(ARA) - If you've ever taken in a kitten found on the street or adopted a puppy from an unplanned litter a friends' dog had, you know there is no such thing as a "free" pet. No matter how you acquire your new best friend, pet ownership comes with significant start-up costs and ongoing maintenance expenses.
With regular and emergency health care, food and the occasional impulsive indulgence of a chew toy here or a scratching post there, you learn quickly that being a good pet parent requires more than love, treats and toys - it also requires financial planning.
Often, people and pets come together unexpectedly. Maybe you brought home a kitten that was hanging out in your office's parking lot, or took in an older dog for a friend who was moving and couldn't take the pooch with them. Sometimes, however, you do have the opportunity to plan ahead for pet ownership. When that opportunity occurs, keep these considerations in mind:
* What does your budget allow? Take a critical look at your finances. Do you have at least $100 a month extra to cover regular pet costs like food and grooming? You need to incorporate pet expenses - both regular and emergency ones - into your monthly budget, just as you include utilities, mortgage or rent, and groceries for the rest of your family. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals provides a great breakdown of pet care costs on its website, www.aspca.org.
* How will you fund your pet purchase? While adopting a pet from a shelter can be relatively low cost, purebreds purchased from a breeder can cost hundreds-and in some cases even thousands-of dollars. Paying for your pet purchase with a credit card can provide you with certain consumer protections. But if you won't be able to pay off the entire purchase cost right away, and will have to carry the expense on your balance, you may want to reconsider the type of pet you wish to buy. After all, what best friend would want you to go into debt - and possibly impact your credit score - in order to spend time with him?
* What kind of pet will fit into your lifestyle? If you adopt a dog but work long hours, neither of you will be happy with the time apart. If you live in a small apartment, you might find a pet bird or some exotic fish will fit your home life better than a St. Bernard.
* When a pet needs emergency medical care, loving pet owners may be tempted to reach for their credit cards. But just as you are cautious about credit use for your own needs, you should be careful how you use credit for pet care. Before you adopt, build up a pet care emergency fund that can help ensure you don't have to go into debt to give Fluffy or Fido the care they need. Research pet insurance to see if it makes sense for your financial situation. When an emergency arises and you don't have the cash to cover it, research other options before you reach for the plastic. The Humane Society provides a state-by-state list of pet financial-aid organizations on its website at www.humanesociety.org.
Having a pet can be a wonderful experience. Families bond around pets, children learn responsibility, individuals find companionship, and pets can even help improve your health by lowering your blood pressure and improving your mood. With some advanced planning, you can help ensure pet-related money problems don't detract from all the positives of owning a pet.