03/30/2016 12:50 EDT | Updated 03/31/2017 01:12 EDT

CBC's 'Pets, Vets & Debts' looks at costs and advances in animal health care

TORONTO — When it comes to treating an ailing pet, Toronto veterinarian Dr. Michael Ethier is the first to admit it can get expensive.

As director of emergency and critical care medicine at the Toronto Veterinary Emergency Hospital, he's seen families spend up to $20,000 on their animals.

It may be a hard figure to swallow, but when you break down the costs — from a weeks-long stay in an intensive care unit to surgery and perhaps transfusions or MRIs — it makes sense, he adds.

With Canada's publicly funded health-care system, most people don't realize the exact costs involved in medical treatment, both for humans and animals.

Ethier is hoping the documentary "Pets, Vets & Debts," making its world premiere on CBC-TV's "The Nature of Things" on Thursday, will help clear up such misconceptions.

"There's not a person in veterinary medicine, especially within specialty referral medicine, that will ever say to someone it's not expensive to treat severely ill or complex pets," says Ethier, who appears in the doc.

"What we're hoping is that people understand why it costs more and that sure, in the ideal world we would love that this was similar to human medicine, where there weren't costs passed on to the family members."

Liam O'Rinn wrote and directed the film, which looks at the business of veterinary care and the latest medical advancements for animals, from stem cell transplants to heart stents and 3D printed prosthetics.

According to the doc, Canadians collectively spend more than $2.25 billion annually on vet bills. For Americans, that number is $14 billion.

The doc also looks at the cost of pet insurance, which it says most Canadians don't have.

"Looking into insurance and getting educated on insurance I think is a huge benefit for most families," says Ethier.

"Unless you're in a position to be fiscally responsible and put money aside either before you get your first pet or accumulated over the years of the pet and hope that its illness happens later on where you've developed that nest egg."

Ethier notes that having an animal is like buying a house or having children: It's a long-term commitment with guaranteed costs over its life span.

"You're not going to get around it," he says. "It's a biological entity. There are going to be things that need to be addressed, whether it's preventatively or therapeutically to fix problems."

He recommends researching whether the breed of pet has inherent health problems, and if the place it comes from has a history of pet illness.

Pet owners should also understand that health-care costs for pets will differ according to the level of treatment.

For instance, prices are generally higher at a specialty hospital and in situations where an animal needs an emergency surgery at odd hours.

When a pet owner is unable to pay for treatment, they can either have the animal euthanized or surrender it to a local shelter, provided the prognosis is good.

"That's the biggest frustration for us and for our staff is when we know we can fix an animal, it's just unfortunately that family doesn't have the resources to do it," says Ethier.

"But I've even had to say it to clients: 'My staff would not appreciate if I didn't pay them for their hard work.' ... Until everything is free, which is never going to happen, there are those costs, unfortunately."

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press