Puppies aren't just for Christmas

Imagine the excitement of coming home on Christmas Eve with a puppy, and the sheer delight of your children at this cute new addition to the family. But have you really thought it through? It's not just the initial cost of buying a dog – which can range from £500 to £1,000 for a pedigree dog or even more if you choose a 'designer' breed – but the lifetime cost of owning one. Dogs Trust, the dog welfare charity, estimates that it can cost as much as £21,623 to own a medium-sized dog with an average lifespan of 12 years.

But the cost doesn't seem to have dampened the nation's enthusiasm for our canine friends: there are around nine million dogs in the UK and the number is growing. While the labrador may be Britain's favourite breed, it's the cute 'handbag' dogs that are grabbing the headlines. Socialite Paris Hilton, for instance, carries around a tiny Pomeranian puppy she recently bought for $13,000 from a Canadian breeder.

Marc Abraham, TV vet and founder of Pup Aid, which campaigns to end the UK's puppy farming industry, says: "More than ever, people are influenced by celebrity; they're influenced by fashion – by dogs being in their handbags rather than as a family pet for 15 years. That leads to a very impulsive way of buying, whereby dogs are seen as commodities by the sellers and as disposable pets by the owners so if it doesn't work out or the dog doesn't really go with the sofa, we get rid of it."

There are no hard figures for how many people buy a dog at Christmas and later abandon it or take it to a dog rescue centre but it's clear that it does happen. Dogs Trust says it typically gets around 100 dogs handed into its rehoming centres after the festive season, while Battersea Dogs & Cats Home had 380 dogs arrive in January 2014, 316 in February, 418 in March and 444 in April, which suggests that some owners persevere for a few weeks or months with their new dogs before giving up.

Canine costs

When considering buying a dog, it's crucial to check you will be able to afford both one-off and day-to-day costs, which include:

  • Neutering: The cost will vary depending on the sex and breed of dog but expect to pay between £150 and £450 for spaying and between £100 and £200 for castration. Dogs Trust offers subsidised neutering for pets of people on means-tested benefits within certain areas of the UK.
  • Microchipping: It costs about £25 to micro chip a dog. Animal charities, such as Blue Cross and Dogs Trust, offer free microchipping for those who can't afford it.
  • Vaccinations: Initial jabs can cost around £100, followed by around £40 a year for a vaccination booster.
  • Flea and worm treatment: Expect to pay a round £144 a year to keep your pooch flea- and worm-free.
  • Food: you can spend about £420 a year on food for a medium-sized dog.
  • Grooming: Keeping your dog looking in tip-top condition can cost around £360 a year.
  • Toys: Allow around £100 a year for treats for your dog.

Pet insurance

Some 59% of dog owners in the UK take out pet insurance but, given the cost of vets' fees–the average vet bill in the UK is more than £300 – it's an insurance you can't afford to ignore.

Policies range from basic 'accident-only' cover, through time-limited policies that offer cover for the treatment of each illness or injury up to a set period of time (usually one year) and to a maximum benefit limit, to lifetime policies that will cover your pet for costly treatment throughout a dog's life, as long as you renew the policy each year.

Costs vary greatly depending on the age and breed of the dog, though premiums will be slightly reduced if you have your dog neutered and microchipped.

At the time of writing, Moneywise asked for an online quote from Petplan for insuring a one-year-old labrador, which was neutered and living in London. We were quoted £25.77 a month, with £75 excess, on Petplan's Essential policy, which covers £3,000 per condition for
12 months. At the top end of the scale, Petplan's Ultimate Covered4life policy would cost £75.91 a month, with £110 excess, to cover up to £12,000 worth of vets' fees a year.

When considering pet insurance, take a look at Marks & Spencer, which won the Most Trusted Pet Insurance Provider in the Moneywise Customer Service Awards 2014. Runners-up were Argos, Direct Line, Petplan and Tesco Bank.

Rescue dogs

If you – or your family – have set your heart on getting a dog for Christmas, then one way to cut costs – and improve a dog's life – is to adopt a rescue dog.

"Rescue dogs are a bargain and there are thousands across the UK who are desperately wanting loving homes," says Abraham. "It's a bit of a myth that rescue animals are bad pets. With most pets in rescue, the owners have died or have gone into temporary accommodation, or perhaps they've had a child who's allergic. If you adopt from a rescue centre, you are saving a life."

When you re-home a rescue dog, you will have to pay an adoption fee of around £150, and for that you get a dog that has been neutered, vaccinated, microchipped, wormed, and examined and treated by a vet. It will usually be house-trained and behaviourally assessed. So for less than £200, you will have a dog that has already had several hundred pounds worth of treatment that you would otherwise have to pay for.

Battersea, for example, charges £135 for a dog and £165 for a puppy (under six months old). This fee includes microchipping, neutering or spaying, initial vaccinations, a collar, identification tag and lead, and one month's free insurance with Petplan.

Puppy farms

A growing number of puppies advertised online, in classified ads and found in pet shops and garden centres are bred in massive agricultural sheds in Ireland and Wales. Now puppy farm dealers from Eastern Europe are undercutting Welsh and Irish pups, forcing animal welfare standards to fall even further.

Abraham says: "Beware of puppies being shipped across from Romania, Lithuania and Hungary and sold in pet shops or by fake breeders. People perceive breeds such as French bulldogs and pugs as 'exotic' because they've come from hundreds of miles away. They think they've got a bit of a bargain but it's only when they get it home do they realise that it's riddled with disease, will need £1,000 to £3,000 worth of veterinary bills and will probably die within days."

Rob Young, head of rehoming at Battersea, adds: "If you do want to buy from a private breeder, we'd suggest going to a responsible and registered breeder and asking to see the puppy early in its life before going to collect it so that you can also meet the mum and see what conditions the dogs are living in.

"Buying a dog from small ads or the internet can be risky, as you only have the seller's word on everything from the breed, to the age, to the health and temperament of the dog."

How to buy a puppy

TV vet and founder of Pup Aid (pupaid.org) Marc Abraham (pictured) has the following tips:

  • The golden rule is that you should always see the puppy interacting with its mum. Don't buy from a pet shop, garden centre or a website or anywhere where you can't see mum and pup together. Go to your local animal rescue centre – it's a myth that you need to buy a puppy from a breeder.
  • Always ask to see health certificates – a responsibly bred pedigree pup will usually have records of eye tests, elbow tests and hip tests, for instance.
  • Verify information: if the breeder says a dog is Kennel Club registered, phone the Kennel Club and check it out.
  • Visit the environment the puppy was bred in – go and see it a few times. You should be interviewed as much by the breeder as you are asking questions of them.
  • Beware of people selling more than one breed of dog. A responsible dog breeder will only work with one breed. When you go into their house, they'll have rosettes from shows and photos all over their walls of the breed they are selling. Any dog breeder selling more than one or two breeds should sound massive alarm bells – they're doing it for the money.
  • If you say to the breeder "if things don't work out, can I bring it back?" a responsible breeder will usually agree to this.
  • Be extra careful when buying designer cross-breeds such as cockapoos and labradoodles. If you want to buy a designer dog – and the cockapoo is the most searched dog breed on the internet at the moment – you must see the puppy interacting with its mother.
  • When answering an online or classified advert for a puppy, Google the breeder's phone number. Most serial puppy farm dealers will have done this for a while – finding pages of ads for different litters is a telltale sign of an irresponsible seller/breeder.

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