t answer the question of which is more important to you, but keep in mind that pet ownership is a responsibility in which you’ve agreed to care for a living, thinking being.

This is a very personal decision. Some people simply have difficulty emotionally bonding with a pet – and that situation is difficult for both pet and owner. Some people, after going through a personal crisis or other deep change, find that their new situation makes the pet-human relationship very difficult. A job loss. A disability. A death. A new household member with an allergy. These things happen and they damage the pet-human relationship.

An example: my father is incredibly allergic to cats. Because of this, it made it impossible for him to visit us for years when we had two cats, which caused some serious strain on our relationship (as you can imagine, he did want to visit his grandchildren). Eventually, after searching, we found great alternative homes for our two cats. Our cats have safe, secure places to live and my father can visit his son and his grandchildren – it’s a win for everyone.

If you can’t make available the financial and personal resources that a pet requires, you should actively seek an appropriate home for your pet. Start by asking around your own social network, and also ask at your vet’s office. If that doesn’t work, put a Craigslist posting up about your pet (with pictures), describing the pet in as much detail as you can. Specify who you would like to own the pet. Would this be a good pet for a family? For an elderly person? For a cat lover? Explain that you really need to find a good home for this pet because of changing conditions in your life. You’ll be surprised how often this finds a good match – many potential pet owners just need the impetus of a good story in front of them to push them over the line to pet ownership. Deliver the pet yourself and make sure the home is a healthy one. Just look for obvious red flags like an abundance of caged pets (indicating the person may be a “buncher” who collects pets to sell). The Humane Society offers a great article on finding a new owner for your pet.

If this option fails, try PetFinder.com. You can list your pet there as a classified, which is perhaps the best place to start. If this doesn’t work, then you can also work with a listed animal shelter on PetFinder to help you find a good home for your pet. Try to stick with shelters that have good reviews on PetFinder – in other words, seek a very reputable shelter that takes an active role in finding good homes for their pets. Again, when you take your dog there, look for red flags. If it looks shady and smells awful, they’re probably not actively invested in finding homes for their pets.

Yes, this all takes a lot of time. But it does take a lot of time to find a good home for a pet. That’s why animal shelters often have pets for long periods of time – it’s not easy to find people that are capable of caring for a pet and want to have one, too.

If you own a pet, part of your responsibility is to make sure that the pet has a good home if you can no longer be the owner. That takes work and time, but it’s part of the responsiblity you take on when you acquire a pet. It’s not expensive, it just needs effort and patience.

As for me, I’m not emotionally ready quite yet to have a dog because of those past experiences (and cats are impossible due to allergies, as mentioned above). In the future, I’m not opposed to having one, particularly when we live in the country and the pet has a lot of outdoor freedom. When we do make that choice, we’ll be using Craigslist and PetFinder and other such resources – we won’t be involved in bringing a new pet into the world when there are so many great ones already out there who need a home.

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