Friday, August 24, 2012

Is It Finally Time to Give In and Get a Pet?

Isabella, 10, desperately wants a cat. For years she has been focused like a laser beam on this one goal, including it on every Christmas and birthday wish list, proposing bargains and sacrifices, volunteering at a cat shelter and swooning before every cat she meets.

But there was never a chance. Her father's "no" was based on his allergies and his belief that our children should pay all costs associated with pet ownership.

Then she fell in love with Kitty Kitty Kitty, a local grocery-store cat. The sight of Bella's smiles, with Kitty jumping on her lap and rubbing up against her face, softened John's stance. He began to imagine he could live with a cat, just keeping our bedroom door closed.

Maybe it's time to welcome an addition to our family. Maybe it's time for Bella to finally get what she has wanted for so many years.

There are all sorts of reasons for having a pet, and pet owners know them well. Pets can ease a child's loneliness and teach unconditional love. They help with important lessons about birth and death. They can also teach responsibility and empathy that will help children relate to other people in their lives.

John and I both fervently believe in all those positives. Where we part company is on the money.

John believes that kids learn these life lessons best if they're entirely responsible for the costs and care of the pets. When our girls were smaller, we underwrote a bunny and parakeets. But now that they're 10 to 15 years old and earning money from chores, John wants them to understand the true meaning of commitment and the impact a new dependent will make on your bottom line.

Last year Emily, 14, adopted a cockatiel, covering the fee and the cage with money from odd jobs. But Jasper costs her just pennies a day to feed; a cat is a much bigger-ticket item.

Bella was more than ready to hand over her entire $5 a week from chores forever, and tap her bank account, which has plenty to cover upfront costs and vet bills for the foreseeable future. But John didn't want her to spend savings on a pet. He thinks if she can't afford a pet on her cash flow, then it's not the right time to take one on.

I disagreed, saying the savings was her money, set aside for some unstated future purpose—why not spend it on something she'd been yearning for? On top of that, I consider it a parent's job to cover pet bills.

Most other parents I talked to feel the same way: They want the joy pets bring, while sheltering the children from adult-level concerns about finances.

My friend Michael's daughter found a guinea pig abandoned in Central Park. But, because of medical problems, the "free" animal ended up costing more than $1,000. Still, he says, the price was worth his daughter's happiness and the lesson it taught about loyalty, even at what he agrees is a "ridiculous" price.

And yet…I didn't push my point for a couple of reasons. First, because John is a stay-at-home dad, I feel like pets are his domain. Just as I tried not to mess up his masterful potty-training regimen and tried to respect John's preference that I not feed the girls junk food, I see the full-time parent as the pet policy maker.

Plus, the more I looked into it, the more I dreaded adding pet bills to our monthly financial reckoning. My sister in Los Angeles calculated that she spends $40 a month on each of her two cats, when food, litter, flea medicine and the annual vet bills are averaged in.

Then there are the potential catastrophic animal medical bills. Neither John nor I can imagine spending big money to save a pet's life in a medical crisis. But it's a position I would hate to be in: having to say no to spending thousands of dollars to save the life of an animal that my kids would no doubt love.

In the end, we didn't get a cat. As much as we would love to have granted this long-standing wish, our fear of the potential costs was greater than my confidence that Bella (or I) could cover them. There are so many other financial priorities lining up for us this year.

As we discussed the possibility over several weeks, we found other good reasons—nonfinancial ones—to avoid becoming cat owners, such as the air conditioning we would lose if we closed off a room, another child's suspected cat allergy, and the possible conflict between a cat and Emily's bird.

I was sad for Bella. Both John and I were sorry we had raised her hopes, only to dash them. But I'm glad we had a chance to teach the girls that such decisions aren't lightly made, that you shouldn't take on a new dependent unless you can afford to care for it well, and that everyone in a house has to support the addition of a new member.

Bella says she's proud that she got closer than her older sisters ever did to getting a cat. She has promised me grandkitties one day when she has a home of her own. But she has moved on to her next project. She wants to adopt a bird by next year.

Demetria Gallegos is community editor for Write to her at You can join the conversation at