On the spectrum of compassion for fellow humans, I fall somewhere between Daniel Plainview and Vegeta, Prince of All Saiyans. I’m ruthless and self-interested and generally take a dim view of the collective worth of mankind. But like many a cold-hearted misanthrope, I’m a secret, tenderhearted lover of animals. In fact, I’m a big gay pussy for animals and I can say that because <flashes QUEER WOMAN CARD>. Pets are the fucking best.
As bikevangelist Mister Money Mustache points out in his infuriating-but-factually-correct Great News! Dog Ownership is Optional!, ownership of pets is expensive, lifestyle-altering, and entirely optional. Americans spend over $60 billion every year on their pets. It’s an enormous financial and logistical commitment that should be thoroughly explored before adding pets to your family.
Which is why I’ve set out to rank the financial efficiency of the most common kinds of household pets.
The methodology of ranking pets
There are five metrics that go into this score: companionship, utility, time, lifespan, and cost. I’ve assumed the hypothetical ideal pet loves you with all the platonic passion of a Nicholas Sparks protagonist, cooks your breakfast for you, takes care of itself, lives a good long time, and costs nothing at all. Each of these pets is judged on a scale of zero to five, as outlined below.
0: Cannot be touched, does not recognize or react to you
1: Cannot be touched, but recognizes or reacts to you
2: Can be touched, avoidant or fearful of touch
3: Can be touched, neutral to touch
4: Can be touched, enjoys touch
5: Independently seeks out and initiates prolonged touch
Obviously all pets are different. One of my guinea pigs flees from my hand as from a hawk’s talon; the other one falls asleep on my chest, licking my hand like a dog. The former would be a 2 on this scale, the latter a 4.5. I rank based on the average of the range of personalities, not their outliers.
0: No utilitarian value, drains household resources
1: Is pleasing or peaceful to passively observe
2: Contributes rarely to the household
3: Contributes occasionally to the household
4: Contributes daily to the household
5: Contributes daily to the household in multiple dimensions
Both cats and dogs can drive pest mice from a house, but only the dog can drive burglars from the same house. They both get good utility scores, but the dog’s is higher because there’s a broader range of helpful actions it can be trained to perform. Pets that passively produce (like chickens with eggs) rank higher than animals that require husbandry (like goats with milk). My assumption is that no pets would be considered for slaughter and consumption… despite how scrumptious my guinea pigs look. (Ugh. They’re like fat little steaks wearing sexy woman wigs.)
I gave all pets a baseline score of a half point, because I see inherent utilitarian value in the act of caring for another living creature. No matter how little or how much work is involved, it cultivates responsibility and a sense of engagement.
0: Requires more than two hours of labor per day
1: Requires one hour of labor per day
2: Requires thirty minutes of labor per day
3: Requires ten minutes of labor per day
4: Requires five minutes of labor per day
5: Requires zero minutes of labor per day
Again, I’ve averaged things out based on the general behaviors of each species. Some dogs need several hours of exercise every day, and some need to be pried off the couch with a lever and fulcrum. The time metric is limited to the amount of time you need to invest to keep the animal alive and healthy: feeding and watering it, cleaning up its waste, grooming it, etc. It doesn’t factor in elective fun time beyond the amount the animal needs to stay sane and physically healthy.
0: Lives 1 year or less or more than 60 years
1: Lives 3 years or 50 years
2: Lives 5 years or 40 years
3: Lives 10 years or 30 years
4: Lives 15 years or 25 years
5: Lives 20 years
This one was interesting. I initially envisioned this as a straightforward scale where the ideal age of a pet is 20+ years. However, there are a few pets on this list that can theoretically outlive human beings. This seems like a really daunting commitment.
This is very woo-woo and unscientific, but I decided that a twenty-year commitment seemed best as that’s about how long our own human offspring rely on us. I think you could make the argument that’s the length of time our brains are hardwired to focus on nurturing another creature. The cat I got when I was eight years old lived to see me married. That seemed like a really lovely amount of time, and I felt I couldn’t possibly ask for any more. But my childhood dog only lived half as long, and I felt like she left me far too soon.
0: Costs $20,000 or more over its lifetime
1: Costs $10,000 over its lifetime
2: Costs $5,000 over its lifetime
3: Costs $2,500 over its lifetime
4: Costs $1,000 over its lifetime
5: Costs less than $500 over its lifetime
I blush at the amount of research that went into this section. The two most puzzling factors were the initial cost of the animal and cost of veterinary care. Ultimately I decided to only assume spay/neuter procedures and regular vet checkups for animals that were expected to live over ten years. (There’s nothing wrong with taking your pet mouse to the vet, but that seems like an extravagance for an animal that would only live to see two annual checkups anyway.)
Ultimately, I didn’t factor in the original cost of the animal at all. My local animal shelter has a program that gives senior horses away to good homes for free, but a serious competitive rider can easily spend tens of thousands of dollars on a promising jumper. The range is just too great. In general, adopting pets from your local shelter is not just the most compassionate and moral option, but also the cheapest.
Pets by the numbers
Before we get to the results, check out our other very controversial opinions on pets!
- Twelve Reasons Senior Pets Are an Awesome Investment
- So I Got Chickens, Part 1: Return on Investment
- Pet Insurance: Is It Worth It?
- So I Got Chickens, Part 2: Tragedies and Lessons Learned
- Clementine: A Heartwarming Case Study in Risk Taking
- So I Got Chickens, Part 3: Baby’s First Egg
Ranking pets: The results
Total score: 7.75
The poor tortoise comes in dead last. Aesop could not be reached for comment.
My neighbor actually owns a pet tortoise. We only know because it escaped one day. I cannot tell you how surreal it was to drive down a quiet suburban lane and see a living dinosaur of rideable size lumbering across a manicured lawn. I wrenched the steering wheel out of my partner’s hand screaming, “GIANT TURTLE, BANG A UEY!”
The main factor in the tortoise’s rock-bottom score is its lifespan. These unstoppable badasses can live a century. A century! Technically I think that makes YOU the tortoise’s pet.
Obviously, signing up for a pet that could easily outlive you is a drawback. Its modest yearly upkeep (around $225) becomes rather unmanageable stretched over so many decades. If it weren’t for this, the tortoise would reign among reptiles: low-maintenance, adaptable, and moderately companionable.
#29: Amphibians (TIE)
Total score: 8.25
There was no appreciable cost difference between newts, salamanders, toads, and frogs, so I clumped them together.
Even the most ardent amphibian sub-Redditors affirmed they are neither affectionate nor useful. Aquarium maintenance is a time-suck, requiring manual labor, research, and specialty equipment.
Also, the most time- and cost-efficient way of providing them with live food is to buy a separate terrarium for crickets. So this pet requires… other pets? Other pets that will hide behind your toilet and chirp for the next two months if they escape? No thanks.
#29: Tarantulas (TIE)
Total score: 8.25
See above. Not affectionate, not useful, and not especially cheap.
I did some research into why tarantula owners like their charges, and found this excellent explanation:
“Well i like tarantulas because most look nice act mean and are really cool. I am also an awesome person.”
… Well, there you go!
Update: The MacElroy Brothers have really rounded out this conversation with a deep dive into the the rancho phenomenon which is now recommended reading for would-be tarantulateers.
#27 Saltwater Fish
Total score: 9.75
I’m bummed fish ranked so low, because aquariums are objectively beautiful. They’re also a great option for people with super severe allergies.
The issue with fish and other creatures with longer lifespans is that it’s harder to diagnose and treat their health problems. A dog is pretty explicit. He whines, limps, stops eating, falls to the ground with all four feet pointed upward as a single cartoon daisy pushes out of his chest, etc. It takes a much sharper eye to detect a fish in distress. Even then, you can’t exactly bring your angelfish to the vet for surgery.
Fish also require more equipment to keep alive than any other animal on this list. They live one power outage away from death. So metal.
#26 Freshwater Fish
Total score: 10.00
Freshwater fish are a bit hardier than saltwater fish, netting them a higher spot.
Upon leaving my much-hated hometown, I impulsively “rescued” a betta fish from the aquarium section of a 24-hour Walmart. He traveled with me to college in a Nalgene bottle and lived in a ten-gallon aquarium on my desk for many years. He was a good little fish.
Total score: 11.00
I used bearded dragons as a popular representative of pet lizards.
Lizards, like amphibians, are generally understood to lack the capacity for affection. They’re more affordable and require less maintenance than creatures of similar size that require watery habitats, but they’re similarly finicky about temperature and food. That means lots of specialized equipment, which means a low cost score for animals that are neither loving nor useful.
#24 Mice (TIED)
Total score: 11.50
Our first mammal! On the plus side, mice are extremely cute. They’ve also adapted to live in small spaces, which makes them cheaper and easier to maintain. On the downside, they live very short lives and are generally nocturnal and skittish, giving their owners very little chance to meaningfully interact with them. They aren’t really domesticated so much as bred in captivity and treated gently.
I’ve never technically owned pet mice, but sharing space with pest mice is an inevitable part of city living, and I’ve gotten strangely attached to them. They really are quite cute. Staying up all night writing term papers in a crumbling city dormitory, I used to feel like some kind of urban Disney princess, scattering Goldfish crackers in their direction and freeing them from glue-traps.
On the list of my favorite roommates, “Unspecified Mice” rank squarely in the middle.
#24 Hamsters (TIED)
Total score: 11.50
Hamsters live a bit longer than mice (three years versus two), which is a plus, but they also require a bit more space than mice. Otherwise, they’re quite similar. Both are nocturnal and skittish, limiting opportunities for interacting with the animals on their terms. A patient owner can certainly handle them, but they’re unlikely to independently seek interaction with humans.
Total score: 11.75
Ants place this high on the list because they have outstanding scores in both time and cost metrics. In fact, ants were so cheap I actually broke my own model in order to give them a bonus point. Their lifetime maintenance cost is generously estimated at $10. The next creature down was close to $500. If you want a cheap, no-maintainence pet with all the personality of a houseplant, start an ant farm!
Total score: 12.00
I use “parrots” as a general term for large, intelligent tropical birds. (Specifically a cockatoo, a popular representative.)
Parrot-like birds score badly for many reasons. They’re nearly as long-lived as the tortoise: fifty or more years. They’re also the most intelligent on this list, as smart as human toddlers, which means they require a lot of time for providing supervision and stimulation. They absolutely cannot sit in a cage all day, but because they aren’t domesticated, they can also wreck a house if not properly trained and monitored. Owners of these birds spend more than any other pet owner at the vet’s office. They’re prone to health issues and extremely sensitive to stress. As a Humane Society volunteer, I used to get these birds surrendered after they’d plucked out all their feathers from stress bordering on insanity. Sad!
For these reasons, I personally don’t think it’s ethical to keep them as pets. They can certainly be well-kept and loved by human caretakers, but I wouldn’t feel right encouraging anyone to acquire one. In general, a flying toddler who costs ten thousand dollars and lives for sixty years is not a good investment.
#20 Snakes (TIED)
Total score: 12.50
I wanted a rosy boa so bad as a kid. They’re beautiful, soft and silky, and generally mild-tempered and open to handling. They don’t need to be fed as frequently as mammals, which means their waste accumulates more slowly, requiring less frequent cleaning. They’re also silent and generally cause zero damage to the household. Overall, snakes are the lowest maintenance reptile.
I cannot encourage you enough to consider a small, nonvenomous snake indigenous to your area. Boa constrictors and ball pythons are not on this continent for your amusement. Chill out, smoke some weed, and stick with corn snakes.
#20 Hedgehogs (TIED)
Total score: 12.50
Prickly, intimidating quills. A perfect baby fox face. Stupid button eyes. Tiny grunts. Weirdly long tongues. Hedgehogs are revoltingly cute.
The main things working against hedgehogs are their short lifespan (three to five years) and uneven temperaments. I’ve known a few who were curious and easy to handle, but more who were… um, grumpy.
Did you know hedgehogs hiss? And bite? And poop in a combative fashion? It’s considered normal for a “pet” hedgehog to do these things. They may never trust you enough to be handled. This might make them seem less like pets and more like grouchy roommates.
#18 Turtles (TIED)
Total score: 12.75
The greatest episode of House Hunters is unquestionably the episode where a luxury-obsessed, conventionally attractive Southern Belle searches for a house for herself, her two beloved turtles, and her complete afterthought of a boyfriend. The turtles go wherever she goes. She kisses them on their slick pebbly heads. And while she contemplates which house to buy, they frolic across her lap in a public park.
“So what to you guys think?” she drawls, consulting turtles Cass and Sammie. Finally she turns to her lame boyfriend and translates: “I think it’s pretty obvious. They want the mansion.”
Turtles live much briefer lives than tortoises, which greatly improves their score. Their diet can also be supplemented by cheap and easily-available cat food, which makes them easier to care for than any other tank-dwellers.
#18 Pigs (TIED)
Total score: 12.75
Pigs make surprisingly good pets. We’re talking about the potbellied variety. They’re affectionate, highly intelligent (the second smartest, after parrots), and can be house trained. Of all the farm animals, their utility score is lowest. They can’t be ridden, milked, trained to protect other livestock, or even provide useable manure. (Their classical utility is to be eaten, which is not factored into this list.)
There’s one big expense that isn’t reflected in the scores for the farm animals, and that’s space. I have to assume anyone considering a farm animal has adequate fenced-in space. There’s just no practical way of factoring in that kind of data. But I’m assuming everyone already knows these are absolutely not apartment pets.
#16 Hermit Crabs (TIED)
Total score: 13.00
I was kind of horrified to learn that hermit crabs live for 30 years, because I’ve never known one to live past six months. That’s probably because the containers they’re sold in at boardwalks and pet stores are deceptive. Hermit crabs require a much more complex environment, including constant warmth and high humidity. So they require the specialized equipment that holds other pets down.
Despite that, they’re easier to care for than all other semi-aquatic pets. Any owner who cares enough about them to read a book or a few online guides will realize how easy they are to keep alive. They require very little by way of substrate and food, and very little time each day, making hermit crabs one of the most economical of all pets. They’re also easily the most adorable crustacean.
#16 Rats (TIED)
Total score: 13.00
Finally! Our first legit cuddly animal!
Rats have a lot going for them. (Technically they’re ~*fancy rats*~ to differentiate them from the miniature-pony-sized creepers chilling on the train tracks, eating their own kind like “go on, judge me.”) They’re intelligent and can be trained to perform tricks. Rats recognize their owners and will often seek them out and even attempt to groom them.
Overall they’re inexpensive, though their short lifespans (only two or three years) are a major drawback. Their health is also far more delicate than you’d expect. They are very susceptible to respiratory infections.
#16 Horses (TIED)
Total score: 13.00
Shut your mouth and listen. Horses are amazing. Proof: they’re fast, they’re free, they’re wild, they’re powerful, they’re beautiful, they have perfect hair, they’re kith to unicorns, they make you very tall, they smell good, they don’t see race.
The horse received one of only three perfect scores for utility. Along with perfect-scorers dog and chicken, equine utility has shaped human history and culture. The horse’s ability to carry a human is a feat that took human invention six thousand years to replicate in the automobile. They also make excellent manure, carry heavy loads, assist with farm and civic work, and open up options for hiking and travel.
They hit other metrics too. A horse can easily live past twenty-five years. And they’re affectionate: I used to walk my dog past a neighbor’s farm, and her horses would come to the fence to greet me every time. I never had any snacks, but they’d walk next to me simply because they liked company.
Though a horse enthusiast from a young age, I’ve never owned a horse, and there’s a reason for that. Their annual upkeep costs more than any other animal on this list. Horses require acres of fenced space, large vehicles, regular care from a vet and farrier, expensive tack, and a tremendous amount of food. Alas! I’ll never own a horse, and I’ll never be at peace with it.
#13 Chinchillas (TIED)
Total score: 13.25
Chinchillas are among the longest-lived of the small mammals. They’re boisterous, funny, and cute, and their maintenance costs are on-par with other mammals of their size. Though very active, they’re quiet and odor-free. If I knew that life on earth was about to come to an end, I would probably just sit and watch a chinchilla taking a dust bath until Melancholia crashed into us.
The main reason chinchillas don’t make fantastic pets is that they’re quite skittish. They can be inquisitive and even bold, but they almost never enjoy being held or cuddled. They’re also crepuscular, meaning they’re active mainly at dawn and dusk, and prefer quiet during the day. You’ll easily meet their exercise requirements chasing them around the house to get them back in their cage. And for odor-free animals, they’re messy; they spray urine when annoyed, and their adorable dust baths make a tremendous mess.
One big factor in the utility score that has’t come up yet is the ability to compost waste. There are seven animals that make awesome manure: four farm animals and three small mammals. Chinchilla manure is GREAT.
#13 Ferrets (TIED)
Total score: 13.25
One of the greatest accomplishments of my young life was manipulating my divorcing parents into getting me a ferret. What can I say? Slytherins are born, not made.
Ferrets are playful, curious, smart, friendly, and affectionate. But my favorite thing is they’re weird. They’re like tiny cokeheads straight out of 1985. Release one from its cage and it will scurry up your leg and jackknife off into your trash can. Their mischievousness is a double-edged sword, because they’re also draining and occasionally destructive. Any cabinet without a childproof lock will be opened, and they’ll steal anything not nailed down. On the plus side, they’ll hunt any pest mice to extinction, giving their utility score a boost.
Ferrets are also smelly due to a strong, naturally-occurring musk. Their litter-use is also not as reliable as rabbits or cats. Definite not for everyone.
#11 Songbirds (TIED)
Total score: 13.50
This category is comprised of small birds like canaries, budgies, and finches. They score much higher than their larger counterparts for several reasons: They live manageable lifespans, are prone to fewer health problems, need less space and attention, and are generally much cheaper and easier to care for. The trade-off is that they’re not as bright, and thus not as attached to their humans.
Their cages need to be cleaned, but doing so is a snap compared to animals that burrow into shavings. They do fling seeds around, but the mess they create takes five minutes or less to clean per day. Their food is cheap and their cages and toys affordable. Most owners do not bother with veterinary care unless a specific issue comes up. In return for a small amount of care, they’re beautiful to look at and fill your home with glorious music.
#11 Gerbils (TIED)
Total score: 13.50
A lot of people don’t know the difference between gerbils and hamsters (gerbils have tails). So what makes them markedly better pets?
First of all, they’re diurnal, meaning they cycle through sleeping and waking every hour or two throughout the day so they’re more likely to be awake with you. Gerbils live in larger groups, so they’re more gregarious with humans. They bite less than hamsters and are more accepting of attention and touch. Hamsters fight with each other, even killing and eating one another; gerbils think that’s messed up.
And even though they live a full year longer on average, gerbils take up less time. As desert creatures, gerbils produce less waste. They also don’t have the hamster’s cheek-pouch/food-hiding impulse, which keeps their cage cleaner.
In short, gerbils are awesome little creatures. I recommend them as a first-time pet for responsible children. I’ve seen lots of kids lose interest in things like snakes and mice, but gerbils have a lot of personality and are well worth the modest labor required.
#9 Dairy Cow
Total score: 14.00
I researched smaller dairy breeds like Jerseys and Dexters. I cannot recommend keeping full-size cattle as pets unless you really know what you’re doing. If your dog greets you with too much affection, you might get a scratch on your leg; but if your steer greets you with too much affection, you might need spinal surgery.
If you’re committed to homesteading, owning a dairy cow is a huge commitment. They must be milked twice a day at minimum (every four to six hours is better), and you’ll have to keep them pregnant at consistent intervals to keep producing milk. They also produce much more than most single families can use, so you need a scheme to deal with the surplus. And of course they need a larger amount of food and land than most people can offer.
That said, dairy cows are sweet and gentle. They will affectionately follow you around the field, scratching their big heads against you and licking your hand. And they get top marks for cuteness. I can’t even with their shiny black eyes. And if you’re willing to go through the husbandry process, an excess of farm-fresh milk is a wonderful problem to have.
#8 Rabbit (TIED)
Total score: 14.50
Rabbits make great apartment animals because they’re quiet and don’t need a huge amount of space. They can use a litter box and should be allowed to roam freely for at least part of the day. Like chinchillas, they’re crepuscular. A well-socialized rabbit is snuggly and enjoys quiet human interaction. They’re not the cheapest pets, but they live a good long time and bond to their owners. (They’re also the most abandoned animal, after cats and dogs, so getting one cheaply and humanely from a rescue organization is a great option.) Rabbits will help you go through fruit and vegetable waste, and they produce great manure.
On the downside, their urine has a strong smell and they can chew inappropriately. Many are fine with being near their owner, but prefer not to be held. Some are aggressive, and some are so skittish they can be frightened to death. They’re not good fits for noisy or boisterous homes, and they’re not fans of strangers, even if the stranger lingers by the bed for half an hour, murmuring soft bunny-positive words. I’ve looked into this extensively. Emoticon with single tear.
#8 Llama (TIED)
Total score: 14.50
Are you surprised to see llamas so high on the list? They’re awesome pets for a very specific kind of owner.
Personality-wise, think of a llama as a six-foot-tall slightly aloof dog. They’re tremendously brave, keenly intelligent, and as livestock guardians they’re as reliable as dogs. That’s right: if you keep a few goats, sheep, or chickens, stick a llama in their pen and you’ll never lose another animal to predators! They’ll run off wolves, coyotes, foxes, eagles, and hawks. Additionally, they make great wool and can pull carts or carry heavy loads. They’re hardy mountain creatures who can cope with a wide range of temperatures and climates, making their care relatively cheap for such a large animal.
You need an acre of land to support one, and its adult weight is 300-400 pounds. This will exclude it as an option for many people, which is a shame, because llamas are exactly as cool as The Emperor’s New Groove said they were.
Notable mention: Alpacas
Alpacas are kin to llamas. They’re smaller, about a third the height and weight. (Llamas look you in the eye, alpacas look you in the nipple. MY EYES ARE UP HERE, ALPACAS.) They’re also more docile and timid than their larger cousins, which is a mixed bag. They don’t have the boldness and strong personalities of llamas, but they’re less willful and a little cheaper due to their smaller size.
#6 Guinea Pig
Total score: 14.75
I own two rescued guinea pigs. I am a thirty-year-old woman. And I am very cool and anyone who doesn’t think so is (a) jealous and (b) a hater.
The guinea pig is the top-ranked small animal for great reasons. Like the gerbil, they’re diurnal. Also like gerbils, they’re naturally social. They live in herds and can learn to accept a human as part of the crew. They’re friendly and quirky and weird. They make hilarious noises. They look like wigs with eyes! Because they’ve been bred in captivity for thousands of years, they’re generally both healthy and docile. While they aren’t quite as long-lived as rabbits, they still live significantly longer than other rodents.
Guinea pigs are just like us in that they cannot manufacture vitamin C, so they will happily live on apple cores, orange peels, lettuce stumps, broccoli stems, carrot greens, bean stalks, and other crap you’d otherwise throw away. In exchange they give you top-notch manure.
Because they can’t climb or jump high like other rodents, their cages can be built out of flexible, reusable materials. (Mine live in an enormous carved wardrobe, with little ramps built across each floor. It’s very Narnian.) They don’t require litter or substrate, just cheap and washable fleece bedding. Unlike rabbits, their urine doesn’t stink. They need a bath only rarely, but long-haired varieties do need occasional haircuts. I still feel really bad about the full Flock of Seagulls I gave to one of mine last summer.
If you worry about the responsibility of a pet, get a guinea pig. These fuckers won’t let you get away with shit. They recognize the sound of produce bags rustling from rooms away and will trumpet loudly to remind you of your Faustian agreement to keep them alive.
#5 Goat (TIED)
Total score: 15.00
Are you ready to live deliciously? Interested in a back-to-the-land, grow-your-own-food experience in suburbia? Get a goat.
They’re superbly useful in several dimensions: as living weed-whackers, garbage disposals, sources of manure, and milk and cheese producers. (The last requires husbandry, which did lower its score—I consider the breeding of animals a bit above-and-beyond what most people sign up for.)
Goats are super-duper cute and have strong personalities. They scream like weird humans. And they parkour off of other goats. They have rectangular pupils. They’re always asking you funny questions like “Wouldst thou like the taste of butter?” As herd animals, they’re naturally attention-seeking and gregarious. They like humans and don’t mind being petted, picked-up, and handled.
Small breeds like pygmies and Nigerian Dwarfs never get larger than a medium-size dog. Their space needs are conservative at fifty square feet, yet they still manage to create enough milk to feed a family. Truly, goats are an incredible example of harmonious domestication.
#5 Honeybees (TIED)
Total score: 15.00
Although bees ofter no companionship or affection, they produce a steady supply of honey, which can be consumed, gifted, or sold. The initial investment to get a hive going is high, and it’s recommended you not purchase used materials as you may unintentionally spread whatever bee-disease made them empty. But after this initial investment, bees require only 15-30 hours of attention every year, and a queen will live for 3-4 years. They’ll also pollinate any flowers or fruit trees you grow nearby.
If your neighbors are gardeners they’ll love you; if your neighbors are parents they’ll hate you; and if your neighbors are the hot, mean sister from Ever After, they’ll abuse their step-siblings and blame it on you. So messed up.
If you prize a low-maintenance and deeply useful animal but don’t particularly crave affection or interaction, bees are easily the best choice. I don’t keep bees myself, but I’ve designed my garden to attract as many of them as possible.
Total score: 16.25
Chickens get top utility scores because they passively and naturally do amazing things. Obviously they produce eggs, one of the most useful kitchen staples. They eat fleas, ticks, aphids, snakes, mice, and other hazards. Hens are fairly cheap and easy to maintain, and need very little land compared to other farmyard critters. They’re a bit messy and smelly, but they’re meant to live exclusively outside anyway.
Chickens are quirky little dinosaurs with strange habits and individual personalities, which is integral to the whole Pet Experience. They’re generally docile and will sit in your lap, accepting strokes. We’re talking hens, though. Roosters are territorial, and will even show their owners the business-end of their painful leg spurs. It’s a trade-off because roosters will protect hens from predators. In general they’re not recommended for first-time chicken owners.
The trickiest part of raising hens is figuring out what to do with them when they stop laying eggs. Most hens lay heavily for three to four years, sporadically for five to seven years, and will die at between nine and ten years. If you’re interested in them purely as pets, no problem. But if you’re in it for the eggs, might as well man up and eat them when they hit menopause. After all, that’s what society does to human women! Unless you’re a vegan, you’re already killing chickens—you’re just outsourcing the act of slaughter. If you raise them yourself, at least you’ll know that they had a great life and a quick death.
Total score: 16.75
Jesus, I don’t have to sell you on dogs, do I? Dogs have been humankind’s companions for fifteen millennia. Owning a dog releases so much stress that your risk of heart disease and high blood pressure go down. They ease social isolation and get you up off the couch and out of the house. They provide enormous benefit to society by acting as therapists, police, pest control, search and rescue, detectors, shepherds, guards, and guides.
YOU CAN TRAIN THEM TO BRING YOU BEERS. DOGS RULE, OKAY?
Dogs get full marks for utility, and are the only pet to get a perfect score in companionship. There are only two factors that hold it back from the top spot.
The (only?) problems with dogs
The first is that their time investment is higher than many pets. Most need two walks per day plus some human-directed exercise. A dog is a commitment to be home at least once every eight hours, which is a daunting commitment for plenty of folks.
The second drawback is their lifespan. Veterinarians agree that smaller dogs and mutts typically live longer than large dogs or purebreds. A little terrier mix can live for sixteen or more years, but a Great Dane is pretty lucky to hit seven. The average lifespan is eleven to thirteen years, which just isn’t enough time to enjoy all the blessings that a dog can bestow upon you.
Which brings us to our #1 most financially efficient pet…
#1 Cats, motherfuckers
Total score: 17.75
It’s cats, motherfuckers!
I want to speak to the cat-haters for just a moment, before you skip down to the comments to flay me into rawhide. I love dogs. I’ve owned many dogs and I’ve fostered almost thirty. Okay? Dog-loving credentials established.
But dogs are pack animals. Millions of years of dog biology drives them to seek companionship and social harmony. When a dog loves a human, it’s at least partially because it’s easy and natural for it to do so. Cats, on the other hand, are independent hunters. When a cat loves a human, it’s actually working against its biology to do so. Think about that, okay? Because it’s pretty cool.
Yes, cats are not as immediately social as dogs. They range in personality type from asshole to wet lap puddle, giving us an average companionship score that’s a full point lower than a dog. Their utility scores are also lower, because although they’re great mousers and bug-catchers, they don’t have the dog’s drive for obedience, making them less versatile.
Give cats a chance
Cat vet bills are also a bit higher over their lifetimes—but that’s only because they live significantly longer. An indoor-only cat should have no trouble hitting fifteen years, and many hit twenty or more. Their annual upkeep is cheaper than dogs, mostly because an indoor-only cat doesn’t need to take regular medication (unlike dogs, who must have flea, tick, and heartworm medication administered monthly). In fact, my vet just advised us to dial back our cat’s yearly physical to once every three years and cease all vaccinations other than rabies. That means my cat now costs six times less than one of my dogs at the vet’s office.
Where the cat really shines is in the amount of time it takes to take care of them. Cats need three things to get along in a household: food, water, and a clean litter box. Providing those three things takes me about ten minutes every week. In exchange for those ten minutes, you get almost two decades of companionship. It’s nowhere near the amount of time required by most animals on this list. You can even head out of town for the weekend without hiring a pet sitter. Leave extra food and water and most cats will take care of themselves.
A cat’s ultra-fast metabolism means they spend more than half of each day sleeping. This makes them awesome pets for people who don’t have a lot of time to devote but still want companionship.
Final thoughts on pets
I walked into an animal shelter last year intending to get the hardest-luck cat they had. I walked out with a fourteen-year-old with crippling shyness and alopecia. She had an evil face and peach-fuzz continents of baldness stretching across her body. She spent our entire meeting crammed in a corner, hissing. The whole effect was very Fun Size™ Lord Voldemort. I brought her home and let her go free under my bed, thinking I might rarely see her. I was fine with having a cat whose only presence in my life was a slight dip in the food bowl.
Three days later, she emerged from underneath my bed and completely transformed my expectations of what a pet cat could be.
When I get home from work, she rushes to greet me with tiny birdlike chirps. When she wants attention, she extends her paw and gently taps me on the leg or the shoulder. She sleeps on my face and vibrates with violent purring. She has made herself the mother of our dogs—even our foster dogs—by kneading them, licking them, and sleeping on top of them. Sometimes I even catch her in the guinea pig cage, limbs folded beneath her, glowering beatifically as the guinea pigs chew on her fur.
She contributed many a /.l;;;;;;; and 21333333refdd to the writing of this article. Bless her. I hope I get a few more happy years with her.
Money aside… get some pets, y’all
I love all of my pets, past and present. Caring for them has taught me so many things. The weight of responsibility. The constancy of real love. The Vitamin C content of spinach. The pain of saying goodbye.
I love animals at least 30% too much. I have spent thousands of hours and thousands of dollars over my lifetime rescuing animals in need. I’ve done illegal things to rescue animals—that’s “illegal things,” plural.
I could and should work to dial it back, but I don’t and I won’t. Empathy and compassion don’t come naturally to me. I tend to be unsympathetic to humans because humans have agency whereas animals do not. That lack of agency seems to be what triggers an out-of-character flood of human feelings in my cold, titanium bosom. As I pursue my calling to be caring toward animals, I grow in my ability to be more flexible and forgiving of human failings.
Pets absolutely can fit into a frugal lifestyle. Their benefits are myriad and proven by both anecdote and science. And ultimately, everything is worth what you pay for it. My pets get me out of bed when I’m tired. My dogs make me leave the house when I’m feeling blue. The cat inspires me to be my best, most loving self. My guinea pigs educate me on what it’s like to be in an emotionally abusive relationship—very enlightening, you controlling little narcissists! My empathy for the downtrodden grows every day, you waddling pot roasts with silky woman hair!
Tell us about your pet below. Do you agree with our methodology? (I know you don’t, but whatever, where’s YOUR methodology, HUH?) Has your little investment performed well? How do you measure its success? How cute is it? Please describe it in detail, especially if it is a cow or a hedgehog, because I think they’re the cutest.