(The writer is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)
By Chris Taylor
NEW YORK, June 9 When Marion Asnes' beloved cat, Herman, was injured by a coyote, she had to make one of life's gut-wrenching decisions.
After the incident, Asnes and her husband, who live in Westchester County, New York, raced to the vet to save their pet. The bill for stitches, antibiotics and IV drips added up to almost $2,000.
But Herman didn't seem to get better. He wasn't eating, and seemed miserable and in pain. Follow-up visits to the vet pushed the tab over $3,000. The doctor suggested installing a shunt for providing food and drugs, which would have added thousands to the total.
"At that point we said, 'What are we doing to this animal?' " says Asnes. "It was just awful."
The couple eventually decided to euthanize Herman. It was the sort of grim calculus that no pet owner wants to face.
If it came down to it, how much would you spend to save the life of your beloved pet - $1,000? $5,000? Anything?
And should we really spend whatever it takes to prolong the lives of our pets, just because we can?
Putting a price on a life is no easy task. After all, if your child's life were on the line, you wouldn't think twice. You would pay the bill, and gladly.
Our pets are family members, too, of course. They live with us, play with us, grow old with us, get sick and die, just as we do.
"There's so little discussion of this subject, far less than you might expect given the emotional intensity and the amount of money being spent," says Arthur Caplan, head of medical ethics at Manhattan's NYU Langone Medical Center.
According to a 2011 survey by Kroger Co., 61 percent of pet owners said they were comfortable spending $100 to $1,000 to save their pet. Fifteen percent said $1,000 to $3,000, while 10 percent would spend even more than that.
'IT WAS HEARTBREAKING'
Visit any veterinary waiting room, and you'll see people grappling with this. It's an experience that Joanna Belbey of Jersey City, New Jersey, will never forget. Even though it was 12 years ago, it haunts her like it was yesterday.
Belbey's cat, Sammy, required radiation for a tumor, a treatment that cost $2,000. She didn't have the cash, and put the bill on her credit card. Happily, Sammy lived for two more years.
But what stayed with Belbey was the emotional distress of other pet owners in the waiting room.
"It was heartbreaking to watch," she says. "The doctor would come out, and be very clear about costs, and people would be shell-shocked.
"Some people just couldn't afford it, so then they were faced with a choice: They have this beloved pet, and they had to make this terrible financial decision."
Rising pet-care costs have only made these decisions harder. Annual spending on vet care is projected at $15.25 billion for 2014, according to the American Pet Products Association. That's up from $14.37 billion in 2013.
The typical pet owner spends $611 per year on healthcare costs like vet visits and prescription meds, according to a 2013 survey by pet pharmacy PetCareRx.com. For those whose pets have chronic conditions like arthritis, diabetes or kidney disease, spending jumps to $935 a year - 53 percent more than the average.
With a life-threatening illness such as cancer, treatment costs can easily reach five figures.
At that point, harsh decisions must be made. After all, however much you love your pet, you don't want to damage your financial future beyond repair.
"If you're spending $50,000 or more, and little Johnny can't go to college anymore because Felix the cat must live, things have gotten out of sync," says Caplan.
That's where pet insurance can come in handy. Americans spent $536 million on pet insurance premiums in 2013, according to the market research firm Packaged Facts, up 16 percent from 2012. Policies vary, but many reimburse 80 percent of medical expenses.
In the end, the issue is less about money than it is about doing what's right for your pet.
"It's so important to think about the animal, and not yourself," says Asnes. "Are you doing it for the animal - or are doing it for you?" (Follow us @ReutersMoney or here Editing by Lauren Young and Douglas Royalty)