How much is your pet’s life worth?

After his dog nearly died, Radio 4 announcer Justin Webb saved it at a high cost. But was it worth it?


Thanks, dog lovers. Your good wishes are much appreciated. Toffee is fine now. Our sock-eating labradoodle is home, minus a bit of his tummy, and his treatment is paid for – at least I think it is: we filled in the forms and the insur- ance company don’t seem to have complained, so rather than bothering them, I am, as they say, letting sleeping dogs lie. We can celebrate Crufts this week in good order.


A month ago things were not nearly so rosy. Toffee was close to breathing his last in the Queen Mother Hospital for Animals in Potters Bar and the sadness and the costs were mount- ing. In these pages I asked the question, how much is a dog’s life worth? Were we really right to spend thousands of pounds saving Toffee when his appetite got the better of him? With so many good causes with better calls on our cash and our concern?

The answer came back so emphatically that I – a late-in-life dog lover – was genuinely shocked. You are suspicious of the insurance companies that fund this business, and slightly suspicious of vets who charge ever greater fees for ever more ambitious treatments (I will return to them later), but overall you are clear: a dog’s life is worth saving. Even if it costs an eye-watering sum.


I say “you” – actually, there’s quite a division between “you”, when you’re listeners to the Jeremy Vine show on Radio 2, and “you”, when you’re listeners to my own programme: Today on Radio 4. Jeremy tweeted news of Toffee’s appearance in Radio Times to his countless online followers and hundreds of thousands of them (well, quite a few) got in touch. The gist: it’s your money, mate. Do what you want. Dogs are worth spending as much as you want to spend on them: end of story.

Today listeners were a little less sure. We took Toffee’s story and turned it into An Issue, because that’s what we do on Radio 4. The issue was the cost, of course, but also the ethics of providing ever more invasive treatments for sick animals in order, basically, that their sentimental owners can feel good.


Who monitors this area of animal medicine? The answer seems to be that not enough moni- toring is done, and that Today listeners are split between those who think none of this matters as much as (fill in your own subject here: Syria was mentioned quite a bit…) and those who took the more dog-friendly attitude but wanted Someone To Do Something.

Among them, I note, there were several vets. One told me he believed the profession had to be very careful that they did not persuade people to over-treat pets. He made a telling point about how we lose our heads over the animals we choose to be close to: “On the farm side of the practice every day we are making economic decisions whether to treat or slaughter the animal. What is interesting is that hard-nosed farmers very often take a different view with their pets and working dogs, even funding expensive treatment of working dogs at the end of their useful working lives.”

Ah yes, even the farmers are soppy. But they must be stopped. Hard-headed advice comes from Robin Hargreaves, a past president of the British Veterinary Association, who wants to see people making sensible decisions about when to have an animal put down and, as it were, transfer its pain to themselves.

“I see this transference as very symbolic. We take a problem in the form of injury or disease that the animal cannot overcome and convert it into grief that the owner can, with time, conquer.” Easier said than done, perhaps. But the dogs we love deserve to be loved within limits: it is, after all, a dog’s life, not ours. Toffee must eat no more socks. He is on notice.


Although even as I write that, he stretches and sighs as if to say, “Just sign the cheques, old man: don’t pretend you’re in charge here…”