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Can you own a pet in a big city without going broke?

When I first adopted my cat one year ago from the rescue group with which I was volunteering in Manhattan, I naively believed, beyond basic necessities, she’d be relatively low-cost. It turns out the “basic necessities” of pet ownership equate to approximately those of raising an actual human child. Much like raising a human child, these costs rise exponentially when you live in a major metropolitan area.

The benefits continue to outweigh the costs for me, because there’s nothing quite like waking up in the middle of the night to a warm, fuzzy creature affixed to your head, but the hidden costs of owning a pet in a big city are exorbitant and should be weighed extensively before considering pet ownership. In truth, I cringe when I hear any twenty-something New Yorker talking about how “fun” it would be to get a dog.

Call me ignorant, but I knew I was headed for financial wreckage when I had to trade the cardboard box I’d brought my cat home in for a $75 carrying satchel — the cheapest at the pet store closest to my apartment.

Financially, it was all downhill from there. Here are the big costs I encountered.

Health Problems

When I adopted my cat, I was happy to learn she’d been recently checked out by a veterinarian, was spayed and was up to date on her immunizations. Unfortunately, I soon learned being crammed into a big city foster home with over 30 other pets brings hidden — or simply unreported — health challenges that tend to pop up a little later down the road. At some point, one is also forced to consider the reasons the pet was abandoned in the first place.

While my cat could occupy the “horror story” end of the spectrum, within half a year I’d racked up at least $1,000 in medical bills alone (flea treatments, recurring infections, tooth extractions, etc.), and that’s excluding the procedures of which I’d opted out. Every pet gets sick, but big-city living conditions are not conducive to pet health. By the same token, living in a city gives you ample opportunity to shop around for optimal health care, and, if you employ a big city attitude, you can sometimes swing a second opinion on the house.

Health catastrophes aside, adoption is still the way to go. If you think you can get around these problems by purchasing from a pet store (even though their adorable puppies go on sale for $600 around the holidays), think again. Not only would you be promoting dangerous and cruel practices [3], many of these adorable fluff balls are bred to have their own fair share of health problems down the line. I don’t know how hard reputable breeders are to come by in cities (I assume this varies based on the city), but with New York City’s high rate of kill shelters and surrendered pets each year, anything but adoption (which typically operates on a donation basis) seems flat out cruel.


If you happen to be a busy person, as many people in big cities tend to be, you’re going to need to find someone to help out. Fortunately, there’s a lot of competition for dog-walkers meaning their prices tend to be low [4]. I haven’t had to bother with kennels, but their prices run around $50 a night. And if you really want Fido to be pampered and don’t mind going for broke, there are always swankier options. [5] As far as cat-and-other-pet-sitting, neighbors, supers and friends are usually happy to help out in a pinch.

I have the fortune of living in a building that accepts all kinds of pets. Having a pet will undoubtedly limit your options on where you can live, though New York City is increasingly becoming dog-friendly [6], and while some buildings place a size and weight limit on pets, many residences are abandoning these regulations altogether. Still, there are factors beyond mere legality here — cramming a big dog into a small apartment, particularly if you have a 9 to 5 job is unfair to your pooch (and possibly your neighbors).

You should take into consideration that young people who live in cities tend to move. A lot. While a pet might seem like a great investment at the time, consider where you’ll be in five years, or even two, and how your pet fits into that plan. Are you sharing your pet with a roommate, or even multiple? Who will take responsibility for it?

Bare Necessities

Depending on where you live, food tends to be more expensive in the city and it’s significantly more expensive if you don’t plan properly and end up running out in your pajamas at 1 a.m. to buy more Fancy Feast from the corner store. This will cost you at least twice as much as buying in bulk from a place like PetCo. There are also online food shipping options you can explore.  [7] Other necessities, including waste disposal implements, toys, treats, grooming and so on, likely do not differ much from nonurban settings.

Carrying bags or crates are also a requirement of small-pet ownership, especially in a city, and it’s worth splurging for one that can be easily transported and cleaned and will outlast wear and tear (depending on how well your pet can tolerate going to the vet). A simple crate will cost you less than a cushy, brand-name carrying bag, but crates don’t allow for much flexibility on public transportation nor on foot.

Truly though, these considerations merely scratch the surface. For instance, have you thought about what you’ll do with your pet when you need to call the exterminator about your cockroach and/or bedbug problem? It’s most fair to you and your future pet to seriously weigh all these issues before you go fall in love and can’t say “no.”

What do you think? Should big city residents avoid pet ownership? Or are there ways to make it work?

(Photo: Alissa Fleck)