03/25/2013 03:13 pm ET Updated May 25, 2013

The $3,750 Question: How Much Would You Pay to Save Your Cat's Life?

Last Thursday, my beloved 15-year-old tabby Penny peed on my daughter's laundry pile and on the kitchen floor. Then she started pooping outside the box and refused to eat. She'd been perfectly healthy before just two days before. On Friday, our vet gave her the tentative diagnosis of a hyperthyroid. Until the blood work came back on Monday, though, we couldn't know for sure.

By Saturday noon, Penny started wheezing dramatically. My daughters and I rushed her to Blue Pearl, a 24-hour emergency animal hospital in Brooklyn. The knowledgeable and compassionate vets examined her. She'd rebounded and was breathing well. We decided, just to be safe, to check her into the hospital. Good call. Overnight, she spiked a fever.

New blood tests showed that the hyperthyroid theory was wrong. The hunt for a diagnosis began. One test dovetailed into the next. The X-ray showed a bronchial infection and a kidney stone, which called for a closer look via sonogram. The sonogram revealed fluid around her kidney, and that lead to a needle aspiration. The culture indicated another infection. She was put on painkillers, antibiotics, an anti-diarrheal and an anti-inflammatory.

The bill so far: $3,000. I nearly swallowed my tongue when I saw the bottom line. In all fairness, they kept giving me estimates (lower than the bill, though, I couldn't help noticing). Whenever I balked about doing the next test, the vet would say, "I understand." Guilt, like a needle aspiration to my heart. After two days of this, and we still didn't know the underlying cause of Penny's problems.

"Could be cancer," said the vet. "I recommend immediate exploratory surgery of her abdomen."

"How much?" I asked.

"From $4,000 to $6,000," said the vet.

And that was when I drew the line. "Not going to happen," I said. As a family, we decided that if Penny did have cancer, we would make her comfortable at home until that was no longer possible. She was released with two antibiotics ($250). A week later, she had a follow-up sonogram and blood test ($500).

Good news: Penny doesn't have cancer. She'd just had a bad infection. She is back to eating, peeing and pooping like a champ. It's easier to stomach paying the huge bill with a happy cat asleep on the bed. If it'd gone the other way, though, and I brought home an empty carrier, I can imagine feeling some resentment about all those "ruling things out" expensive tests.

The issue that we had to confront was, "What price do we put on our cat's life?" For us, the number was $3,750. Although it seemed wrong to subject an elderly pet to a painful ordeal, the price tag was a factor, absolutely. My husband and I made the rational, perhaps cold decision to preserve resources for the humans in the family. Vets will always push for more tests and surgery, not (necessarily) to jack up the cost, but to use their skills and the tools at their disposal. It's up to the pet owners to say "enough," and to pay whatever emotional price -- guilt, sorrow, regret -- that entails.

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