Is There an Answer to “How Much is a Dog’s Life Worth?”

Putting a value on a dog’s life is no easy business. After all, what cost unconditional love? How to fix a price tag to ever-warm welcomes? Why quantity affection? There’s no getting around the fact that for many of us, our dogs are as much a part of the family as… well, kith and kin, a fact that as Psychology Today notes, is evident in the amount of money we throw their way. According to the latest reports, dog owners can expect to part with a pretty hefty chunk of their salary on their faithful companions: last year alone, pet parents in the US spent more than $70 million on their dogs, including $20 billion for veterinary care, $16 billion on supplies, and a bank-breaking $32 billion for food (to put that last figure into context, it’s the same amount we spend per year on pizza’s).

For those antipathetic to pets, such sums seem vast and no doubt a little unreasonable. For those of us who’ve experienced the joy a pet can bring to our lives, it’s small fry. But for all we say our pets our priceless, and for all the endless love, attention, and dollars we lavish on them, everything has its price… and that includes Fido. In this litigious age, the value of our pets is coming under increasing scrutiny. After all, divorce proceedings aren’t just about who gets custody of the kids anymore- now, people are just as concerned about who gets to keep the family hound, or who should fund them, as they are about who buys the kids uniforms. Similarly, there’s the question of how much a government is willing to part with in guaranteeing and regulating the safety and quality of pet food, medicines, and supplies, and in rather more unhappy circumstances, how much damages can be demanded in the event of a wrongful death (which includes over a million dogs killed in road traffic events each year, and almost too many court cases involving contaminated pet food to count).

While most of us would be hard pushed to put a figure on our pet’s health, wealth, and happiness, a team of researchers led by Deven Carlson of the University of Oklahoma at Norman, Oklahoma have put their heads together to come up with some hard, cold calculations- and the results are telling. Using the same methodology as used to establish the value of human life and other apparently “priceless” things, the team concluded that the average dog for the average pet owner is worth a very precise average of $10,000. While some pet owners may laugh at the calculation, the method that went into it (and its applicability elsewhere) is nothing to be scoffed at, holding as it does far wider implications than just how big a vet’s bill we’re prepared to swallow.

The idea of attaching a value to each and everything that touches our lives started all the way back in the 1920s. As the government began to take an ever more active (or, according to some, controlling) role in the life of the ordinary American, it became ever more important to attach a monetary value to its interventions. As the National Interest  notes, while the Flood control Act of 1936 did a grand job of codifying the costs and benefits of some legislative action, Roosevelt decided to take things one step further by expanding the range of impacts included in the cost to benefit evaluations done so far. A noble intention, perhaps, but one that quickly ran into a problem, namely: how to attach a figure to something that doesn’t come with a price tag? Attaching a value to the cost of reducing the sugar content in a pack of $2 breakfast cereal? No problem. Attaching a value to human life? Que furrowed brows and a lot of worried looks.

Faced with valuing the invaluable, analysts initially focused on attaching a fixed sum to an individual on the basis of their estimated future income and productivity. The approach immediately ran into problems, not least by the fact it essentially wrote off non-earners (such as the elderly, housewives, and the long-term sick) as completely and utterly worthless. Faced with the limitations of their initial approach, and no doubt reluctant to ignite the fury of vast swathes of middle America, analysts changed tactics. Now, rather than looking solely at income potential, they began to use contingent valuation (in other words, how much someone would be willing to pay for certain goods). With the change in tactics, a quantifiable value could be placed on human life- and indeed was, to the tune of around $10 million.

Fast forward to 2019, and Carlson and co have used the same tactics to attach a value to our dogs. 4,682 dog owners were asked such questions as to how much they’d be willing to pay for a vaccine that reduced a dog’s chance of dying from canine influenza from 12 percent to 2 percent… and the results were telling. By assessing just how much we’d be willing to pay to reduce the mortality risk for our pets, and then combining this figure with the emotional value of a dog to its family ($1000, if you were wondering), the team have concluded that a dog’s life comes with a five-figure price tag- or, to be precise, $10,000. Of course, not everyone will agree with the data. For some people (and advance apologies to pet lovers for the harsh words), a dog is just a dog. In these circles, the idea of an animal being worth such a princely sum is probably laughable. In other quarters, meanwhile, $10,000 might seem a callously low and unqualified amount. Regardless of whether you agree with the figure or not, there’s little doubt that in a country and an age were people are as likely to sue as they are to cook a hot meal, having a fixed value to work with when it comes to calculating loss, compensation, or fines is more than a little handy.

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