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You had your best-laid plans and then COVID-19 came along and hammered the entire economy. But you’ve got this – if you have the right information. Join Rob Carrick and Roma Luciw on Stress Test, a podcast guiding you through one of the biggest challenges your finances will ever face.

Rob: Pandemic puppies helped Canadians through hard times. Lockdowns were lonely, and hundreds of thousands of people coped by getting pets. You heard that right. Hundreds of thousands of people have become first-time pet owners since the pandemic.

Roma: But owning a pet, especially a dog, is a big financial commitment. Estimates vary, but it costs around $4,000 a year on average. And with the price of pet food and supplies rising faster than inflation, more owners are struggling to afford their COVID companions.

Rob: Welcome to Stress Test, a personal finance podcast for millennials and Gen Z. I’m Rob Carrick, personal finance columnist for the Globe and Mail.

Roma: And I’m Roma Luciw, personal finance editor at the Globe. People have always gotten pets. That’s not new. Dogs, cats, birds, lizards, guinea pigs. But what is new is that millennials have emerged as a pet-loving generation. We know from our own coverage and from data that’s out there that they are the most prevalent pet-owning demographic out there. Rob, would you have gotten a dog in your twenties?

Rob: I would not have. And a couple of reasons. One, I grew up with dogs, so I knew the responsibility that was involved. And two, I was on the go as a young man enjoying a social life and building my career. And I wasn’t home a lot. And having a dog requires you to be on-site a lot. Roma, what do you notice about pets in your group of friends and contacts and family? Are you noticing more ownership and more costs?

Roma: I definitely live in a pet-heavy area, and we are absolutely swarming with dogs. I love dogs. My son has been begging us for years and years and years to get one. What I’m noticing is that there are a lot more of them and that the costs, from what I’m hearing, have never been higher.

Rob: We had a dog for 16 years, and he died a couple of years ago, and we really miss him. And he, in his early years, needed some hip surgery. And this goes back probably 20 years ago. And I remember that the cost was so exceptional that our credit card company called us to say we noticed this cost from this veterinary clinic wasn’t real. And we had to say, Yeah, sorry, it’s real.

Roma: After the break, we’ll hear from a humane society in a small Ontario city where there’s been a flood of people surrendering their dogs. Sean Murray is the executive director of the Peterborough Humane Society. Sean, thanks so much for joining us today. We are excited to have you on Stress Test.

Sean: My pleasure. Yeah, thanks for having me.

Roma: Can you tell me a bit about the current condition of the Humane Society in Peterborough? What’s going on there?

Sean: Sure. Yeah. Like many other shelters not only in Ontario but also throughout the entire country. We’re in kind of what we would classify as a perfect storm right now. Right. With animals, the number of animals that we’re seeing in our care, there is a slowdown in adoptions. And so your length of stay within the shelter system is significantly larger and longer than it has been in the past. And I think that has to do with a myriad of things. But specifically, you know, obviously, access and ability to care for animals in these in these times.

Roma: How many people do you see walking away from animals now, leaving them in your care?

Sean: Yeah, it’s grown exponentially, especially in the last number of months. I would say within the last six or eight months, we’ve seen, you know, staggering numbers of folks just calling about and requiring the surrender of an animal or identifying just an inability to care for them. You know, the numbers have been a lot larger than they have been in previous years, without question. So, as an example, we’ve seen over 800 animals either surrendered or brought into our care this year alone just for just because of the purposes of inability to care for those animals moving forward, which, as I said, is a staggering increase from what we’ve seen in years past. We’ve probably seen at least 7 to 10 calls a day from individuals who are looking to surrender animals into our care.

Roma: When did you start to see this shift?

Sean: Well, we anticipated a bit of a shift when COVID first began. And you kind of knew that, you know, with the big boom in demand for animals, that there was going to be a drop-off point at some point. So, it really started to take shape. I would say probably around September or October of last year. From this point forward, as an example, we moved into our new animal care center in January of this year, and we moved 94 animals into our care. Five years ago, in the middle of January, we would have maybe 20 or 30 animals in our care at absolute max. So that just goes to show the capacity issues that we have. Basically, we’ve been full for the better part of 11 months now.

Roma: Walk me through how often, on average, finances are one of the main reasons for them looking to potentially give up their pet.

Sean: Sure. Yeah, I would say without question it would be 80 to 90% of the issue. There are 80%, 80, and 90% of the calls that we’re getting have a financial component surrounding them having to downsize from their current home because they’ve got to, you know, they weren’t able to pay the rent or the mortgage associated with that home, having to take on a second job. So, not being home enough for that animal is another big one that we’re that we’re hearing from our community. But then also just time and ability. It also could mean a change in jobs, going from predominantly being remote to having to go back into the office or a remote to hybrid and not being able to spend that amount of time with that animal. You know, their job changing and having to go, you know, get back into travel where they weren’t in travel cases before or, you know, having to travel for their job, where they could do a lot of it behind the screen for those two years.

Roma: How much does it cost per year to own a dog? You know, on average, let’s say, a mid-sized dog.

Sean: Sure. Yeah. You would probably want to budget yourself around $5000 to $6000 a year for the general care of that dog.

Roma: Can you give me any sense in terms of how much costs have risen in recent years? For example, let’s talk about dog food. How much has that increased?

Sean: Yeah, quite a bit. Exponentially so. And that is, again, a question of supply and demand concern and an issue I don’t think we’ve ever fully, and some of our food partners have never really fully recovered from, from COVID and the, and the production issues associated with that cost too, you know to say ship I’ll use wet food as an example. So wet dog and cat food, some of the ingredients, and more so the tenting process and the materials for tin come from overseas. So, to have that shipment come in with those materials and then to put the food into those costs have increased exponentially. Then there was the demand for food during COVID, and obviously, through that big boom of animals coming in. That increased substantially. So, the rate of production had to be increased, and the rate of labor had to be increased. So all of those costs get baked back into the end product, and that’s why we’re seeing those costs increase. You know, you would be in a position for, say, a year to two years ago where you could get a bag of dog food on. I’ll just use a bag of dog food as an example. You know, you could probably get one for, you know, $60, $70 for a big bag of dog food. Today, that same dog food is running anywhere between $90 and $120 for that bag.

Roma: Okay. What are the other major costs outside of food? I’m thinking of vet bills. The people that I’ve spoken with have all noted a very substantial increase in that. Would that be a secondary or third sort of up there in terms of costs for owning a dog?

Sean: Absolutely. Yeah. That’s a huge, huge element that folks who are either looking to adopt or have a companion animal today are facing themselves without question. The cost of that care has gone up, you know, substantially, and I couldn’t even put a figure to it. But it’s gone up exponentially, and that has a large amount to do with, again, just production, and obviously, their cost of meds and vaccinations have gone up. So, obviously, the demand for our veterinarians has gone up exponentially. The number of animals, the number of veterinarians that are currently in practice, and the demand for their services continue to skyrocket. So those prices come down to the end user, which is the owner of a pet. Right. So it’s it’s a tough thing without question. Vet care and access to care are big deterrents and sticking points, really a stressor on homeowners and pet owners, specifically these days for sure.

Roma: Do you think that people underestimate the cost of caring for a dog?

Sean: Absolutely. You know, I wouldn’t say that that’s just a blanket statement for everybody. But it is without question, I think, something that folks don’t know. The true costs associated with owning a pet, specifically a dog, until they’re in it or until they go through and do their research. A big thing without question is stuff that we’re trying to provide out to our customers, and our community is to understand the breed of animal that you’re going to take home, you know, recognizing what they’re going to need from a socialization perspective. What kind of attention are you going to have to spend with them? How many times are they going to be active? Are they going to be couch potatoes? Are there any potential long-term illness concerns that are going to be associated with that? You know, what is the potential for large medical bills down the line, things like that, that folks really may not have common knowledge of? So education on that component is a big piece of our business without question because you can get yourself into a position where you, you know, adopt or buy. There’s still that situation where folks are buying animals off of, you know, third-party sites and whatever. But having no idea because it’s just a cute, fluffy puppy or something that looks cute but not truly understanding what the needs of that animal are going to be when it’s six months old, when it’s a year old, when it’s five years old. Right.

Roma: Sean? If someone has a dog they’re struggling to afford, what kind of advice would you give them?

Sean: Yeah, I mean, obviously, the big thing is with is reach out to either your local humane society or rescue partner and just have a conversation with them about, you know, are there options? Are there things that can be done? You know, there are a lot of folks right now, specifically a lot of opportunities to provide pet food banks. So there are opportunities and resources to provide either, you know, subsidized or free food and medical care, wellness opportunities, and stuff like that. So, depending on where you are in your local region, you know, having the ability to just do some research, see if there are some low-cost, affordable, or accessible opportunities to support in those regards. You know, and then there’s also opportunities to just have conversations with folks. And if they are rolling on some hard times and just need a little bit of support and assistance, you know, there are folks that can do that as well.

Roma: After the break, we hear from a guest who got more than she bargained for when she got her pandemic puppy.

Aron: My name’s Aron. I live in Winnipeg, Manitoba, right now, and I am 26.

Rob: Aron was a full-time student studying acting in Toronto when the pandemic lockdowns hit in the spring of 2020.

Aron: I was living in Toronto. I was living with roommates, and it was good. So I thought, why not, you know, get a job? Because I had a dog before, and I wanted another one, and it was like the perfect time because school was like, I don’t know, like everyone was out of school. So I was home all the time. So I was like, Oh, I have the time to take care of a, you know, a puppy and raise him.

Rob: Buying the dog was a spontaneous decision. She found him on Kijiji.

Aron: So I was like, on a rehoming page, and I posted, I’m looking for a small dog because I didn’t care really what breed it was at the time. Like I just wanted a dog. I didn’t really, like, look into the research or whatever, so I just posted it, and then some person commented and said, I have a dog that I’m looking to rehome. And I said, okay, I’m coming to see the dog, and I want to see it. And then and then I took him home right when I was right when I saw the dog. He’s like a Pomeranian corgi mix. So it’s easy on the eyes. And he was, yeah, he’s really cute. He came up to me and kissed me. But yeah, I was like, oh gosh, I’m in for a long haul because this guy’s it’s a little bit crazy.

Rob: Aron named her new six-month-old puppy Mawzi.

Aron: The first few days were... they were really hard, actually, because I didn’t realize how many problems come with. I mean, I think it’s part of his genetics and also his breed. But like how hard his breed and his and where he came from. Like if he came from a backyard breeder, he would say he didn’t have the best behaviors. So, get separation anxiety. It was really bad. Whenever I left, he would pick up his grade. He would like to get really distressed, and he wasn’t that socialized. So, with other dogs, he was aggressive and sometimes with people as well. If people tried to pet him, he was kind of aggressive. Not so much right when I got him. But like a month or two later, it started showing up more and more. So lots of bad behaviors.

Rob: And a lot of unexpected upfront expenses.

Aron: He wasn’t neutered, so I had to get him neutered, which was ridiculous. It was like $900 to vaccinate him. He didn’t have any vaccinations. The person before me never really took care of him. Like they didn’t get him any vaccinations; he was supposed to have his third vaccination. At this point, he was already six months old. He should have had them. So I had to get him all his vaccinations like boosters and everything, that was like a couple of hundred. And then I got him into training classes, two different ones. That was almost $2000. The dog itself was about $400. So it was quite a lot of money. There were a lot of things. I think that’s everything. And then, just like the vet visits every year for his vaccinations.

Rob: Training was a major expense. It became clear Mawzi needed help with air and started leaving her home for longer stretches of time.

Aron: I started doing training with a company, so I was like on for like 8 hours. And yeah, he was he was going insane. Like he didn’t like that. So I got a note on my door saying that it was practically like a noise complaint. And after that, I put him in training. So I waited like a year and a half, and then after that, it was like the last straw. So I put him in training, and then after that, I was able to leave. I just did it consistently, and it got better and better.

Rob: Still, she occasionally questioned her decision to get a dog.

Aron: There were sometimes where I thought, Oh my God, like, I think it would be really much easier to rehome because he’s yeah, but I just couldn’t do it. I can do it. I’d rather like to try my hardest to get him even now. Sometimes, like, he’s a lot of work because he doesn’t get a lot like when I have people over, he’s aggressive, like, and I’m having a baby, and he’s a, you know what I mean? He’s aggressive. He’s not the best-behaved dog, even with all that training. So, I just couldn’t do it. There are always ways to manage it.

Rob: Aron has gone through a number of major life changes since she got Mawzi. She met her husband, moved to Winnipeg, bought a house, and started working in child care. But the changes and unexpected financial hits haven’t affected her desire to have a dog.

Aron: We got another dog just like a couple of months ago, and again, I was like, Oh, he’s small. He’s not going to be that much money. And then I end up getting him training, and then the food, like both of them eating, is like twice as much money, I didn’t realize. So yeah, like now we’re having to buy a huge bag. So yeah, it’s a lot of money at first.

Rob: Her new dog’s name is Wishbone. This time, she’s more prepared financially.

Aron: I have an emergency savings account for the dog. It’s like after I got paid into my checking account, and then it keeps collecting. And then, after a while, I’ll put $1000 or $1500 in there. And then so I guess we have a high expense for the dogs that that’s where it’s going to be coming from.

Rob: Wishbone is from Animal Services. He also has behavior problems. That makes it hard for Aron to find dog walkers or people to care for her pets if she wants to go away. Travel is especially difficult, but the positive? Years of having her dogs outweigh the challenges.

Aron: Just like love and affection, someone is always there for me. Having company. And I can’t live without them. I can’t live without dogs. So I. Once you have a dog, it’s hard to live without them. They’re just. They bring so much joy into your house for the most part.

Rob: That said, she has some advice for any potential dog owners out there.

Aron: I would say do more research on the breeds, like what kind of dog fits into your lifestyle. But also, if you’re ready to take on like a hard case, do it because there’s a lot of dogs that, you know, get euthanized and need homes. So I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I should have done more research on the different kinds of breeds, their characteristics, their genetics, and where the dogs come from. Do a little more research about that and just be prepared to spend a lot more money than you think you’re going to spend.

Rob: Our next guest did plenty of research before she got her dog. But that doesn’t mean it was an easy road.

Preston: My name is Preston. I am turning 21 in a month, and I live in Ottawa. I’m a student at Carleton University.

Rob: Preston got her dog, Phineas, last spring.

Preston: So it’s only been six months with him, but he’s a wire-haired dachshund. So, a little wiener dog, but with a beard. He has Benjamin Button syndrome. Everyone thinks he’s old, but he’s really nine months, ten months old. So, definitely, it was not a spontaneous decision. So I had researched breeders during COVID like the first year of COVID, and I had signed up to stay on top of their litters so that when the time came when I could financially support a dog, I would already have the information about litters that were available for me to reach out. So, it was spontaneous in the sense that. I saw a litter was available, and I looked at my bag and said, I can do this now. I immediately emailed and said, please let me put down a deposit and then told everyone in my life and said, by the way, I’m getting a puppy. To which everyone was shocked but not shocked.

Rob: Dogs play a big role in Preston’s life.

Preston: Everyone in my life was supportive but not necessarily encouraging. I had a lot of people telling me reasons why it was a bad idea. But at the end of the day, no one was judging me or shaming me. They all understood why I wanted a dog, and they all also understood that I wasn’t going to let the dog down. I think everyone was kind of just like, You’re young; you’re going to miss out on fun opportunities for you. Everyone always talked about traveling. I was like, I don’t travel, and have you seen me travel? It’s not like a dog is going to change my travel habits. I haven’t left the country in like four years. So there were a lot of just you’re young, but not you’re not ready for this.

Rob: She chose a small dog because she lives in a smallish apartment with three other people.

Preston: Upfront for Phineas. I paid all and all $2200. I knew it was going to be more costly than adoption, but as a student, rescue agencies often won’t let students adopt. If you’re living in an apartment, and you don’t have a fenced-in backyard, And rightfully so. I would agree with that. It takes a certain amount of resources for adoption agencies to feel comfortable letting their dogs go to that home. So I knew I had to go to a breeder because I was a student and because of the sort of living space that I had.

Rob: She decided to adopt a puppy instead of an adult dog, even though she knew it was a less affordable option.

Preston: Yeah, a puppy, for sure, is way more expensive than an adult dog. I knew that going into it. It’s also not my first rodeo in terms of dogs. It is my first rodeo in terms of puppy. So I’ve spent a lot of money on it. I’ve spent a lot of money just owning the dog for six months. I’ve spent $6600 so far. Things were practically all vet-related. They were the vaccines, which aren’t they’re not that much individually. But if you are someone who pops in for the optional ones, I would like to be able to take my dog out into bushes, sort of northern Ontario, where my family lives, and not have to worry about ticks and whatnot. So, I had to opt into those other things. They add up, and then the neuter surgery, again, is optional. You don’t have to get your dog neutered or spayed. I did want to do that, and that was by far the most expensive cost for him so far. But otherwise, yeah, that’s the whole crate thing. And even a carrier for him because he is too small to drive in the car. Those all accumulate like the cost of food for him. I got a small dog because I knew they were cheaper in the long run, with less food, less time spent exercising, and less time as money. Because the more time I can spend working to make the money to pay for his food, the better. So because it was, yes, my home situation would fit a small dog, but it fits. A student budget is primarily the reason why I got a small dog. So I’ve spent nothing on his food in the past six months. There’s very little money I’ve spent on the food. It’s really the vet bills that add up.

Rob: The biggest cost, though, has been her time. Preston was a full-time student with a part-time remote job when she got Phineas, but she quit that job two and a half months after she brought him home.

Preston: When you get a puppy specifically - lots of human moms are going to come at me for this - It is very similar to the sleep deprivation that you have when you are a parent of an actual human child. You don’t get a lot of sleep at night, and you are also constantly on edge because you’re frustrated with the dog, but you’re not taking it out on the dog because what does the dog know? But you just wish they understood what you were saying because they’re peeing everywhere or they’re trying to eat your shoes. And so the energy that you have left to then go to your 9 to 5 is a lot smaller. It is not shocking to me now, in hindsight, that I quit my job two and a half months after getting a puppy. I did not have it in me anymore to go to school, work, and be a mother of a child. Like, it sounds dramatic. I know. I know lots of people who make fun of her, like her parents. But a puppy is so much work. So, if you don’t have the energy or the mental strength I don’t have, I clearly did not have the mental strength to both go to work and school and have a puppy. I’m lucky enough that I had enough savings from my work previously to be able to sustain the fact that I could quit. But if you don’t have enough disposable money, you might. Run into an issue where you are struggling as a human being with mental health or hygiene or whatnot if you cannot quit your work and you’ve taken on a dependent. It’s a lot. I don’t know how people work and raise a puppy.

Rob: Now that Phineas is almost one, she feels ready to work again. She also has advice for potential dog owners.

Preston: For young people who are considering getting a dog, breed does matter. I really urge people not to just go with a breed that they think looks cute. Suppose you have grown up around certain breeds unless those dogs were really bad and you couldn’t handle them. I suggest getting similar breeds because you have experience with them. Suppose you feel comfortable with any breed. I do suggest getting a smaller dog. I’ve always had bigger dogs. I love bigger dogs. I never thought I could love a smaller dog, but they really can have personalities, just like my dog thinks. He’s the size of the German shepherd. He’s not, but he thinks it because I treat him like one. So I do suggest you go easy on your wallet. You’re going to love the dog. Nonetheless, get a small dog that’s cheaper than a Bernese Mountain dog. So get a lower-energy dog. Don’t get a Belgian mama. You can’t you cannot have a Belgian male as a student. You don’t have the time for that sort of dog. You can’t get an Australian shepherd as a student. You do not have the time. Probably also not the backyard for that sort of dog.

Rob: More importantly, she encourages people to consider their lifestyle.

Preston: While I like everyone love adventure, I am not necessarily a a bucket list sort of person. I’m perfectly content spending my days at home. I like my routine. I like relaxing. I don’t often travel, probably because I know financially, that adds up in the long run. I know many people my age who like to go on trips yearly. They save up their money from their part-time jobs, and then they splurge. I would argue that in the next five years if someone keeps that up, they will spend the same amount of money as they would have expected on a dog. It really depends on the lifestyle that you lead, want to lead, and whether you are capable of leading a dog at 24. Someone who likes to go out every weekend is probably not a very good idea. This one will come at the expense of the other, and then the cost of the dog will go up. So, if you are not giving a puppy the time and attention that it needs to be able to foster good habits with that dog, that dog will likely have issues like destruction. So now you’re replacing your shoes, or you’re taking them to the vet because people are very quick to have a notion of what youth is supposed to look like, what young adulthood is supposed to look like. But if they want me to spend my money on a random trip to Hawaii or going out to the bar every weekend, I don’t know why it’s any different for me to spend my money on a dog and stay home. I assume moving forward that I’m not just going to wake up one day and decide I suddenly have different spending habits. So it’s really expensive. I’m not trying to minimize the cost of having a dog, and I certainly am not trying to sound like Kim Kardashian saying, Just get up and work. Anyone can do it. But if you want to get a dog, I just hope that you genuinely have the proper habits to be able to sustain that choice and not neglect the dog in any way. Also, do not neglect yourself in the process. You should be able to care for both at the same time.

Rob: We know that getting a dog is like adding another member to your family. The cost could be worth it, but you’ve really got to think it through before you adopt or buy. You need to make a detailed plan both for your upfront and ongoing costs and your time.

Roma: For today’s takeaways, we turn to Don Hutton, owner of Running Dogs, Training and Behavior, and ask him some questions that aspiring first-time dog owners should think about. One: Should I get a puppy or an older dog?

Don: I think both are really valuable. I’ve adopted a lot of a lot of senior dogs and found that to just be so, so wonderful and fun and also really easy and a lot of ways, you know, senior dogs kind of want to lounge around a lot of times. The younger the dog, you know, the more you’re going to have to really step it up in terms of meeting their needs. Getting them out there for all that and that fresh air and exercise. And they’re also a little more volatile sometimes. You know, usually, the hardest time in your life with a dog, if you do get a puppy, is going to be sort of in that you need close to a year to three years is usually where they’re just like an adolescent human. You know, This is usually whether they’re stirring things up more than at other times in their lives.

Roma: Two: Big dog or small dog.

Don [00:28:53] In general, smaller dogs are going to be way more affordable to feed. It can be six times more expensive to feed a larger dog than it would be to feed a small box. There’s quite a bit of range there. And then there are people with strong feelings about me being a big dog person, and I mean, I would have said that years ago, but there is a load of conveniences to having a dog that is less than £30. And you know, I have this little shiatsu. I also have, you know, an £80 husky. I used to have another husky and, like, just getting out of town, sometimes it’s like, Sorry, I can’t keep you around. I got two huskies in the back of the car. It was really inconvenient.

Roma: And finally, pet insurance. Yay or nay?

Don: I mean, I do have insurance, and I, you know, shelled out for a pretty high-quality package and whatnot. In short, I think I’d I’d recommend it even a basic package, you know, that’s going to me just really save the day, you know, because it’s a terrible choice to have to face to say, I don’t have the money to extend your life right now. It’s a horrible place to be. And that’s really what insurance can save you from.

Rob: Thank you for listening to Stress Test. This show was produced by Kyle Fulton, Anna Stafford, and Emily Jackson. Our executive producer is Alisha Sawhney. Thank you to Sean, Aron, and Preston for joining us.

Roma: You can find Stress Test wherever you listen to podcasts. If you like this episode, please give us a five-star rating and share it with your friends.

Don: Next up on Stress Test, we’ll dig into the top personal finance stories of 2023 and talk to the Globe journalists who wrote them. We’ll talk about $100,000 salaries, crushed hopes for lower mortgage rates, and electric vehicles. And we’ll look at why these stories will continue to matter next year.

Roma: Until then, find us at the Globe and Mail dot com. Thanks for listening.

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