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Pets in the downturn

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Rebecca Armstrong: Oh to be the owner of a sausage dog.

It's something I think about quite a lot, and my dachshund lust was ignited again last week while looking at pictures of the Halloween Dog Parade in New York. In among the poor pooches dressed to the nines as bees, buses and brides (Kate Middleton, to be exact), I spotted the dog of my dreams wearing a dragon costume. I'm not convinced by canine costumes but even in its reptilian garb, the sausage dog's low-slung charms were evident.

However, I can't buy Banger (the name of my would-be dog) because I work full time and the hours I'd spend away from him would be too cruel. The cost of a dog walker (even aside from the insanity of owning a dog and outsourcing walkies) would be prohibitive, and my flat ain't big enough for both the future dog and the current, much-loved, cat.

But even given the employment-friendly independence of Mitten, once a kitten, now a fully grown bird shredder, and the fact that we adopted him for a tiny fee from Battersea cats' home, he costs a fortune. He's always prodding the foxes in the garden and ending up at the vets – even with monthly pet insurance, the medical bills adds up – and he'll only eat food with "gourmet" in the title. His cat-sitting costs when I'm on holiday would cover a week of mini-bar raiding. Fur-raising figures recently released by Sainsbury's Finance suggest that owning a cat for 15 years can cost up to £17,200. But I don't begrudge what I pay for Mitt – it's lovely having a creature mogging about the place, even with the bills and the bits of discarded mouse he leaves in his wake.

Not all pets are as costly, though. The other animal in my life, Nimrod, is a bargain. True, I didn't have to buy my tortoise – he was my 30th birthday present – but he eats dandelions (free), he'll outlast me (very good value) and over the winter, I don't have to feed him at all. I don't even have to pay electricity on his warming lamp, because he sleeps until spring. He does use some power during the dark months, but as he hibernates in my parents' spare fridge (don't panic, this is perfectly safe and, provided you open the door every day to give him air, no madder than the old Blue Peter advice of popping your tort in the garage/shed) they pay for the electricity. Tortoises – the perfect austerity pet.