How Covid-19 has affected pet care costs in the UAE

Pet owners say they have reduced expenses by cutting down on food costs, day care and treats

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: Keith J Fernandez. Business. Dima Al Saidi and her saluki Orlando. Pet owners talk about finance. Monday, July 6th, 2020. Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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Having a friend to come home to can make all the difference in these unsettling times. But although shelters across the UAE reported an increase in pet adoptions during the recent work-from-home period, residents may not quite be aware of what adding to their family entails.

While similar figures for the UAE are not available, a recent US survey found that nearly half of all dog owners and 41 per cent of cat owners said having a pet is more expensive than they thought it would be. The financial services company TD Ameritrade polled 1,008 adults aged over 24 years and holding at least $10,000 (Dh36,725) in investable assets.

“Pets are expensive and should be a family member for life. Think about that if you’re planning to adopt; if you can’t commit financially or otherwise for life, foster instead,” says Lisa Knight, a British expatriate who takes in strays and abandoned cats and finds them new homes.

If you can't commit financially or otherwise for life, foster [a pet] instead

Adopting a pet could set you back  significant amount. While rehousing a street animal may be free, you could expect to pay anywhere from Dh1,000 to Dh5,000 in initial veterinary fees such as tests, shots and microchip charges. For example, a vaccination course for a new puppy could cost Dh650, says Dr Sam Westhead, a senior veterinary surgeon at the Amity Veterinary Clinic in Dubai.

Monthly expenses include food, day care, grooming, visits to the vet and occasional treats: these easily add up to Dh1,000 per animal per month. With a little research and some careful planning, it’s possible to spend much less, UAE residents say.

However, unscheduled expenses such as accidents or illnesses can add to your outgoings. All the UAE residents we spoke to advised new pet owners to start saving for an emergency fund for this sort of expense. Except perhaps for day care, these costs have remained largely unchanged during the coronavirus pandemic.

Unlike in other countries, insurance for dogs and cats is not available in the UAE – although plans are available for horses.

Finally, many pet owners advise expat residents to build up a rehoming reserve of Dh5,000 to Dh8,000.

We discussed the costs of pet ownership in the new normal with several UAE residents.

Ipshita Sharma and her cat, Tintin.
(Photo: Reem Mohammed/The National)

When Ipshita Sharma adopted Tintin, she paid Dh6,000 for treatment and special foods in the first three months. Reem Mohammed / The National

‘I’ve cut back on pet spend amid Covid-19’

Our irrational love for pets can hit hardest in the wallet, something Ipshita Sharma knows all too well. The Indian expatriate, 37, is a sales professional who lives in Dubai. She says her biggest impulse purchases are at the pet shop for her two cats, Tintin, an Egyptian Mau, and Max, a Persian cross.

“There are always impulse costs, especially if I go to a pet shop, where an average visit can put me back by almost Dh1,000. So, I try to only order online,” she laughs.

Ms Sharma’s pets are rescues. Tintin came to Ms Sharma off the street and cost Dh6,000 in treatment and special foods over the first three months. Max, who was rescued from Al Barsha Pond Park, needed vet treatments totalling close to Dh10,000 over a similar period.

“There is a big need for vet rates to go down here. We really need the concept of pet insurance in the UAE as well as more action on strays,” Ms Sharma says. “People need to be penalised for abandoning their animals because on many occasions they cannot be helped due to the costs involved.”

In total, Ms Sharma spends Dh2,000 on her cats per month. Following the coronavirus outbreak, Ms Sharma has had to reduce the amount she spends on her pets. “I have decided to forego vaccinations and deworming for now since I have had a small pay cut. I also don’t give them their weekly wet food packets.”

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: Keith J Fernandez. Business. Dima Al Saidi and her saluki Orlando. Pet owners talk about finance. Monday, July 6th, 2020. Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
On average, Dima Al Saidi spends between Dh1,200 and Dh1,500 each month on her pet, Orlando. Chris Whiteoak / The National

‘The lockdown allowed me to cut pet bills by 30%’

Dima Al Saidi, 29, is a Lebanese national who works as a press relations specialist in Dubai. She adopted Orlando, her greyhound-saluki mix, from a shelter for dogs in Umm Al Quwain nearly two years ago.

Initial fees totalled Dh1,500, which included Orlando's first vaccinations as a puppy and his microchip, but she has spent more than 10 times that amount since he came to live with her. “I spent over Dh15,000 within a year and a half. I’d have used the money to travel, but the love that Orlando provides is irreplaceable and he is part of my family now. His expenses are part of my monthly expense plan.”

On average, she says she spends between Dh1,200 and Dh1,500 each month. Food accounts for the largest outgoing at Dh600, while day care, at Dh75 per visit, easily adds up to Dh300 per month. She also spends Dh200 per month on toys.

I also have in my savings the cost of Orlando's plane ticket and his shipment should I need to exit the country on an emergency basis

Vet bills are a minimum of Dh300 each time, although this goes up if Orlando needs medicines or lab tests. “I still remember having to pay Dh2,000 in one go. More recently, Orlando came down with a severe allergy during Covid-19 and I had to spend up to Dh900 in one go on his lab tests and vet visits,” Ms Al Saidi says.

During the lockdown and the ensuing work-from-home period, she has been able to cut pet expenses by 30 per cent, she says. “I was able to cut out nursery visits and I cut food bills by 20 per cent by changing to a different brand of dog food.”

Although that may change when working hours return to normal, she has been able to set aside an emergency fund. “I have in my savings the cost of Orlando’s plane ticket should I need to exit the country in an emergency – that’s about Dh8,000.”

Lisa Knight, Co-Founder, Cafe Isan, rescue cat Lulu.
(Photo: Reem Mohammed/The National)

Lisa Knight spends about Dh3,000 per month on the five cats that share her home. Reem Mohammed / The National

‘We spend Dh5,000 per month on cats – our own and street animals’

Ms Knight and her friend own five cats, all rescues, and support another 30 felines on the street, paying for food, treatment, trapping and neutering costs. Together, their bills come to Dh5,000 per month – after Ms Knight worked to slash her outgoings in view of the coronavirus.

“We’ve cut costs almost in half by bulk buying and better managed portion sizes,” says the British national, who co-owns the Cafe Isan Thai Streetfood & Tea Bar in Dubai’s Jumeirah Lakes Towers.

The impact of the pandemic on her business and income has forced Ms Knight to think carefully about economising. “Like everything in life right now, it’s all about essentials.”

Ms Knight spends about Dh3,000 per month on the cats that share her home. She now spends about Dh1,800 on food, while vet bills, toys and other items make up the rest. Occasional expenses such as carriers, climbing trees and safety nets to keep her balconies enclosed come to about Dh2,000.

However, Ms Knight’s biggest outlay is on re-homing flights to the UK: she finds new homes for many of the strays she adopts and nurses back to health. “They go by air on a cargo flight and it costs a staggering Dh3,000 per cat, one way.”

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: Keith J Fernandez. Business. Dr Sam Westhead and his dog Goli. Pet owners talk about finance. Tuesday, July 14th, 2020. Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Dr Sam Westhead recently rehomed a 14-week-old chihuahua called Goli and spends about Dh400 per month for her food, treats and chews. Chris Whiteoak / The National

‘Set aside Dh5,000 as an emergency fund for each pet’

If you thought vets had it easier when it comes to taking care of pets, you would be right. Dr Westhead recently adopted a 14-week-old chihuahua called Goli. “Goli is a rescue dog. A friend of mine was fostering her for a while and thought of me. She came to me privately, so I didn’t pay any fees for her,” he says.

The British vet, 52, has only had his new villa-mate for a short time: he estimates that she will cost about Dh400 per month for food, treats and chews. “I haven’t set a budget for Goli. As a vet, I’m in a very privileged position with regard to medical fees, so I don’t really have to worry about vaccinations or medical bills. I also buy all of her food through my work,” he says.

He [former pet] was family, so the money I spend on them doesn't figure

He received many items for free, including toys and a bed. Goli accompanies Dr Westhead to work during the day, so he doesn’t worry about day care.

He does make a few impulse purchases, though, particularly on treats. “I buy them from the clinic partly because they are high quality but also because I’m testing them on her so that I can recommend them to my clients. The packets of treats range from Dh21 to Dh70.”

Like many pet owners, Dr Westhead expects relocation to be the biggest cost associated with Goli. When he moved from Saudi Arabia to the UAE 10 years ago, he brought along his previous dog, Oscar. “I have no recollection of how much it came to, but I didn’t even think about the sums involved. Like Goli, he was family, so the money I spend on them doesn’t figure.”

Nevertheless, Dr Sam advises setting aside an emergency fund. “I suggest Dh5,000 as a starting point, but budget for the annual vaccinations, deworming, tick treatment, etc., and of course the possibility of repatriation.”