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By Carol Church

The unconditional love, companionship, acceptance, and emotional support our animal friends have to offer can be especially valuable to members of the military and their loved ones. Children missing an absent parent may find comfort in a beloved dog or cat. After moving to yet another new location, a pet makes a new area feel like home, and can even make it easier to make friends. And when one member of a couple is deployed, the spouse remaining at home may rely on the pet as companion, and even as protection.

However, as pet owners know, owning a pet can also be expensive! According to Experian, the average annual cost of owning a cat or dog is about $600-700 a year. (The first year of ownership is significantly more expensive due to the cost of set-up.) Over its lifetime, a cat or dog could run you anywhere from about $6,000-$12,000, or possibly more.

Of course, this figure is only a rough average. Depending on the size, health, and lifestyle of the pet, as well as a family’s lifestyle and choices, costs may be higher or lower. For instance, some families spend thousands on cancer treatment or ACL replacement for a failing canine or feline friend, while others will be hard pressed to afford a monthly medication. In 2011, the U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook reported that about half of dog owners and about 20% of cat owners do not take their pets to a vet at all in a given year. Of those, about 20-30% say this is because the cost is too high.

What’s more, significant extra costs can also accrue to service members who own pets. Unfortunately, shelters near bases often report high rates of pet relinquishment. Though logistics are often the culprit here, finances can play a role as well, particularly when it comes to moving. Don’t forget about how pet ownership limits options when renting a home—many places will not rent to pet owners at all, or only with a sizable deposit, which may be lost if the pet does damage to the home or apartment.

To be both financially responsible and a responsible pet owner, military families need to ask themselves these questions:

  • Do we have a realistic sense of the cost of pet ownership? Can we afford this cost?
  • Have we considered what we will do with this pet if we must PCS? What if the location is very distant or out of the continental US? What if we are flying but the pet cannot fly due to time of year (extreme temps can preclude flying?)
  • Who will be the primary caretaker of this pet? If it is the service member, are other family members prepared to take his or her place in the event of deployment?
  • Are we investing in pet insurance or setting aside funds for pet-related emergencies?
  • How do we feel about the reality that pet ownership may limit our options when renting and buying?
  • Do we know what we will and will not spend the money for when it comes to “heroic measures” for a pet in need?

Special Considerations for Service members

PCSing may require shipping a pet by air and/or boarding one while trying to find a new housing. A special kennel is required, as is a certificate from a vet, and some destinations charge fees or require quarantine. Flying with a pet can be relatively reasonable (about $150-$200 for some destinations within the US) or significantly more costly (overseas flights may be several thousand dollars). Various specialized companies perform this service and some do offer military discounts.

Depending on the situation, service members may also need to find somewhere to house their pet before their new home is ready to occupy. Pet boarding can easily run into the hundreds of dollars. Pet-friendly lodging may be a possibility, as many hotels near bases know that families need this service. Petswelcome offers an easy way to search for hotels open to animals.

If a service member absolutely cannot afford the costs of PCSing with pets, there is help. Through Operation Military Pets, SPCA International offers financial assistance to families in need whose cost to ship their pets exceeds $400 domestic and more than $500 internationally. There are various regulations involved in this program.

Active Deployment and Pets

While not technically a financial issue in most cases, deployment can become a problem for pet owners without family to care for the pet in their absence. Fortunately, various nonprofits have sprung up to assist with this, offering pet “foster parents” who will care for a service member’s animal free of charge while he or she is deployed. Some reliable options include:

Dogs on Deployment

Guardian Angels for Soldier’s Pet

PACT for Animals Military Foster Program

In the next installment, we’ll cover some simple ways that families with pets can save money on their care over the years.

Photo Credit: Aleksey Mnogosmyslov /Photospin