04/09/2013 12:34 EDT | Updated 06/09/2013 05:12 EDT

Would You Pay $3,000 to Keep Your Pet Alive?

Getty Images
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 30: Gibbs, a Golden Retriever puppy poses for pictures as the American Kennel Club Announces Most Popular Dogs in the U.S. on January 30, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Gary Gershoff/Getty Images for the American Kennel Club)

How much would you pay to keep your dog or cat alive?

This past week I paid $3,673.73 in vet bills accrued by our four year-old yellow Lab, Maggie*, who was stricken with a mysterious, Ebola-like malady that caused her to bleed from virtually every orifice and threatened to destroy her kidneys, liver and pancreas. The bills included boarding in an intensive care unit at an emergency hospital, antibiotics, fluids for dehydration, blood tests, x-rays and various and sundry other charges.

There was never any thought of NOT paying. Maggie was selected for me by my wife and son as a surprise birthday present (and a needed motivation for more frequent walks). As might be expected, she quickly won all of our hearts, even that of our allergy-prone daughter. Labradors, with their somewhat goofy grins and generally genial demeanour, are particularly adept at becoming an indispensable family member. We were grateful to the team that helped pull Maggie through.

Still, the $3,673.73 bill stuck in my mind. Perhaps it is because, as a Canadian and a resident of Ontario, I never see human medical bills. We had two children at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital and haven't a clue what it cost, other than the $8 charge for a telephone line. I had major surgery a few years ago at Toronto General and it was the same story (although, out of curiosity, I researched the cost of the same laparoscopic procedure in the States -- and found it carried a $30,000 to $40,000 price-tag).

Coincidentally, a few days after receiving my vet bill I had my annual check-up with my physician. In the course of the normal patient-doctor chit-chat, we got around to the subject of pets and I told her of Maggie's travails -- and the cost of treatment. This instantly animated my doctor, who went on to tell her own tale of her family's beloved but somewhat older dog, who seemed listless and had a mysterious lump on its neck.

"The veterinarian did a biopsy -- and it was inconclusive," she related. "Then he said he wanted to start chemo as a precaution -- a precaution that would cost upwards of $10,000. We love our dog, but decided to spare her the side effects and let nature take its course."

When people acquire a dog or cat, they often fail to take into account the true cost of ownership. According to the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association, pet owners can expect in the first year alone to shell out $2,980 for a dog and $1,950 for a cat, much of it associated with spaying or neutering, vaccinations, etc. According to the British Columbia SPCA, the average on-going cost after the first year, including food, is $1,071 for a dog and $835 for a cat -- with vet costs the greatest variable.

There is of course pet health insurance -- somewhere between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of Canadian pet owners opt to go that route. But it can be expensive. And the number of coverage exemptions and exclusions can render some policies virtually useless.

So how much WOULD you pay to keep your dog or cat alive?

While there is scant data available in Canada, the Associated Press conducted just such a survey in the U.S. several years ago. Half of the respondents said they would pay a $1,000 vet bill to keep their dog alive. One-third said they would pay $2,000. Only 22 per cent, however, said they would be willing to pay $5,000. (In all instances, the percentages were lower for cats.) Perhaps surprisingly, there was virtually no difference in response between those making less than $50,000 a year and those making more.

I wonder if Canadians would respond in a similar fashion. Comments welcome.

*Maggie is not our dog's real name. She requested I use a pseudonym to protect her privacy.