When ‘Free’ Isn’t Really Free

There’s no such thing as a “free lunch” … or a “free pet.”

If you’re anything like me, walking past a kid with a box marked “free puppies” nearly rips my heart out. After all, is there anything cuter than a puppy (or kitten)? Knowing they need a home makes it even more gut-wrenching.

Nine years ago, my daughter and I fell under the spell of a tiny orange tabby, displayed in a wire cage at a festival. Actually, it was my then 10-year-old daughter who found him first, and showed it to me, cuddling him in her arms. I did my best to be strong, but all that hot August afternoon, all I heard was the litany most parents hear at least once in their life: “I’ll take care of him, I promise! I’ll feed  him and brush him and clean the litter box….”

Knowing full well I’d face opposition at home from my husband (as well as three other animals who I knew would be disgusted I brought something NEW home), the “free” kitten rode home on my daughter’s lap. Today, that 21-pound “butterball” is firmly ensconced as a member of the family, although he still earns my husband’s wrath for tearing around the house at 2 a.m.

Let’s get back to that word, “free.” Before you ever decide to bring a pet home, don’t be fooled that they are free, much less cheap. Our companion animals need a host of care and products to make sure that they stay healthy, happy and contented during the tenure of their lives with us.

First, the basics: litter box, kitten food, brushes etc.  But the most  important expenses come from visiting your local veterinarian. “Bad Kitty,” (“BK”)  got a thorough examination from our vet, who promptly diagnosed him with worms, necessitating medication. BK also required vaccinations, including rabies and feline leukemia. That “free” kitten was quickly costing a lot of money.

When he got old enough, neutering was next,  coupled with regular vaccinations. Some communities require licensing, so count that into the cost of your “free” cat or dog. An acquaintance who acquired a free puppy for his son noted he also had to count in the cost of obedience lessons.

Don’t get me wrong. Even if you purchase your pet from a reputable breeder or adopt a rescue pet, these costs may apply. (However, when I adopted one of my dogs from a rescue facility, the “fee” to adopt covered the cost of the vet care my dog had received, meaning that when I took her home, she had all her vaccinations, had had a full vet check, was spayed, and micro-chipped.)

“BK” is among the lucky kittens who found a forever home. But when people do not spay and neuter their pets, they run the risk of becoming the family who is forever trying to give away puppies or kittens. They may be among the scores of neglectful owners who simply abandon their unwanted puppies or kittens at a shelter or, as I encountered, stuffed nine puppies in a box and left it along a highway in July.

Spaying and neutering your pet is a one-time cost that can help keep your dog or cat healthier; aid in behavior issues; and prevent unwanted litters.

Some kittens and puppies get lucky, and a softhearted soul falls victim. All too many do not. Thousands are euthanized; even more live short, squalid lives, scrounging for food, struggling to find shelter in a harsh environment. Those left to fend for themselves as a feral dog or cat find little comfort and die agonizing deaths due to disease, injury, starvation, exposure to the elements, traps, and even getting shot.

Responsible pet ownership involves a number of factors:  accepting that your new companion will cost money – perhaps a substantial amount – in order to keep it happy and healthy. They require a commitment of time and attention.

Before you fall prey to an adorable free puppy or cute kitten, be prepared to commit yourself to their care. Those of us who have pets know the rewards can be endless, in terms of companionship, entertainment, and affection.

It’s hard to put a price on that.


Photo Credits: Feature image from flickr by abcrumley. Inset photo “BK the butterball” by the author, Melissa Rice.



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