There’s No Such Thing as a Free Puppy

According to the media, our economy is experiencing financial recovery, yet so many people are still struggling to make ends meet. How do I know this? For starters, the most hits I receive on my website consistently come to the page titled, “Financial Assistance for Veterinary Care”. Here visitors find a list of organizations that provide financial assistance to help pay for veterinary care. Additionally I receive at least two to three emails daily from people with sick animals and no money. Here’s an example of an email I received today from Lisa:

A lady online was giving away free puppies. When we picked ours up, I noticed that she had three spots on her tail where she was missing hair. And the spots are sort of scaly- about the size of nickels and one on her back about the size of a quarter. I’ve never seen this before. I’m nervous they won’t heal up. We’ve only had Daisy for three days now and I’ve been bathing her. I’ve also been putting triple antibiotic ointment on the spots. They seem to itch her also. She is only six weeks. And she is in great health other than the spots. No fleas. I’m just curious as to what these spots could be. And what I should do about them. I don’t have the money for a vet office visit. Thank you for your help. Lisa.

Needless to say, I keyed in on, “I don’t have the money for a vet office visit.” Had I responded to Lisa with my initial gut reaction, she would have received this fiery, shouting reprimand (on line shouting accomplished by using with extra capital letters and punctuation marks):

Listen here Lisa. Skin problem aside, don’t you know that your new puppy is going to need deworming and multiple vaccinations, not to mention neutering?!? If you skip the vaccines and Daisy develops parvovirus disease, she will die a horrible death unless you come up with thousands of dollars for veterinary expenses!! What were you thinking, adopting this six week old puppy when you don’t even have enough money for an office visit?! THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A FREE PUPPY!!

No, I didn’t send this email. Instead, I did what I do on a daily basis when confronted with an “I don’t have any money” email. I take a deep breath, summon forth the grownup that lives within me, and remind myself that the proverbial horse is already out of the barn. What’s important now is to figure out how to catch the horse and repair the broken barn door.

Here is the email Lisa received from me:

Hi Lisa. Some possible causes for your new puppy’s skin problem include mange (a mite infestation), ringworm, and malnutrition. You can discontinue the bathing and antibiotic ointment for now. I recommend that you begin feeding Daisy a premium (super high quality) puppy food. If after a week the skin abnormalities have not improved or are progressing, I strongly encourage you to figure out a way to pay for a visit with a veterinarian. Here are some suggestions to make this happen. Try to find a vet clinic with a payment plan policy. Contact your local animal shelter to see if they provide low cost services. Visit where you will find a list of organizations that may be able to provide you with some financial assistance. Lastly, it is important for you to begin strategizing how to pay for Daisy’s other health care needs. In order to keep her healthy, she will need vaccinations every three weeks until she is four months of age. These are super important to prevent distemper and parvovirus both of which are life threatening and very expensive to treat. Daisy will also need to be dewormed and neutered, receive a microchip (for identification purposes), and get started on heartworm preventive. A puppy this age requires lots of veterinary care to make sure she will remain healthy. Best of luck and enjoy you new little girl. Dr. Nancy Kay

I often contemplate whether people with very limited financial resources ought to be caring for a pet. The joy an animal can bring into the life of someone who is troubled (I suspect that most folks who are really struggling financially are troubled) is monumental. Don’t such individuals deserve to have a pet in their lives? Given the dog and cat overpopulation issue in this country, isn’t life for an animal spent with someone who is broke better than no life at all? What if social service networks existed to provide consistent assistance for pets belonging to indigent people? I will continue to ponder these issues, but am not optimistic I will arrive at any hard and fast answers any time soon.

How would you have responded to Lisa’s email?

Best wishes,

Nancy Kay, DVM

Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook

Please visit to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health.   There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at,, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.




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20 Comments on “There’s No Such Thing as a Free Puppy

  1. Bravo, Nancy! I could not have mastered yout control. However, on the other side of the coin, veterinary care has never been so high and going higher. My own veterinarian just opened his THIRD hospital….as vet costs continue to rise, animal-ownership will lessen. And when that happens, what will veterinarians do after they priced themselves out of a highly emotional and sensitive market? Go out of business?

    A highly respectable corporation which owns many animal hospitals here offers 24/7 emergency care. However, you have to put down ~$500 BEFORE they even look at your companion. If you forgot your credit card in your hurry and panic to get there, they WILL allow tha animal to suffer and in one recent case, die because a Caesarian was needed and they just waited until the owner got back with her wallet. For the sake of common sense, they had her dog as collateral, didn’t they? And someone who rushes to Emergency with a dog who suffers like this is not likely to abandon her.

    Sorry, but I see the tears are the misery when an owner can not pay $3000 to save one eye of his best friend, or when a $49 Special s/n is highly advertised and by the time it is done, the bill crept up to over $300 because they charge for everything except the air (not oxygen) the animal breathes.

  2. Dr Kay , you were “spot” on with your reply.

  3. I am president of Welsh Corgi Rescue in my area. Several times a week I receive calls with requests for financial assistance. Unfortunately we cannot provide the assistance. We have a small budget and use this for our rescue dogs. I try my best to refer to other organizations, and now Care Credit is available in many veterinary clinics. However, when placing one of our little ones, we have an extensive application, make home visits, and ask lots of questions. Our number one goal after placements is education. Nutrition, veterinary care, training, etc are all a part of this. More importantly we discuss the cost of ownership. We require a high quality natural food. The average vet visit, just to walk in the door, is $40-$50 in our area. Just getting a new dog means crate, food, toys, bed, lead, collar, and more. AS one person stated, adopting or buying the dog is just the beginning. I tell our adopters. no matter their income level, to start a doggy savings account. Stuff happens! Legs get broken, ears get infected, nails get torn off, and that doesn’t even cover cancer, kidney disease, etc. From my side of the fence, we get many animals with major medical issues because the owners cannot afford to care for them.

    And what breeder in their right mind would sell or give away a six week old puppy? It’s the prime starting time for socializing and learning.
    Enough said. There really is no free lunch!

  4. Your response was excellent, although the first one that you didn’t say was definitely how I felt reading the story. We see this all the time in our clinic and it’s all we can do to say – if you can’t afford veterinary care, good food, or training, why did you get a dog? (or cat). We recommend Care Credit or our state wide help program, and for a few we will work out payments. But it’s very frustrating for someone to not know that 6 weeks is too early to take a puppy, not to ask questions of the “breeder”, or to think about having the means to care for an animal.

  5. As a breeder, I spend much time on educating my families; my puppies are expensive, so most new owners are inclined to “overtreat” their pippies rather than the opposite. BUT, the cost of veterinarian care has steadily increased every year, and specialists charge more than any human doctor. My cardiologist receives around $55 from Medicare for an exam and treatment – he jokes and says he wishes he had become a vet cardiologist; my dog’s opthamologist charges $85 and on my last visit spent less than 5 mins on my aging bitch; her medication brought the charge to $179..
    My regular doctor is only paid $45 for my visits; plus she is supposed to triage and be aware of any other specialist I see and what info he provides.
    I just paid $55 for a regular puppy visit.
    If the Govt was to provide monies for doggies health care, there would be waiting periods for months – just wait until the govt provides care to you and millions more!
    Vets now provide every technique offered to humans; these treatments are huge and costly – I have families coming to me for a new puppy who have spent $10,000.00 to keep an aging pet alive a few more months.
    If most vets think you can possibly afford it, they will provide that specialized care.
    Most owners let their hearts rule their heads with a terminally ill pet -unfortunately I see few vets who recommend palliative care when it is obviously best care.
    I am disappointed and mistrustful of many Vets today!

  6. First, I commend Dr. Kay for sending such an excellent response, and to Diane’s comment that more must be done to legislate animal welfare. It makes me angry and sad to read about Lisa’s irresponsibility of getting the puppy with no ability to take care of the pup’s medical needs.

    My husband and I breed Clumber spaniels and it is very important to get a good sense (as is humanly possible) for the potential puppy parents. We have put together a three page questionnaire that every one must complete — they must also visit with our “kids” so they know how large this breed really is, plus the expense of getting a puppy from us. Since Lisa has a “free” puppy from the people whom she got her puppy from, the “breeders” obviously did not give the pup her shots, deworming, nor her microchip, as Dr. Kay made clear in her response to Lisa. The puppies from our home will only cost the new parents the puppy’s first year rabies shot. We also make it clear that our responsibility for the pup continues throughout the life on the individual. This is the mind-set that all breeders must adhere to and if they chose not to abide by these “rules” and care for the pups, they will be prosecuted. We also need help from the public to report uncaring, irresponsible breeders to the police and other agencies Involved with the welfare of animals. Thanks to Lisa for inspiring me to express my horror towards the people who gave her a so-called free puppy and for Lisa’s lack of sense in getting the pup.

  7. I could not agree more!

    I am running the Boxer Rescue Network in Facebook trying to help finding good homes for boxers in shelters, pounds and rescues.

    Why did they end up there? It definitely was not their fault.

    Their owners did not realise that a dog needs veterinary attention, good quality food (which reduces future vet costs), training, exercise and yes, a dog will also be there when people plan to go away for a holiday or will have a baby.

    This lady clearly got her dog from a backyard breeder which only adds to the problem of overpopulated shelters.

    Giving a dog a home is a responsibility like having children. Unfortunately for the dogs, everyone can just go a purchase one or even get one for free!

    It has to change at the roots, no dog should be for free any more, breeders need tough regulations and no one else but a breeder should be allowed to breed dogs.

    There will be less dogs around, but at least they have a better chance of a good and happy life!

  8. With all due respect, Daisy does not NEED to be sterilized. She needs to have her reproduction controlled by her owner by whatever means her owner choses whether that be a fence or a leash.

  9. I hope I would have answered the way you did. If there is any chance the person will hear what is being said and make changes, it is important not to put them on the defensive. They’ll just think you are a mean, snobby jerk and discount the information you are trying to get across. I don’t know if that person was able to act on the information you shared, but you sure gave it the college try. Thanks for that.

    That said, a while back I was in a pet supply store and a young couple came in cradling a small puppy. The woman asked the clerk if they had anything for her puppy’s “cold.” I couldn’t take it and immediately left. I didn’t have the patience, helpfulness and kindness you demonstrated in your email, but hopefully the stunned store clerk did.

  10. Good for you for reining in the desire to flame back at Lisa! I have been in the same situation and also had to channel my inner nice person, despite how satisfying it would have been to really let the dogs off the leash.

    I think one of the central issues here is how do we see pet ownership – is it a fundamental right, or is it a privilege? I lean towards ‘privilege’, but even that requires more definition and thought – only for the rich? Only to cover the basics? Really? No pets for poor people? NONE? I can’t get my head around it, sometimes.

    Incidentally, my wife and I bought a small, used (dirt cheap) boat on eBay once after one too many glasses of wine (seriously – it cost about as much as 2 or 3 bottles of wine…) and when we took it home and found out it needed a new motor, deck and trailer, we named it the “Free Kitten”. What were we thinking!?

    This one was great and is getting shared! Thank you so much for touching on this topic, and showing us you are not afraid to take on the hard ones, Dr. Kay!

  11. I think your response was great. I run a rescue and am faced with people now and again that think we have unlimited funding and should pay their pets vet bills because they rescued the animal. (Found it, got it from a “bad” home etc.) They won’t take the creature to the appropriate shelter and place a finders hold because they don’t understand how shelters work. Nor do they understand that shelters are different from rescues with the funding they receive from property tax or animal control contracts. We, the private rescues run on private donations and the odd grant we are lucky to find. Our dear vet helps us but cannot work for free. Our donors do not wish to pay for personal pets that are not given up for adoption to a better suited home. It’s very difficult to find the mature person inside me to respond in an effective, kind but firm way to let folks know that it’s their animal and they must do right by it.
    Since we are primarily a horse rescue our stories are as big as the creatures we save. What some people think is OK, is criminal. But because animals are considered “property” they do not go to jail. Wonder how those people treat their children?

  12. My first reaction would have been like yours. If the gal can’t afford to have the skin lesions looked at, then she can’t afford all the vet care needed w/ a new puppy. Your suggestion to get a premium food won’t fly either as that cheap bag of Old Roy is probably stretching her budget already.

    Even for people with good incomes, today’s advances in vet care cost way more than is comfortable. It’s just with a good income, you have the option to move forward with the treatment. I think it is great that one can now set up an internet fund where people can help each other out.
    The corgi community has two amazing non-profits that help corgi owners in need. One supports health issues in rescued corgis and corgi mixes and is funded by donations and fund-raisers. The other sets up chip-ins for any corgi after verifying the need via the vet. They market the need via their website and Facebook and the Corgi Nation contributes what they can. It’s amazing how fast small $5 donations add up to pay big bills! I’m not sure any other breed has such a well established and successful financial aid system. Corgi people rock!

  13. Dr. Kay
    First very good article. On Dodgerslist we are faced with this every day. So many cannot pay for the expensive surgery for disc herniations or even basic vet care and meds. Right now I am dealing personally with someone who cannot pay. Husband has been laid off and she is on disability. Dog is now incontinent and she is having trouble expressing. I did contact a rescue group who someone there agreed to pay for the vet visit and the meds. People are doing the chip-in on the internet now to ask others to help.

    I ask the same question as you do. The cost of pet care has now left so many unable to afford a pet. I have had Dachshunds for over 30 years and we are now retired and I feel we could not really afford an expensive surgery or any kind of specialist care at this point. We lost our last one this Spring and it is very hard to think that it is best for us that we not have another.

    More education needs to be done on the cost of pets to the public. Really a very sad situation for all – dogs and humans.

  14. A pet is expensive. I had a co-worker that was purchasing a dog from a breeder (not a backyard breeder) ask if I thought the selling price was too much. All I could say was, in the big scheme of things, that the sales price was a mere drop in the bucket for what the true cost would be over the life of the pet.

    I have two little angels. One developed Addison’s Disease and it took two years of very frequent, expensive ER and vet visits to finally get a diagnosis. Thankfully it is something treatable and, with low dose protocols, affordable.

  15. It is an unfortunate but stark reality that finances have to be part of the decision process when we contemplate bringing a pet into our families. I am a strong believer in the power and benefit of the human animal bond and cannot fathom a day when I might not be able to have that as a part of my life.

    I think this topic also speaks to the subject of responsible/caring breeders and rescue groups vs. puppy mills and backyard breeders. The latter two do not care where or under what circumstances their puppies are placed and whether their most basic needs will be cared for.

    Responsible/caring breeders and rescsue groups on the other hand will thoroughly evaluate individuals and families on all aspects of their ability to care for the pet, make sure they understand the realities of the costs involved, remain available as a resource, and provide guidance for available programs that might help.

    The Marin Humane Society has a wonderful “Side-By-Side” program – – that assists nearly 250 low-income seniors (and their more than 300 companion animals) and others in need with pet food deliveries, transportation to the veterinarian, dog walking, pet grooming, litter box maintenance and emergency boarding of pets in the event of a client’s hospitalization.

    Adding a pet to a family is a major decision and one that must be thought out ahead of time, which obviously doesn’t occur when we walk past a store and they are giving away “free puppies”. We don’t buy a car if we cannot buy gas. If we are adding a living pet companion we certainly owe them the same consideration in making sure that we can provide for their basis needs and/or have access to resources such as the Side By Side program that can help us.

    All of our shelters welcome volunteers for foster, dog walking and socialization and could provide an opportunity for someone who truly does not have the financial resources to care for a pet to have that companionship.

  16. From your perspective, Dr. Kay, I understand it’s a very touchy subject. I adopted a 3 y/o in April. I live on an extremely limited budget and spend virtually nothing on entertainment or travel.

    My dog is bringing immeasurable happiness to me. Haven’t felt loved like this for a long time. For now I will forgo almost anything to keep her healthy and happy. DO NOT know what I’d do if she required super expensive treatment, but will face that if it comes.

    Enough from me. Off to love on my doggie.

  17. We live in a society that will always have people getting animals/pets who don’t have the education, maturity &/or finances to properly care for them. I think your answer was the best possible under the circumstances. Until there are enough laws in place regarding animal welfare with enough resources to enforce them we’ll have to rely on all the good people like you to assist & have compassion for those in need.

  18. You never can tell with a living creature! A young dog can get a cancer. An older dog can live more years than you expect with no health problems. I adopted a dog I thought was so old he wouldn’t live long; he’s still with me after 7 years – and more than $5,000 in vet bills.

  19. A tough question. I know how much my dog gives me which more than compensates for the financial stress that it has caused on occasion. That being said, I did put some thought into the type/age of dog I would get keep in mind my finances.

    When I was looking to adopt a dog as a grad student (on a very fixed income), I opted to adopt a dog that was ~ 1 year old and already spayed/neutered. I knew I didn’t have the money to handle all the office visits/vaccinations associated with getting a puppy. Not to mention that life as a student is not amenable to puppy raising. Also by getting a younger dog, barring a catastrophe, most of her care would be “routine” (shots, heartworm preventative, occasional UTI or other infection).

    If you chose to adopt a dog from a reputable animal shelter or humane society, many of them include 30 day pet insurance, microchip, and if there are any pre-existing, but curable conditions (i.e. dog is heartworm positive or has mange) they will continue to treat those conditions at no cost to the adopter. Also check with your local animal service/humane society. Many of them do have low cost/sliding fee payment schedules for routine shots and spay/neuters. Some local organizations that sponsor food drives may also accept pet food to help people (and their pets) that are in need.

    For a future blog post, could you write about pet insurance from the vet and human/owner perspectives? Now that pet insurance is very commonplace, it is a way to help manage your pet’s care, but like human health insurance, it seems very complex and confusing.

    What type of coverage should you need especially taking into account the age of your pet? Which providers reimburse promptly? Which ones work with the vet practice to do “direct billing” where the vet practice can directly submit the required documentation?

    Is it possible to insure an older dog? What are some things to consider financially with an older dog? What could be deemed a pre-existing condition?
    Do they cover treatment for cancer and to what extent (50% coverage?) I probably won’t bother with my current dog, but it would be something I seriously consider with my next one, especially with the rise of cancer diagnosis in our canine companions.

  20. Cocker spaniel rescue groups typically ask an adopter to estimate the costs they anticipate with the dog in their application. People who have no clue are then advised about costs of grooming, ear cleaning, HW prevention, etc. “Free” puppies and kittens are never really free. Harsh as it sounds, I’d let the person know what the annual cost for the baby will be for the first year and the years after, and how much emergency surgery might be. Then I’d advise them to take the baby to a no-kill shelter. I’m not a vet, though. I have volunteered at shelters where the minimal cost of adoption for a “used” animal causes people to balk and claim they should get the animal for free because they’re doing the shelter a favor by taking the animal off its hands. Shelters are there to protect animals from those people!