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You'll remember the IKEA monkey. Of course you do. We all do.

"Oh, Jiminy," we all exclaimed. Or words to that effect. "People and their pets!" The case of Darwin the monkey, got up in a shearling coat and a diaper, seemed to capture so much about people's devotion to their pet animals.

More than half of Canadian households have pets. And in fact, more homes have cats and dogs than have children. That means that veterinary services amount to huge business. For those cats and dogs that have illnesses, there is almost no limit to the treatment available. And the costs can go into the many thousands. Many people will willingly spend vast amounts of money because the pet is considered part of the family. That's a truism, but is it actually true in an ethical sense?

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Pets, Vets and Debts (Thursday, CBC, 8 p.m. on The Nature of Things) tells us that, "Not everyone buys into the concept of pets as family." It asks, simply, has pet health care gone too far?

It's a toxic question loaded with emotional heft. These days, many people are far more indulgent of their pets and willing to spend vast amounts of money when their pet is ill or injured. We're talking about something like complicated, expensive stem-cell therapy to extend the life of a cat, a procedure that the program covers in detail.

Why are we so indulgent? According to author David Grimm, who appears in the program, we are increasingly reliant on our pets for true, authentic companionship. In a world where virtual friendship is the norm and we spend less and less time with others, pets become anchoring emotional figures in our lives. While a previous generation might have put less value on the life of a pet, we invest much more in them.

In the program we visit the Toronto Veterinary Emergency Hospital. It has state-of-the-art technology, a large staff and is ready to handle all kinds of animal emergencies. And it costs. While pet insurance exists, most Canadians don't have it. We meet the owners of Dexter, a 12-year-old retriever who, it turns out, has a tumour on his heart. He has about eight weeks to live.

Places such as the Veterinary Emergency Hospital are among the most fraught, emotionally difficult places to spend time. I've been in some of them. My cat, Mick, who died a few years ago, was a wild child for a while and for a couple of years it seemed that he marked every long weekend by getting himself injured. Off to the emergency vet he went. He survived, lived long and is much missed.

At the emergency vet, sometimes late at night, pet owners have to make brutally hard decisions. Many will spend a great deal of money on medication and treatment. (If you want to see what private health care looks like, go to a veterinary emergency.) And then some people will be appalled, because it's not a person, it's an animal that is at stake. The decisions made are among the most difficult we face in life.

Pets, Vets and Debts doesn't go into the matter with great depth or nuance. It's a pretty superficial look at the contemporary circumstance of our adoration of pets. And yet it raises issues we are obliged to acknowledge – how much is a pet worth to us? Why do they have such status in our lives?

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Also airing Thursday night

Rush Hour (CBS, CITY, 10 p.m.) is a hopeless TV spinoff based on the trio of films starring Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker as mismatched cops. You know the routine – martial arts, crude comedy and bickering cops chasing implausibly inept bad guys. For this, CBS has temporarily shelved Elementary.

Also tonight, CNN starts a trip into the recent past with The Eighties (CNN, 9 p.m.). Interestingly, it opens with a two-hour look at television in the decade – from the "Who Shot JR?" episode of Dallas to the series finale of M*A*S*H. That period when everybody watched mainstream TV. But the series also chronicles the rise of serious-minded drama, from Hill Street Blues to thirtysomething, shows that shifted the medium, if not the culture.

And by the way, an example of great contemporary TV comes to more accessible cable Thursday night – season four of Homeland starts airing on Bravo at 10 p.m.

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