The Cost of Responsibility for a Cat

And the Higher Toll for Irresponsible Ownership

Cat ownership
Getty Images

Being a responsible owner of a cat carries with it certain financial obligations. If you are not in a position or are not willing to meet these costs, it may be better not to take in a cat at all, in your current situation. I know it is difficult to resist that cute kitten in the "free to a good home" box, or that friendly stray on the street who begs to come home with you, but if you can't afford to give it the bare necessities, you are probably doing the cat or kitten no favor.

Fortunately, you have options, if your love for cats far outweighs your means to properly care for them. We'll discuss those options a bit later.

On the other hand, if your budget is tight, but you are willing to make certain sacrifices for the sake of having the pleasures of a cat in your life, then you may be able to accomplish that dream.

Cats have certain basic needs which often divide the difference between a stray on the street and a cat in a home with a responsible caregiver (the irresponsible ones often dump their cats back into the streets or at the nearest "shelter"). These needs include:

  1. Food, of the highest quality one can afford
  2. A safe indoor-only environment with a few exceptions.
  3. Spay or Neutering, provided by a veterinarian
  4. Core Vaccinations, provided by a veterinarian
  5. An annual veterinary examination
  6. Emergency veterinary care, when a cat is sick

These needs are non-negotiable, and a person who is not prepared to pay for them, e.g., can't "afford" them should not own a cat.

Let's put these costs into some kind of perspective, so you'll know exactly what you might have to give up for the sake of your cat. These costs vary by location,size, age, and health of your cat, and are just general estimates

  • Quality Food: $15 - $25 a Month
    Just about the equivalent of a 12-pack of beer, three packs of cigarettes, or a trip for two to the movies.
  • Litter Box and Litter (price varies)
    You can obtain a litter box for $6 to $200 for a deluxe self-cleaning box. A 17-pound bag of World's Best Cat Litter costs around $19, and regular scooping should make it last almost two months for one cat. (About the cost of breakfast for two at Denny's.)
  • Spay or Neutering: (One-Time Cost Varies)There are many low-cost spay and neuter clinics in the United States. Project CatSnip in Atlanta charges $40/Neuter and $60/Spay. A private veterinarian might charge in the neighborhood of $60/Neuter to $115/Spay, about the cost of a pair of designer jeans. Note: This cost is minuscule compared with the cost of treating an abscess caused by fighting in an unneutered male, or aborting or treating momcat and newborn kittens resulting from an unexpected pregnancy.
  • Core Vaccinations + (cost varies)
    The cost will vary depending on the risk factor in your own cat and rabies laws in your area. As with spay and neuter, there are many low-cost vaccination clinics available Let's go with a maximum of $80 for the complete first-year series, a high estimate, and around the cost of one night in a moderately nice motel.
  • Annual Veterinary Examination: Cost Varies
    A thorough exam, including dental and a blood profile, will run from $100-$150, or equivalent to 10 trips to Mickey D's.
  • Emergency Veterinary Care
    There is no real way to estimate these costs, since they vary as to the age, overall condition, and accident-proneness of the cat. Veterinary insurance can mitigate these costs somewhat. Lacking that, I would recommend setting aside money every month for a "vet emergency fund" (I would suggest a bare minimum of $10/week), or getting a $1,000 - $2,000 credit card and putting in away in a drawer, to be earmarked for cat emergencies only.

I'll add another important item for responsible care with regard to declawing: don't! You will not only save the cost of the procedure, but you will save you and your cat possibly years of pain, frustration, and heartbreak.

Hard Times

Yes, there will come times when illness, death of a spouse, or sudden loss of income will drastically affect the kinds of care we can give our cats.

Changes in the global economy can also have a massive effect on cat care as prices soar. Let's explore areas where compromises can be made in cat care costs:

  • Cat Food Expenses
    Certainly, food choices can be compromised somewhat, by buying the least expensive premium cat foods, buying larger bags of dry food, or even supplementing premium cat food with grocery store brands, until finances improve.
  • Cat Litter Savings
    "Chicken crumble," such as Purina's Layena brand, which is around $10 for a 50-pound bag, makes a good temporary substitute for litter. Litter costs can also be mitigated by purchasing the largest bag available.
  • Veterinary Expenses
    Some cat owners have stretched the time period between annual well-care examinations for younger, healthy cats. Some core vaccinations can be given at home for substantial savings, particularly in a multiple-cat household. Note: Do not attempt home vaccinations unless you are  completely familiar with the process and the risks.

    Emergency veterinary treatment is a bit tougher to tackle. The About Cats Forum members came up with a few suggestions for one hard-strapped member, and I'll add a couple more:

    • Ask for payment terms
      Some veterinarians will allow you to pay off an emergency bill in weekly or monthly installment. You can even offer to write post-dated checks (but be sure they will clear).
    • Borrow
      Borrow from family, friends, or your local bank, if possible. Ask your credit card holder for a temporary increase in your limit, but be sure to make at least the minimum payment the following month. Care Credit (U.S. and Canada) offers interest-free loans for up to one year for veterinary emergencies.
    • Pawn or sell possessions
      I know one person who has sold her entire collection of CDs and DVDs to pay for veterinary care, without a thought for herself. Look around your house and see what you can afford to give up, then hold a yard sale.
    • Barter
      Bartering is big nowadays with many businesses, and you probably have some skill to offer your veterinarian in return for his/her services:
      • Offer to clean the office, scrub holding cages, or paint exam rooms.
      • Offer to babysit or pet-sit over a six-month period.
      • Trade skills: massage therapy, dentistry, pet-sitting, carpentry, computer repair, or haircuts and manicures.

    If you have established a previous relationship of working with your veterinarian as a team, she will be more likely to make concessions when it comes to emergency care. This underscores the importance of being a responsible caregiver in all ways. You owe your cat no less.

    The Tragic Price of Irresponsibility:

    Shelters in the United States are so full that 4 - 6 million cats and dogs are euthanized each year. Millions of other cats eke out a frail existence on the streets, and meet tragic early deaths. (The photos shown here, courtesy of GalensGranny, are good examples.) The cause for these needless tragedies can be traced directly to irresponsible people. Yes, most of them good people at heart, but irresponsible nevertheless.

    I'd suggest that someone who loves cats but can't afford to give them responsible care, do the really unselfish thing and volunteer at a shelter, instead of taking on another cat. Most shelters could not operate without volunteers, and volunteers quickly learn the realities of the lives of companion animals and the consequences of irresponsible pet ownership. It would be a win-win situation: you would be able to get your regular cat-fix without guilt, and the shelter cats would benefit from your loving care.