Millennials and their pets: ‘I treat him like my child’

Christen A. Johnson
Chicago Tribune

When Caitlyn Isham got her pet pig, Porkchop, six years ago, her large family had just welcomed three stair-step newborns.

“I had nephews born in May, June, and July,” said Isham, a 37-year-old Wicker Park resident. “I got Porkchop later in the fall and said, ‘Here’s my contribution to the family.’”

With 14 nieces and nephews, Isham said she’s “not short on the baby aspect.” And much like her siblings, she’s a devoted, caring parent — her child just has hooves.

Caitlyn Isham gives her pet pig named Porkchop a kiss at her Chicago home on Sept. 18, 2019. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

Porkchop snuggles in bed with Isham at night; Isham makes sure his diet is top-notch; she’s on top of his veterinarian visits; Porkchop has his own room in the apartment (Isham’s old walk-in closet, which she converted); he has ample toys and entertainment; and he even pouts or throws a tantrum here and there.

“I treat him like my child,” said Isham, and one thing that comes along with children: an exorbitant amount of expenses — seen and unforeseen.

Recent data from an August 2019 LendingTree survey found that approximately 42% of the millennials surveyed have been in pet-related debt. Nearly 1 in 10 are currently paying it off.

The survey questioned 760 pet owners during the first three days of July 2019. The goal was to see how pet owners pay for their animals, especially when a surprise expense pops up.

Brianna Wright, lead researcher of the study, said that the debt comes down to a millennial’s net worth and discretionary income.

“Higher salaries come as you get older,” said Wright, a consumer research specialist at LendingTree, “so millennials may have student loan debt or other things (to pay for), so finding money for their animal in an emergency might be impossible to do without taking on debt; they might not have a choice.”

Luckily for Isham, who named her pig Porkchop so his name could read “Porkchop Is Ham,” a play on her last name, she hasn’t had any emergency expenses for Porkchop, and she isn’t in debt because of him.

Before purchasing Porkchop from a breeder in Florida – he cost between $1,500 and $2,000 – Isham did a lot of research to determine if she could properly care for a pet pig. Even with being equipped and knowing what she was signing up for, there were still a few curve balls.

“The surprise was more in the vet bills,” said Isham, “because I never anticipated that he would have to get put under (with anesthesia) each year (so that they could trim his hooves and his tusks).”

Since Porkchop is a pig, Isham has to go to a “special vet,” she said. “He’s basically the only vet in the area (suitable for Porkchop), so I have no choice; I can’t shop around for a better deal.” Porkchop’s last visit cost $800.

Isham has a designated CareCredit credit card for Porkchop’s veterinarian visits, which she can pay in six months to a year with no financing, she said.

“But that’s the only way I can afford him because of payment plans and things like that,” said Isham. “I don’t have money like that laying around.” There’s been times where Porkchop had a rash, and Isham called the veterinarian because she’s “worried about another large bill.”

The survey found that a credit card was the most common form of payment among millennials for emergency pet expenses, said Wright.

“Members of GenX and Boomers were more likely to pay for expenses using a credit card too, but they may have been able to pay off the balance in full before the month so it didn’t incur any debt,” Wright explained.

Porkchop has earned a little income from movie appearances and a few photo shoots, which helps to offset some of the costs for Isham, she said, like paying for strollers, a wagon or any special treats. “Any money he makes, it goes back to him,” she said.

Katie Reynolds, a 36-year-old dog mom to three special needs Pomeranians — Rachel, Oliver and Parker — has experienced a pet emergency. She says CareCredit and pet insurance have been “so helpful” for her and her husband financially, and a large part of the reason they’re able to care for three dogs.

“When Oliver was 14 months, he got into Parker’s (medication) and overdosed,” she recalled. “He spent almost two weeks in ICU and insurance paid 90% back on that. We rely a lot on insurance.”

More millennials have pet insurance than Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, according to the survey, yet the avocado toast eaters still somehow have the most debt. That discrepancy makes sense when you think about how pet insurance works, said Wright.

“A pet’s age and breed plays a big role in the rates you get, and what is and is not covered,” she explained, “and insurance doesn’t cover pre-existing conditions.” Some companies require you to pay a deductible before insurance kicks in, and sometimes the deductible can be $1,000, Wright added. “Some millennials will need to take on debt just to meet the deductible. Other insurance companies make you pay for expenses up front then file for a reimbursement.”

The insurance process for Reynolds has “been pretty smooth” and she’s “very lucky in that.” She also finds a bit of financial relief by bringing her dogs to the pet hospital where she works for treatments and surgeries.

On Sept. 18, Oliver had a total hip replacement, a surgery that typically costs about $10,000. While Reynolds received an employee discount, she still paid “a good amount.”

“He was our fall vacation,” said Reynolds jokingly. “He needed it so we changed (our plans) around and are no longer going to Dollywood (in Tennessee).”

Like any good parents, Isham and Reynolds each make the necessary sacrifices to care for their loved ones, including financial ones.

“Everything we do is based on what our dogs need,” said Reynolds. “We have a used car and live in a crazy apartment in Chicago’s Logan Square area. Our dogs are our children. We love and respect them as beings, and think they deserve the best we can give them.”