One afternoon at a social gathering over the holidays, a young woman of middle-class means remarked about what she spends annually on her cat, Widget. About $1,800, she said, which in relation to her monthly budget translates to $150 of potential pet debt. She explained the figure includes all expenses - food, treats, litter, toys, vet services, meds, grooming, and other stuff, including a stylish little red down-filled vest that now goes unused for winter outings since Widget found a way to extricate himself - Houdini style - from the damned annoying thing whenever it was strapped onto his already sufficiently insulated torso (he’s a furry Persian after all).
The young woman went on to boast about Widget’s special holiday accommodations (over and above the budget items mentioned). Earlier in the day, he was delivered to a pet boarding service, since his master was about to embark on a week-long Caribbean adventure with members of her own species. Rather than arranging for pet care through friends or relatives, the woman decided to put the cat up in commercial digs. The service she looked into through a Facebook ad offered a kitty “single condo” at $20 a day, or a kitty “single penthouse” at $35 a day. She opted for the latter, meaning that during the seven days of his master’s retreat to balmy climes, Widget would be living large in a comfy setting, racking up a tab of $245 (plus tax) while presumably delighting in the stereophonic Christmas croonings of Bing Crosby amid free-flowing single-malt Scotch mixed with catnip.
Ridiculous, you say? Not at all, dear reader. According to an Ipsos Reid poll from not so long ago, pets play a very special role in the lives of Canadians, and exert considerable influence over our personal finances. So much so, that in some cases, I think certain people might benefit from financial coaching from qualified credit counsellors to put spending on pets into perspective. Consider Widget. With an average lifespan of 15 years, he’ll cost his master $27,000 (not including Penthouse rentals) before he moves on to cat heaven. That’s enough to put a child through almost two years of college education, or to significantly augment retirement savings that continue to grow over time through compound interest. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not chiding the young woman for her precious treatment of Widget, or discouraging her or anyone else from owning a pet and giving it lots of tender loving care. All I’m saying is that pet care can be expensive, and that we ought to remind ourselves the creatures could care less about all the unnecessary and costly luxuries we accord them. Perhaps the money could be better spent elsewhere – on practical things.
We spend plenty on pets in Canada. Revenues for Canada’s pet industry now stand at $8.9 billion (in the U.S, they’re approaching $50 billion). Setting aside all the rabbits, guinea pigs, parakeets, and other assorted creatures occupying Canadian households, more than half of us (53 per cent) own a cat or a dog, with 13 per cent owning both. The Ipsos poll shows that average annual spending on each pet dog amounts to about $1,800, while average annual spending on each pet cat amounts to about $1,400. Or so say those sampled. As well, there are licensing fees for pets, and in cases involving purebred dogs, there can be costs of hundreds of dollars or more to purchase the creatures.
These average pet spending figures seem high to me. But as the Ipsos poll points out, 83 per cent of Canadians think of their pets as family members. The poll notes four in 10 of us think that in terms of companionship, pets are a good substitute for humans. It’s no wonder then that we spend lots on the animals and that whole industries have grown up around our love of them. Some of us go in for pet insurance and pet funerals while many more spend on dog walking services and a range of special doggy and kitty accessories running from parkas and T-shirts to boots and dog strollers (yes, you read that correctly) plus much more.
Have you heard of doga? It’s taking yoga to a new level by bringing dogs and their owners together for exercise classes that come in packages costing hundreds of dollars. How about luxury pet spas encompassing special pet hotel rooms equipped with TV and music, and costing hundreds of dollars a night? Care to go into debt shopping for designer dog clothing such as fine silk dog pajamas and leather and fur dog jackets? How about a Tiffany diamond-studded dog collar or Swarovski crystal pet hair clip? Guess what? Through Kitty Wigs, you can even buy four styles of wigs for your cat — pink passion, beautiful blonde, electric blue, and silver fox. Or consider building a house for your dog, as one architect did at a cost of $250,000. The place features a temperature-controlled bed, food and water dispensers, a webcam for 24-hour dog monitoring, and a 52-inch plasma television. Go figure. Or is pooch interested in watching PBS reruns of the fascinating British television series, Training dogs the Woodhouse Way, which is as much about training humans as it is about training canines?
Yes, there are those among us who step way outside the cage on pet spending, and I mean in astonishing ways. For instance, the 91-year-old actress Betty White, best known for her comedic roles in a variety of prime-time U.S. television shows. Less known is the fact that she has established a five-million-dollar trust fund for her beloved golden retriever, Pontiac, who clearly will be well cared for after Betty’s passing. Then there is former world champion boxer Mike Tyson, who at the height of his career purchased two Bengal tigers at $280,000, then went on to care for them and insure them at a monthly cost of $10,000. Tyson’s ownership of the tigers was not long lived. He fell to financial grief, so driven by wild overspending that in the end he was engulfed by huge debt problems and had to file for bankruptcy.
Now, I offer extreme examples here. I doubt that any pet owners in Canada will face major debt problems anytime soon as a result of spending on the animals they adore. On the other hand, we as average citizens might ask ourselves how much improved our lives are through pet extras costing us perhaps hundreds more each year than we need to spend. Surely our pets see no added value in the matter. They are quite content to be fed, sheltered, played with and … well … simply loved.
If you don’t believe that, then I suggest you ask Widget his opinion of that red, down-filled vest.