Note to prospective owners: a free pet is never really free

A heartwarming story caught my attention in the BDN a few weeks ago. The headline read, “Bangor Humane Society waives adoption fees thanks to donation,” and the story was accompanied by the photo of an adorable puppy.

I’m a big fan of the Bangor Humane Society. It’s where I found my cat, Arrow, 7 years ago. It’s also where I adopted my dog, Oreo, about 3 years ago. Having that connection with the animal shelter, I was eager to read more about this generous donation.

My cats Arrow (left) and Bo. Arrow is from Bangor Humane Society.

My cats Arrow (left) and Bo. Arrow is from Bangor Humane Society.

The donation — totaling $350 — was a contribution from Changing Seasons Federal Credit Union and covered the adoption fees of all 10 pets at Bangor Humane Society on April 11. That day, these “free” pets (cats and dogs) were quickly scooped up and taken to new homes.

At first, I thought, “That’s wonderful!” But it didn’t take much pondering on my part to arrive at a glaring issue, and that’s this:

If a person can’t afford a $100 pet adoption fee, he or she likely cannot afford to feed, shelter and cover the medical expenses of a pet.

Actually, Bangor Humane Society adoption fees range from $40 for a mature cat to $350 for puppies 8 weeks to 6 months old. Oreo, who was 7 months when we adopted him, was considered a “young dog” and cost us just $125. Arrow, who was a kitten when I picked him up, was $100.

Now, I have no idea who went home from Bangor Humane Society with pets that on April 11. Perhaps every single one of those people could afford the adoption fee, but they just happened to show up on that lucky day when the fees were being waived. Or maybe the news story about the donation simply spurred people to go check out the shelter, where they fell in love with a dog or cat they could absolutely afford.

All I can say is this: I really hope that no one who adopted a dog or cat that day did so because it was a “free pet.” There’s no such thing.

Oreo playing with his tennis ball before I tossed it over the fence.. October 2014.

Oreo playing with his tennis ball before I tossed it over the fence.. October 2014.

Owning a pet is a responsibility. It’s a privilege. And it costs money, regardless of whether you have to pay an adoption fee.

I’m not saying that the Bangor Humane Society did anything wrong. They are in the business of caring for animals and finding them homes. And as far as I can tell, they do a great job at that. Nevertheless, the story worried me a little, and it made me think about instances where people I know adopt animals — and then, just months later, end up giving those animals away or bringing them back to a shelter because they can’t afford the animal or don’t have the time to take care of the animal.

But what really convinced me to write this blog is the fact that this month alone, I spent about $1,000 on my perfectly healthy, young dog, Oreo. It was an unusually expensive month, and it drove home the fact that pets cost money.

If you’re considering adopting or purchasing a certain pet for the first time, simply take a moment to consider the average annual cost for owning that pet. Studies done on annual pet expenses vary greatly. One study by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, predicts an annual cost for owning a dog to be as low as $1000 for the first year of ownership and $500 for each additional year. While another study, conducted by veterinary students at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, arrives at annual costs for dog ownership to be between $2,600 and $3,500, depending on the size of the dog.

A dog requires food and supplies such as beds, toys, a leash and a collar. I challenge you to go to a pet store with you new pooch and not indulge in a few toys and treats. Buying things for your pets is fun. My dog Oreo reacts to a new toy like a child might, with excitement and appreciation. It’s wonderful.

Oreo playing with his Orbee-Tuff ball by Planet Dog.

Oreo playing with his Orbee-Tuff ball by Planet Dog.

Then there are the regular visits to the veterinary clinic for various shots and check-ups. A dog needs to have certain vaccines in order to be able to stay in a kennel, which is another cost you may accrue if you ever want to go on vacation.

And, living in New England, plan on purchasing tick and flea deterrent and possibly the Lyme disease vaccine.

But what really starts to add up are the unexpected visits to the veterinary clinic. That’s how I ended up paying $1,000 for Oreo this month.

Oreo taking a new chew toy from his stocking on Christmas morning, 2013.

Oreo taking a new chew toy from his stocking on Christmas morning, 2013.

It started with an ear infection. It was in one ear only, but it was bothering Oreo so much that he was shaking his head, scratching his ear and whining at nighttime. So after washing his ear out with all-natural dog ear wash, we realized it wasn’t getting any better and we needed to bring Oreo into the veterinary clinic.

There at the clinic, an ear swab revealed that Oreo had yeast and two types of harmful bacteria proliferating in his poor, pink ear. One of the two types of bacteria was especially hard to combat, so the veterinarian prescribed an aggressive treatment. For 10 days, we used a syringe to fill Oreo’s ear with three different medicines. The first medicine, we were supposed to give him twice a day; the second medicine, once a day; and the third medicine, only every other day. My husband couldn’t seem to get it straight, so the scheduling was up to me. And it didn’t help that every time we even thought about giving Oreo the medicine, he went down cellar and hid in a corner.

But we got through that, and Oreo’s ear healed.

Also while at the vet, we took the opportunity to test Oreo’s blood for Lyme disease, and we updated him on his bordetella vaccine and purchase medicine for heart worm and fleas.

A few weeks later, I came home to find Oreo limping. Somehow, he’d hurt his left front foot or leg while I was at work. My husband blames it on the cats. I blame it on Oreo’s tendency to vault over the couch.

Oreo and his bum leg.

Oreo and his bum leg.


We didn’t want to overreact, so we did our own inspection, feeling along his leg and foot for some indication of a break. He didn’t really react except once, a tiny yelp when we squeezed his foot. But we aren’t doctors. We didn’t know what we were doing. So we waited and watched, and it got worse. Oreo started hopping around in three legs rather than put pressure on his injured leg. So we headed back to the veterinary clinic.

After a thorough examination, the veterinarian told us that he didn’t think Oreo’s leg was broken or badly injured. It was likely a strain. He prescribed an anti-inflammatory, pills that I have to break up and hide in treats, and still, Oreo often manages to eat the treat and spit out the pill bits. It’s a process.

We arrived home from the veterinary clinic that evening and fed Oreo his dinner a bit late, which explains why Oreo at whining by my bed at 4 a.m. He needed to go outdoors.

Groggily, I rose from bed, felt my way down the stairs and let Oreo out the front door. He ran around the corner to his normal tinkle spot and let out a bark, then a yelp. I knew without looking what had happened. I called out for him, and he came back right away, his muzzle full of porcupine quills.

It was the second time Oreo had been quilled. His first run-in with a porcupine was the year before, also during the springtime. So I knew what I was dealing with. I knew, for instance, that if the quills are in the muzzle only, you can sometimes take them out yourself and the dog isn’t in danger. However, if the quills are in the eyes, inside the mouth or in the chest, you need to see a veterinarian to have them taken out because the quills can break off and travel into the body and puncture organs. In the muzzle, if the quills travel in, they hit bone and will then work their way back out.

Oreo with his porcupine quills at the vets.

Oreo with his porcupine quills at the vets.

So with my husband holding Oreo, I tried to pull the quills out. There were only about 25 quills, less than the 45 that Oreo picked up the first time he ran into a porcupine. It didn’t look too bad. But Oreo wasn’t having it. He bared his teeth and growled. I plucked two quills out of his chin and gave up, worried he might snap at me. We needed to bring him to the veterinary clinic.

Of course, the regular veterinary clinic wasn’t open, so we brought him to the emergency veterinary clinic in Brewer, which costs a considerable amount more than the regular veterinary clinic. We knew that. We went there for the first porcupine instance. But our only other choice was to wait hours for our regular veterinary clinic to open, and I didn’t want to do that. Porcupine quills work their way deeper over time. Oreo was in pain. They needed to come out.

About $400 later, Oreo was quill-free, groggy from anesthesia and limping into the house to take a long nap (while my husband and I went to work). 

So you see, it’s been a tough month for Oreo, as well as his loving parents. But I hope our dog’s recent misfortunes can be an example of how unexpected costs can enter into pet ownership.

I’m not trying to discourage people from adopting dogs (or cats, or any type of pet), though it may seem that way. I’m just trying to be realistic. I’m saying, prepare for those costs, and know that you’ll have to make tough decisions when it comes to your pet’s health and the money you’re willing drop on a vet bill. Save up a little bit before you adopt a pet, and consider purchasing pet insurance.

My experiences with pet ownership and expenses may seem trivial to other pet owners. Believe me, I’ve heard stories about some truly monstrous veterinary bills. If there’s one thing pet owners like to do, it’s tell stories and share their woes and joys. So please, feel free to post your pet stories and knowledge in the comment section below. Add to the conversation, while being respectful of others.

And lastly, I’d like to say that donating to the Bangor Humane Society or any animal shelter is a wonderful thing to do, but I think it might be more beneficial for people to donate supplies or volunteer hours.

But beware, if you visit BHS, you may end up walking out with a furry pal, one that’s going to cost you some money over the years, but will undoubtedly pay you back (and then some) with unconditional love and companionship.


Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at