Pandemic pets: how do owners cope as costs bound ahead? | Consumer affairs

Britain has always been a nation of pet lovers. But since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 3.2m households in the UK are thought to have acquired a pet. As demand for puppies, in particular, increased during lockdown, prices soared to an all-time high, with some dogs going for as much as £10,000, more than five times their usual price tag. The prices of kittens also pink by as much as 40%.

Many new pet owners have struggled to cope with their new housemates. Animal rescue charities report a 20% jump in the number of pets being abandoned, while demand for “pet behavior counselors” has doubled.

Rabbits have proved the biggest source of “lockdown pet regret”, with two-fifths (42%) of owners regretting their purchase during the pandemic.

Two-fifths of owners regretted buying rabbits during the pandemic. Photograph: petographer/Alamy

“Taking on a pet, at any time, is a huge responsibility and before bringing one home it’s vital people consider whether they have the time and the finances to properly care for that animal for the rest of their life,” says RSPCA pet welfare expert Dr Samantha Gaines.

“Across the sector we are seeing an increase in the number of animals abandoned as well as being surrendered. We fear this could worsen as people return to the office, or struggle with the increasing costs of living.

“We believe that one of the main reasons people fail to care for their pets properly, or end up abandoning them, is a lack of research before they get their pet and a misunderstanding about the cost of pet ownership.”

A survey of RSPCA frontline rescuers found that 95% listed the cost of care, including vet and grooming costs, as the number one reason for pet neglect.

As well as food, vet care, insurance, toys and specialist equipment, pets may also need behavior support and training.

We spoke to people who bought a pet in the pandemic to find out how the rewards of ownership stack up against the costs.

‘I bought a maltipoo to make us feel happy again

Pet’s name: Darcy.
Breed: maltipoo dog (a Maltese crossed with a poodle).
Upfront cost in Oct 2020: £3,000.
Food and treats: £35 a month.
Grooming: £25 every six to seven weeks.
Insurance: £17 a month.
Flea and worming treatments: £17 a month.
Total monthly cost: £87.

Nicole, 46, is an assistant manager for adult care services in Hatfield. In July 2020 her husband, Garry, was unexpectedly taken ill with a suspected heart attack. “Because of Covid I wasn’t allowed to go with him in the ambulance, or visit him in hospital. Our children were in bed, and in the morning I told them daddy was unwell but he would be out soon,” she says.

“This wasn’t the case, and in two days I had the dreaded phone call to tell me he had died – there was nothing they could do.”

Nicole had to break the news to their three children, who were nine, 10 and 16 at the time. “Our whole world collapsed,” she says.

Watching TV alone one evening, she was engulfed with feelings of grievance and loneliness. There was a big gaping hole, not only in her life but in the heart of her home. “I felt like we were a bit empty,” she says. “I knew we were missing something – something to love, cuddle and give us a focus in life.”

She surprised her children with Darcie, a maltipoo puppy, the following weekend. Prices for these dogs soared over lockdown and she had to pay £3,000. “I haven’t told some of my family what she cost. I’m too embarrassed. But I had some money that Garry left me and I thought, ‘I know what I’m going to do with that. I’m going to buy something that will make us feel happy again’,” she says.

Words cannot describe how much joy and comfort the dog has brought to her grieving children – “and most of all, to me”.

In total, Darcie costs about £107 a month to feed and look after, and is “worth every penny”, Nicole says. “It’s almost as if she knew what she was there for. It sounds dumb but she really did heal us.”

The dog seems to know when the children, and especially Nicole, need love and affection. “She became my rock, my strength.”

pet insurance concept, documents on the desktop
Nicole pays £17 a month for insurance and a further £17 a month for a healthcare plan offered by her vet.
Photograph: Traimak Ivan/Alamy

Maltipoos shed little to no fur, so Nicole pays £25 to a groomer every six to seven weeks to ensure the dog does not get matted and dirty. “You’ve got to, with a breed like hers. I brush her regularly, as well.”

To avoid being hit with large unexpected bills, Nicole also pays £17 a month for insurance and a further £17 a month for a healthcare plan her vet offers. “All the flea and worming treatments and annual vaccination boosters can end up being really costly. But when you pay monthly, it’s done, it’s paid for. You don’t have to worry about it.”

Small mixed breeds are notoriously fussy about food, so, to save money, Nicole buys Darcie’s online in bulk rather than at the supermarket, after discovering the only brand she likes (Lily’s Kitchen) is cheaper that way.

It is affordable, but she sometimes wonders what Garry would say if he knew she had spent £3,000 on a dog. As she had owned one before, she knew before about how much Darcie would cost each month. “I knew that it was a cost I could manage,” she says.

And for her, the rewards of dog ownership far outweigh those costs. “I can’t even begin to tell you how much love and happiness she has brought into our lives.”

Nicole is a member of the charity WAY Widowed and Young

‘I had no human touch but I had a cat to cuddle’

Alicia Sheber's cat, Miss Chai.
Alicia Sheber’s cat, Miss Chai.

Pet’s name: Miss Chai.
Breed: domestic short-haired cat.
Upfront cost in April 2020: free.
First vet bill: £350.
Food and treats: £15 a month.
Insurance: £13 a month.
Flea and worming treatments: £12 a month.
Cat sitting: £250 for a week.
Total monthly cost: £40

Alicia, 52, is a ghostwriter who lives in Westcliff-on-Sea. As the UK locked down in March 2020, she noticed a young female cat hanging around her house. “She darted in my front door and continued to visit me – after a few times, she didn’t want to leave,” she says. “I would open the door to give her the opportunity … but she wouldn’t go.”

The cat wasn’t microchipped but had been neutered. News was circulating that cats could get the virus (although there is no evidence they can transmit Covid to humans) and Alicia wondered if perhaps the cat, who looked approximately four months old, had been thrown out by her owners as a result.

She worked with Pet Search South East, a local group for lost and found pets, put up signs locally and asked neighbors – but no one claimed her. “So in August, I did,” she says.

She called her Mademoiselle Chai, after her favorite drink and the Hebrew word for life.

“I really feel like we saved each other, as I am a single woman living alone with no family in the UK,” she says. “I literally had no human touch during the lockdowns but I did have a cat to cuddle.”

Although she did not have to pay for Mademoiselle Chai, it cost about £350 to get her vaccinated, chipped and checked by the vet. “Money was tight but I thought, ‘This is a worthwhile investment,’” she says. “I knew I would be able to find a way to afford her.”

She pays £12 a month for flea and worming treatments and annual vaccinations via the Healthy Pet Club plan, which also means she gets a 10% discount off bills and services at her local vet, and spends £15 a month on cat food (tins of Butcher’s), which she buys in bulk from Ocado to cut costs.

She decided to get “really good insurance”, initially paying £156 a year for a policy connected to the veterinary charity PDSA. Each policy taken out contributes to the charity’s work treating animals whose owners are suffering economic hardship.

So when her policy went up by £14 to £170 at renewal, she was OK with that, even though she had not made a claim. “If it happens regularly, I will shop around to find another insurer,” she says. “But I like the feeling that I’m helping to support a charity and I think they are more likely to honor claims.”

One of the best purchases she made was a £31 Morpilot backpack she can put the cat in when she goes for a walk. “I can also use it to take her to the vets because I don’t have a car,” she says.

One of the cat’s favorite toys is a £5 fishing rod but others, such as ribbons and string that she loves to chase around, were free. The biggest waste of money was spending £45 on scratching posts, which the cat refuses to use.

The biggest expense has been paying for a cat sitter to cover trips away.

Recently, Alicia found a newly graduated veterinary nurse via the website Cat in a Flat and paid her £250 to stay in her house for a week while she was on a work trip. “That gave me peace of mind,” she says.

Despite all these costs, Alicia has no doubt that getting a lockdown pet – or, as she puts it, a “new best buddy” – was a good financial decision. “She makes me laugh and kept my spirits high during the pandemic. She was an unexpected gift in my life. I think an angel feels her to me.”

‘There’s hay everywhere in the house’

Sophie with her daughter Alice and their rabbits Lettuce and Radish
Sophie with her daughter Alice and their rabbits Lettuce and Radish.

Pets’ names: Radish and Lettuce.
Breed: mini rex rabbit.
Upfront cost in March 2021: £50 each.
First vet bill: £100 each.
Hutch, tunnel and playpen: £225.
Hay: £5 for two bales, every two to three weeks.
Food and treats: £15 a month.
chew toys: £5 a month.
Litter tray liners: £6 a month.
Nail clipping: £5 a rabbit, every two to three months.
Insurance: £0.
Rabbit sitting: £11 a day.
Total monthly cost: about £18 a rabbit.

Sophie, 50, works in Cambridge for a technology business. She decided to buy her three children a pair of rabbits in March 2021, during the third lockdown, because they had been begging for a pet and her eldest daughter, Alice, 13, had thoroughly researched getting one.

“From my perspective, spending even £2 a week on them would be too much,” Sophie says. “But I knew this before we got them. It was an entirely child-related endeavor.”

She opted for rabbits because she thought the children would be capable of looking after them by themselves, and it would be good for them to learn to do so.

Alice has responsibility for feeding, ordering their food, cleaning out their litter trays and generally looking after the rabbits.

When she came down with Covid last year and had to isolate from her parents, Lettuce and Radish were a great comfort. “I could play with them when mum and dad were working,” she says.

She loves that they are excited to see her in the mornings and jump on to her lap to be stroked. “I think it’s really rewarding to have a pet.”

The rabbits stay indoors, so Sophie does not see any need to insure them for theft, and plans to pay any vet bills that arise.

The biggest expense was their hutch, which cost £185. Prices for double rabbit hutches start at £90 online but she decided to invest in an expensive one that would maximize the space available. She went for one from rabbit-hutches.co.uk that would fit neatly in to her kitchen.

“It’s quite big, and because we keep them inside, we wanted it not to look too ugly,” Sophie says.

She was also surprised to find it costs £11 a day in Cambridge to get an experienced sitter to feed the rabbits and change their litter tray (rabbits typically defecate up to 200 to 300 pellets a day) when the family go on holiday.

Although the family spends £5 a month on chew toys for the rabbits, they also try to save by giving them cardboard and homemade toys that are safe to chew on.

Overall, Sophie is not a big fan of the rabbits – “mostly because of the hay that is everywhere in the house, and the animal smell” – but she loves seeing how much her children care for them, and does not resent the monthly costs .

“You know that they are going to be outrageous when you decide to get a pet. Whether it’s worth it or not entirely depends on how much you love the pet.”

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