Upon moving to Georgia my eldest rat developed some wheezing and shortness of breath. Respiratory problems are common in the species, especially in their golden years. Fortunately my current institution happens to have one of the nation's premier small animal veterinary programs complete with an impressive small animal teaching hospital staffed by Ph.D.s, veterinarians, and students. They actually have a rat cardiologist on staff. A rat cardiologist. To shorten the story, Bear received outstanding care (including rat x-rays!). The staff identified his enlarged right ventricle, treated it appropriately, and returned him to his bright-eyed and
bushy ring-tailed state.
It cost $400.
This brought me to two moral dilemmas that every responsible and socially conscious pet owner deals with at some point. First, from a rational choice perspective it makes no sense to provide that level of treatment to a rat. Why spend $400 on a rat when one can stroll into a pet store and get a new one for $8? Second, how does one justify this kind of expense to give a rat better medical care than many people on this planet receive? Wouldn't $400 be better spent on a person who needs to see a doctor?
On the first point, only an economist (or their jug-band cousin, the MBA student) would apply such logic to a pet. Yes, it is "just a pet." Regardless they are not interchangeable. One does not simply toss a companion animal in the trash and replace it any more than having another child can replace a deceased one. The second point troubles me considerably more. I feel some guilt when I see a team of three people x-raying a rat and projecting the image onto a 60" plasma monitor so I can see Bear's aorta. Could such resources be re-directed to people in need? Yes. Could my $400 help a person who would not otherwise see a doctor do so? Yes. But to me it is a matter of principle rather than a practical one. When we purchase a pet we accept responsibility for its well-being. This does not stop at feeding it and giving it the occasional heartworm pill. And whether I have an $8 rat, a dog, an endangered Namibian antelope, or a child of my own, any living thing for which I am responsible is going to receive whatever level of medical care I have the means to obtain when necessary.
It's hard to justify the fact that this little guy goes to a better hospital than half of the Earth's population. Letting him die wouldn't change that, though. Besides, your parents were right when they lectured you about getting your first goldfish: being responsible for something's well-being is a big commitment, not one we can opt out of when the price goes up. We do what we do for our pets because we are not characters from an economics textbook. We do it because we love them and because it is the right thing to do.