The Financial Realities of Prolonging Life

Jennifer Coates, DVM
Published: April 9, 2013
The Financial Realities of Prolonging Life

Have you thought about how far you’d go, monetarily speaking, to prolong the life of your pets? You should. I recommend you come up with a specific dollar amount for each of them. These numbers do not have to be lines in the sand, but at a difficult time can serve as warning signals that perhaps emotions are starting to come into conflict with the realities of your budget.

This is not an easy thing to do, particularly when you find that the numbers vary wildly between pets in your home or in comparison to what friends and family deem appropriate. I’ll use my animals as an example. The dollar amounts that I came up with reflect my family’s other financial responsibilities (saving for college, paying the mortgage, etc.) as well as my pet’s ages and current health status:

  • Victoria — my 16-year-old cat with hyperthyroidism (in remission with radioactive iodine treatment) and heart disease — $1,500
  • Apollo — my 3-year-old boxer with severe but well-controlled inflammatory bowel disease — $4,000
  • Atticus — my 18-year-old horse with chronic sinus “issues” — $3,000


These numbers reflect my comfort zone in the face of an acute crisis under current conditions. For example, if Atticus were to develop a case of colic this evening, how much money would I spend to potentially save him?

  • A farm call for medical management that might run several hundred dollars … absolutely.
  • Emergency abdominal surgery for $8,000 or more … ummmm.

Victoria’s relatively low number in no way means that I think less of her (I love her and her persnickety ways). Honestly assessing her condition means accepting the fact that we probably don’t have too many more years (if that) with her no matter how heroic her veterinary care is. Prognosis must play a big role in this type of decision making. For example, I’d be much more willing to shell out $8,000 for Atticus’s hypothetical colic surgery if I could be reasonably sure of a good outcome, but would probably hesitate to spend much at all if I thought he would suffer regardless. That’s why dollar amounts should be seen as guidelines, not hard and fast rules.

I just read a great article in the New York Times that touches on this topic. It’s entitled, “How to Set a Price on the Life of a Beloved Pet?” Tess Vigeland, former host of the public radio show Marketplace Money, starts her piece this way:

I COULDN’T begin to add up the number of times my husband and I have had the Talk. We know illness and death are two of life’s certainties. And we’ve taken care of the issue when it comes to ourselves. We’ve signed medical directives saying we want no extraordinary measures taken to extend our lives if we become incapacitated to the point that we’re a burden, emotionally and financially, to our families.   But when it comes to our pets, the Talk never resolves anything. Luckily our two 14-year-old cats, 8-year-old Border collie and 3-year-old Labrador retriever are all in fairly good health. We haven’t had to make decisions about whether to spend thousands of dollars, possibly tens of thousands, to save or extend their lives. But those decisions are coming, and despite our efforts to have the Talk, we have no idea what we’ll be willing to do to keep them around as long as possible.

Read the article and then have the Talk with yourself and your family members. Hopefully you’ll have better luck than Tess and her husband coming up with some numbers to guide your decision making in the event of a veterinary crisis.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Valeri Potapova / Shutterstock

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