Simon, 32, and Marina, 27, co-parent a 6-month-old German shepherd named Ellie. They’ve been together for two years and Simon lives in a house in Toronto with three roommates while Marina lives in an apartment with her mom. His place is Ellie’s homebase.
With the help of his roommates, Simon and Marina feed, walk, and take care of Ellie. They say this arrangement means the puppy has never been alone for more than four hours at a time.
For couples who are serious about each other, figuring out whether your relationship, and your budget, can handle a pet is a major milestone. Your lifestyle, finances, environment, goals, and future as a couple all need to be considered.
How soon is too soon?
Rachel Zar, a Chicago-based therapist who specializes in relationships, says every relationship moves at a different pace. When it comes to pet ownership, you need to think of the long-term, unless you’re getting an old animal.
She says this is particularly hard for couples in their 20s and early 30s because a lot can happen in a decade. Dogs have an average lifespan of about 10 to 13 years and cats 15 years.
“If you’re not willing to have the vulnerable and scary conversation about where this relationship is going and what do we want for our futures, it’s too soon,” said Zar. She cautions that some couples skip this step and assume that because their partner has agreed to get a pet together that implies commitment. It doesn’t and there’s no way to dodge the “How serious are we anyway?” talk.
How much you trust your partner is a big factor, too. Zar suggests examining whether they keep their promises—if they say they’re going to help you with something, do they follow through? She recommends doing a low-stakes test run with a fish or a plant.
If you decide that your relationship is ready for pet parenthood, Hannah Sotropa, a spokesperson for the Toronto Humane Society, suggests holding off for at least a couple of months. You can research whether getting a cat or a dog makes sense for you, and if you’re still really interested in a pet after that cooling-off period, that’s a good sign.
Can you even afford it?
If you don’t have the financial ability to take care of a pet, then this decision is really easy—don’t. Research by Canadian personal finance platform RateSupermarket.ca shows the ballpark cost of a puppy for the first year is $2,600 and $1,921 for a kitten.
You have to be ready for hidden costs too, such as unexpected vet bills or medicine for your pet, and boarding costs if you plan to travel.
According to Sotropa, insurance from a reputable provider is a good way to keep a lid on medical expenses that come up (think $6,000 surgery plus rehab for a year if your pooch busts their knee, for example).
Is your life pet-friendly?
Even though cats tend to live longer than dogs, according to Sotropa, getting a dog is a bigger time commitment and lifestyle adjustment. “Look at your current routine, your activity level. If you like to go out for a drink after work, who’s going to take care of the dog? What about when you’re sick or travelling?”
Simon’s home had to pass a thorough home inspection before they were allowed to adopt Ellie. The environment and suitability of the place you’re potentially bringing a pet into are make-or-break now, and for the pet’s entire life. You also have to consider everyone in your household, including regular visitors, neighbours, and their animals.
You should have a contingency plan if you get evicted, or need to move out with little notice. Will you be able to find another place for you and your pet right away?
Two years ago, when Sotropa was 21, she decided to move out of her parents’ home in the suburbs to an apartment downtown to be closer to work. The new environment turned her formerly well-adjusted shih tzu poodle MacKenzie into an anxious one who tried to dig his way out of the apartment the first time she left him alone. Sotropa ended up sending MacKenzie back to her parent’s house.
A pet prenup
Decide ahead of time, while your relationship is solid, what the plan for the pet is if you break up. Zar suggests putting it in writing so no one “misremembers” anything. “I’ve seen custody battles in my office over pets that might as well be about children. People get really attached,” she said.
Zar said it can escalate into a power trip. “It gets into the nitty-gritty of ‘I’m the one that’s been taking care of him’ and ‘I paid for him.’ Conversations about who deserves it more can fall on a poor little dog. It can get really bad.”
Unlike a will or an actual prenuptial agreement, a “pet prenup” isn’t legally binding but it helps to have a clear plan for custody. Otherwise, you may be dealing with the heartache of losing both a pet and a partner. According to Sotropa, it can make things less confusing for transferring ownership and sorting out vet records.
Sotropa says many people also don’t think about how—or if—their pet will get along with a new partner, long after the breakup is over. “What if your pet doesn’t really vibe with your new partner or your new place? Everything becomes a bigger decision when it involves your pet,” she said.
According to Sotropa, the best approach may be to look at whether you as a couple—as well as you on your own—can totally handle a fur baby.
“Find a way to set yourself up so you enjoy being a pet parent. Not scrambling and constantly feeling like they’re this weight or this burden. Don’t end up resenting your animal. That will be key when it comes to you keeping that pet,” she said.
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