How much would you pay to save your cat’s life?

I’ve know more than a few cat-loving families who’d spend any amount. Even when a cat is at the end of her expected lifespan, owners will spend thousands of dollars to keep Fluffy around just a bit longer.

We were faced with the decision recently — how much money to spend on a elderly (19+ yr. old) cat who’d become increasingly frail? We ended up spending about $1300, and the cat died a day after the vet visit.

With advancements in veterinary technology, pet lovers are faced with uncomfortable decisions. Are you a “bad” cat parent because you choose not to spend $10,000+ on surgery and chemo?

Even if you’ve decided ahead of time not to put the cat through extraordinary procedures to keep her alive, it’s a slippery (and expensive) slope. You okay a series of lab tests, then the vet thinks an ultrasound will reveal the problem, and then after the ultrasound is inconclusive exploratory surgery is recommended… and the pet owner thinks, well I’ve spent so much already, just one more procedure to get to the root of the problem and Fluffy will be cured.

Back in the day, the concept of “wellness” was non-existent. Pets were taken to the vet far less frequently, usually just for shots, neutering and the occasional emergency. Senior pets were euthanized when the time came. No dental work (save the occasional extraction), no MRIs, no chemo, no miracle drugs.

Now, most vets have or have access to much of the same diagnostic equipment and tests available for humans. But it comes at a cost, and few people have pet insurance to help defray the expense.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled that our pets are able to live longer, healthier lives. But it also makes it more difficult to determine when “enough is enough.”

Check out this Wall Street Journal article about recent advances in veterinary technology:

For Mary Cotter, the first sign of concern came when her 7-year-old, Logan, appeared dizzy. His regular doctor said everything was fine, but Cotter insisted Logan be seen by a neurologist, who after an MRI found a tumor in his inner ear. An operation followed, and for the next month Cotter took Logan on a four-hour round-trip trek every day from her home in Ledyard, Conn., to a specialty hospital in Boston for radiation therapy.

The total bill for the tests, blood work, surgery and radiation came to $14,000 not surprising in this age of sky-high medical costs. Except for one thing. Logan is a golden retriever. After another surgery for an unrelated illness, the total cost of Logan’s care is approaching $20,000. Today Logan is healthy, but he has a new nickname: “20K.”

It’s no secret that Americans love their pets. But these days, all that love is leading to an unprecedented level of expense for millions of owners, who are only beginning to understand the pet-world concept of sticker shock. Caught up in a wave of new medical options and lured by an increasingly sophisticated cadre of veterinarians, pet owners across the country are forking over thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars to treat illnesses that would have gone undiagnosed or untreated just a few years ago. And then doing it again if they have to.

Of course, pet owners and most vets have the animals’ best interest in mind. But that doesn’t make it any easier: With health insurance covering the humans in many families, it’s not unusual for pet owners to spend far more money on health care for their cats and dogs than for their sons and daughters. Even the Great Recession failed to take a bite out of Fido’s health care tab. According to a report by market-research company Packaged Facts, Americans spent $20 billion on veterinary bills in 2010 an 8.5% increase from a year earlier and more than double the amount spent just a decade ago.

Read more: The $20,000 Pet – SmartMoney.com