The Value of a Life

How do we value a pet’s life and is it worth less than a human’s life?

Is all life equal or does a human life have more value than that of a pet? How can you value a life and what are the figures?

We live in a world where everything has a financial value, even a human life. Governments often have to make decisions that will save money but expose people to potential harm using cost-benefit analysis. For instance in 1987 the US Government increased speed limits on most highways from 55 to 65mph. They calculated that dividing the extra dollars earned due to efficiency gains by increasing the speed limit by the number of lives lost as a result gave a value of $1.54 million (about £1 million) per life.

In the UK, the Train Protection and Warning System that was put in place after the Ladbroke Grove disaster, cost £15.4 million per life it was estimated to have saved. So one policy in the UK spent £15.4 million to save one life, and the other in the US sacrificed one life to generate an extra £1m for the economy.

Do governments who provide more effective and expensive personal protective equipment to their soldiers value their lives more?

The cost effectiveness of drugs supplied by the NHS is determined in England, Wales and Northern Ireland by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE). NICE usually determines that a treatment is not value for money if it costs more than £20,000 – £30,000 per quality-adjusted life year (QALY) saved. However last Friday Comic Relief told me that if I donated £5 for a mosquito net I could prevent malaria and save a life.

So what is the value of a human life? 

From the UK governments point of view, your life has highest value when you are at an age where you have your greatest earning capacity. So you are less valuable when you are young or old. If we believe governments, the true value for the UK and other ‘first world’ countries is probably somewhere between £1 million and £15 million. Based on an average annual wage of £26,000 or the QALY of £30,000 for a working life of 48 years the true figure is probably closer to £1.5 million. Sadly it is probably less if you live in a ‘second’ or ‘third world’ country. From a personal point of view I think we all value the life of a family member or friend more highly than that of a stranger.

Parents would give everything they own, including their own lives, to save their children, as would many animals.

What is the value of an animal’s life?

The majority of us would place a higher value on a human life than that of an animal. In principle it should be a lot easier to provide a value to the life of an animal. After all, in the UK the average cost to purchase a dog is £215, a cat is £56 and a rabbit is £19, but it costs nothing to have a child! A Chinese coalmining magnate recently paid £1 million for a rare red Tibetan mastiff which is said to be lucky and could grow to weigh 127 kg (20 stone)!

However, pet owners often place a much higher value on the privilege of ownership because of the many potential benefits it brings. Pets improve our health and psychological wellbeing, as well as assisting children to be ‘more rounded’. They provide companionship to individuals who are alone and provide some purpose and direction to their life. About 90% of pet owners enjoy owning their pets but 10% find the experience stressful.

But what is the true financial cost of a pet to its owner over its life when everything is taken in to account? When does the cost become too much for the received benefits? The cost of pet ownership was recently calculated in the PDSA’s Animal Wellbeing Report of 2011. Initial costs include: the purchase price, neutering, initial vaccination course, microchipping, and accessories. Ongoing costs include: food, boosters, insurance, toys, grooming, worming, and kennelling for holidays. When this is added up the average cost for dogs is £16,000 – £31,000 depending on the size of the dog. It is £17,000 for a cat and £9,000 for a rabbit. These figures don’t take into account the cost of veterinary treatments for sickness and injury. Not surprisingly, almost all owners under-estimate the true costs of pet ownership. When faced with these figures I wonder does an owner still feel that the benefits of pet ownership outweigh the costs? I guess that the 90% who enjoy the experience of pet ownership would say “yes” even in the current harsh economic climate.

Working dogs fulfil roles that could not easily be done by humans or machines and in addition to the normal costs of ownership, there are considerable training costs. It costs upwards of £5,000 to train a Guide Dog or a Sniffer Dog but I would suggest that they are worth every penny. However, I struggle to justify a £1 million price tag for a dog when the purchase price could buy 200,000 mosquito nets.

So if we give a pet’s life a nominal value of around £25,000 and the value of a human life is about £1.5 million then the value of a pet’s life is about 60 times less than that of a human. Sounds a little like an extract from ‘Animal Farm’!

David Chamberlain BVetMed., MRCVS.
Veterinary Consultant to PetSafe®

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