Sam was living with his best friend in Chicago when he adopted Little Sugar Baby, aka Shugs, a playful and inquisitive Tabby cat. Life was good. “Shugs really took a liking to me,” he says. “I was the only person who could handle him.”
Then Sam and Shugs moved to New York, where things took a turn for the worse. “I ended up living with two other people, and it was a really, really bad living situation,” he says. One of his roommates had brought home a street cat unannounced, and Shugs was less than thrilled.
The two of them were hiding away in their bedroom when Sam realized that Shugs was having trouble using the bathroom. “I noticed that Shugs was going in and out of the litter box, like multiple times within five minutes,” he explains. Concerned, Sam called his friend, a veterinary technician, who eventually suggested he take Shugs to the emergency room, since urinary obstructions in cats can be deadly.
Sam panicked, not only because he was worried about Shugs, but because he was completely broke. “I was paying New York rent,” he says. “I had about $200 in my bank account.”
Nevertheless, he and Shugs took the train to a nearby emergency clinic, where they were given painkillers for $40 and told to come back if Shugs continued to have trouble using the bathroom. He did, and one day later Sam was carrying a blanketed Shugs back to the clinic, stomping through the snow.
They ran tests, administered medication, suggested an overnight stay and eventually handed Sam a $1,300 bill — the cost to keep Shugs alive. Sam explained his financial situation and successfully lowered his bill to $600 by declining a few unnecessary treatments. But $600 was still more than he had, so he was forced to apply for a credit card through the clinic, which ended up covering $400, just enough for Sam to afford the rest. “Mind you, I was already in debt on another credit card,” he says. But he did what he did, because he loves his cat.
Surveys show that nearly half of millennials have gone into pet debt. Shelby is another example — most recently, she was forced to put $2,000 on credit cards after her cat developed a bladder infection and skin lesions. “That was a big hit, because I lost hours at work from COVID,” she says. Shelby is no stranger to pet debt, though: She once picked up a second job to afford medications for her horse that resulted in monthly payments of $1,000, after insurance.
Laura is another victim of pet debt. Her four-year-old dog, Kuma, started experiencing lasting diarrhea and vomiting back in May, so she took him to the vet. “I had a really hard time getting him into the vet because of the coronavirus,” she says. “I literally had to go and beg a vet.”
Laura and Kuma were able to squeeze their way in, though. They left with antibiotics, anti-nausea medications and $800 less than they came with. But the problems continued, so they went back and were charged another $300. The problems still continued — Kuma had already lost close to 17 pounds — so they found a specialist, who eventually diagnosed him with a rare and aggressive form of cancer. “She gave me a prognosis of maybe six months with chemo,” Laura explains.
Laura decided to go through with chemo, which costs her around $500 every three weeks, plus more for blood work. “I understand that he doesn’t have very long,” she says. “But my logic is that I want to give him as many good days as I can.” So far, this ordeal has her over $5,000 in credit card debt.
Sandy (an alias) is yet another victim of pet debt. Her dog, Duke, was diagnosed with idiopathic epilepsy, which required a spinal tap and an MRI, totaling $4,000. “As any pet parent who wants answers, I quickly footed the bill with my credit cards,” she says.
“Even after the diagnosis, though, it took months of going to his neurologist and playing around with his meds to mostly control the seizures. I took him to the emergency vet several times before understanding that his seizures will eventually stop. Duke has cost me over $10,000, and we’re currently weighing our options for a $6,000 surgical procedure to help control his seizures.”
Clearly, the surveys are true, and millennials care about their pets, plunging themselves into debt to keep them alive, well and happy. Many of them simply see no other option. “For me, they’re my family,” Laura explains. “My dogs are my best friends. They’re my adventure buddies. They’re always there for me. There’s no companionship like it.” Shelby adds, “It’s like taking care of a child. It’s a responsibility. It’s your job to take care of them.”
As for Shugs, Sam says, “He’s absolutely my mental and emotional rock. My cat had been with me through the hardest year of my life.” Back then, when Sam was living in New York, tormented by terrible roommates and otherwise alone, Shugs was the light in his darkness, a relic of better times. “My cat really was my entire life,” he says. “It was just me and him. We took on the Big Apple.”
And what’s a bit of debt when you have a companion like that?