How Much Does It Cost to Keep a Cat?
When my family acquired a pair of kittens from a local shelter, it felt like a frugal move. We had been unsuccessful in ridding our old house of mice using traps, and we weren't willing to use poison or pay for a monthly pest control service or other expensive measures. (See also: 5 Ways to Yank the Leash on Pet Expenses)
And for the first few months, it worked out that way. Sure, we had to pay an adoption fee that covered spaying and their first round of shots, and the first vet appointment was pricey, but after that, feeding them cost under $1 a day, even when we bought the good cat food. The mice in our house didn't turn out to be free cat food, but they did provide our new pets with hours of entertainment until they wisely decided to vacate the premises.
Then Acorn Ranger happened.
I was asleep at my parents' Wisconsin cabin one morning when my niece shoved something scrawny and matted in my face. "Look what we found!" she said.
What they found was the tiniest little stray kitten, with adorably huge, hairy ears, prominent ribs and runny eyes. We named him Acorn Ranger, and when it was time to drive home, we brought the kitten along. We already had a couple of cats, what difference could one more make?
A couple thousand dollars worth of difference, it turned out.
First of all, when we brought Acorn Ranger into our house, even though we sequestered him to a bathroom pending a medical checkup, our other cats (now about a year old) freaked out. One of them started peeing on the carpet. Every day.
Then we brought Acorn Ranger to the vet, thinking we'd pay for shots and neutering, and get what appeared to be an eye infection cleared up. Instead, we learned that the vet needed to test him for FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) and feline leukemia. She also prescribed an antibiotic eye drop, an oral antibiotic for a cough we hadn't noticed, and treated him for a wound on his stomach that we hadn't even seen under his matted fur. The initial bill was about $400 — and he hadn't even gotten his vaccinations yet.
Meanwhile, one of our other cats ended up at the vet with a bladder infection. The vet explained that some cats are prone to these infections when they feel stressed — like when a strange new cat comes to live in their house. The bill was mounting.
Acorn Ranger's blood test came back positive for FIV. This meant that he might have the communicable disease, so he couldn't live with our cats. Luckily, we were able to find him a new home where no other cats lived. But even after Acorn Ranger departed, our expenses were not over. One of our original cats continued peeing on the carpet. Eventually we pulled out the carpet and hired a handyman to remove the remaining staples. She started peeing on the bare floor in the same old spot. We had to have the wood floor refinished at the cost of over $1,000. (The wood under the carpet was ugly and would have needed refinishing eventually anyway, but if it hadn't been for the darn cat we never would have found that out because it would have remained hidden under carpeting.)
All these events serve to illustrate how unpredictable pet expenses can be. We had hoped our cats would only cost us a few hundred dollars per year, but instead the cost of one year topped $2,000. The next year went much more smoothly — but you never know what may happen next.
So how much can you expect to spend keeping a cat? Petside.com estimates that you will spend $900-$1,500 in the first year, including an adoption fee, spaying/neutering, initial vaccinations, and supplies. Subsequent years, the site predicts, will cost $600-$900.
Here are the typical things you spend money on with cats.
CatCentric estimates that you can spend anything from 22 cents a day (Cat Chow kibble) to $5.48 a day (Royal Canin Instinctive canned) to feed a 10-pound kitty. Interestingly, commercially available raw foods — usually more richer in nutrients than canned or dry — fall in between kibble and canned food cost-wise, at about $1 per day, according to an analysis by CFA and cat-rescuer Laurie D. Goldstein. Making homemade cat food can cost even less and be healthier than what you buy in the store — according to CatInfo.org by veterinarian Lisa A. Pierson, nutritionally balanced cat food can be made at home for 87 cents per day, per cat.
I usually pay 30-50 cents a pound for litter, and a quick check of Petco.com shows several varieties available for that price. How long it lasts depends on how finicky you and your cats are. I probably use about five pounds of litter a week, at a cost of about $1.50. If you use a litter box liner, this adds about 50 cents a week.
Maintenance Vet Care
The ASPCA advises you get your cat an annual checkup — my most recent vet recommended twice a year. The cost of this routine visit will vary by geography and fanciness of waiting room; Aiken Animal Hospital in South Carolina lists a cost of $93 for an annual checkup. Vaccination costs can vary widely too, since not all vets recommend you get the full complement of shots every year. Pierson, of CatInfo.org, does not recommend annual vaccines other than for rabies as required by local laws.
If something goes wrong, the cost of treatment comes down to how much you are willing or able to pay before considering euthanization or just living with the problem. The New York Times recently reported on pet owners — mostly those with dogs — spending as much as $10,000 on advanced medical treatments. A full course of radiation treatment for cancer can cost $6,000. This MSN article lists the most expensive common cat ailments as foreign body ingestions ($1,629) and urinary tract reconstruction ($1,399).
I don't have health insurance for our cats because my husband and I have agreed that we will not provide extraordinary treatments for them. But if you are more attached to your cat than I am and feel you must provide any treatment needed, despite the cost, insurance may be worth looking into. Premium costs vary, but this Get Rich Slowly post pegs the cost at about $1 a day. Sierra Black, author of that post, determined that for her, the right answer was to set aside money for cat care instead of buying insurance.
To me, commercially produced cat toys, grooming, and Halloween costumes are all frills. We have occasionally spent $3 on a laser pointer or a cat dancer, but my kids have also fabricated teasers that entertain the cats almost as well. Our cats' grooming is limited to my daughters' attempts to bathe them, the occasional brushing (also by the kids), and the work of their own tongues.
In a year without a medical disaster or feline damage to my home, I spend approximately $450 on each of my cats per year, for food, litter and medical check-ups/shots — plus random extras like the carriers we had to buy to move our cats across the country. But just one health problem or fit of property destruction can turn an average year into an expensive year.
Here are some of the tricks I use to keep costs down:
- Measure cats' food and don't overfeed. This not only saves on food purchase, but it also saves on medical costs by preventing obesity.
- Supplement commercial food with meat. I don't formulate my own pet food, but after getting the go-ahead from my vet, I occasionally supplement my cats' commercial food with meat left over from human meals or on-sale canned tuna packed in water. Sometimes regular meat costs less than a can of cat food — and the cats usually love it. A caveat — because commercial foods are formulated to meet a cat's full nutritional needs for the day, vets warn that you shouldn't add more than 10-15% plain meat, or you risk unbalancing the diet.
- When needed, get a prescription from the vet and fill it elsewhere, such as DiscountPetMedicines. In my experience, vets fill prescriptions in the office without consulting me — if you plan to shop around, you'll need to let the vet know upfront.
- On a similar note, don't be shy about telling the vet what you can afford. Sense to Save posted about this issue, advising, "When your vet enters the exam room, say, 'Before you do something, please tell me how much it will cost.'"