Is “Pet Insurance” a good idea?

To Insure or Not to Insure
Dr. Ladan Mohammad–Zadeh, DVM DACVECC
DoveLewis Emergency Animal Hospital

Most people would be able to identify themselves as being a dog person or a cat person. Some channel their inner wild animal and prefer to have a rat, bird or iguana as a pet. Whichever you identify most with, the fact is: Americans love their pets. According to the 2007 U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook, it is estimated that there are over 70 million dogs and 81 million cats in American households. And as Americans’ love affair with their pets continues to blossom, so does the scope of veterinary care.

Diagnostics and treatment options for acute and chronic conditions are becoming more widely available. And the number of specialists in the various fields is rapidly growing. Twenty years ago, if your pet required a specialist, a university veterinary hospital was the only option. Now, not only is it common to have multiple specialty hospitals in a large metropolitan area, but many general practitioners are able to provide advanced diagnostics and techniques including ultrasound, endoscopy, and dentistry. This translates into an all around improved level of medicine ensuring a longer, better quality of life for our pets.

While pet owners continue to utilize this increased level of service, there also continues to be a “sting” associated with the cost of veterinary care. If one used the analogy that routine care equals a sting, then advanced diagnostics and treatment would be a scratch; surgery and hospitalization in an ICU would equal a large bite. It is no secret that intensive care therapy for a dog or cat could range in the thousands of dollars. And it is standard practice to require clients to pay the bill at the time of services. This leaves many pet owners and veterinary professionals asking themselves, “What about pet health insurance?” Pet insurance is actually not a novel concept; it has been around for over 30 years.

A simple Google search will reveal there are more than a dozen companies that offer pet health insurance. Most are available nationwide; however, there are a few that are limited to geographical markets. The first thing to understand about pet health insurance is the up front cost of the veterinary bill is the same with or without insurance. This means the pet owner usually pays the bill in full at the time of service and then gets reimbursed after submitting a claim form. The next thing to be aware of is that not all coverage is the same. There is a lot of information available on pet health insurance plans with many helpful comparison charts, but one must be sure to comb through the fine print as there are many layers of coverage. For example, there may be an option for a base plan, which may or may not include “preventive care” (routine vaccinations, etc.) Preventive care may be an additional layer of coverage. Also, if you have a pure breed dog or cat, some congenital or breed related illnesses may not be covered; however, there is an option to purchase additional coverage.

There are generally tiers of deductible amounts similar to human health insurance and there may be an annual limit to payout both in general and for specific illnesses or conditions such as cancer treatment, orthopedic treatment, and treatment for breed related conditions. There seems to be no good trend in average monthly costs for coverage. However, in general, cats are less expensive to insure than dogs and pure breed pets could be more expensive if you choose the additional tier of coverage. Websites that compare the rates of different health insurance plans generated varying monthly premiums in cats ranging from $13–$80/month and for dogs $30–$100/month depending on the amount of coverage and the deductible.

The question of “is it worth it” is tricky and ultimately a personal decision. For some, insurance means peace of mind. If we could predict how many times our pets require medical attention it might be as easy as examining the math. An after–hours emergency visit with diagnostics and treatment could easily start at $500. If you chose a plan with a $100 deductible, a single after–hours emergency visit per year would make any plan over $33/month more of an expense than a money saver. It is common for dogs with an active lifestyle to have both routine visits and unscheduled urgent visits yearly, thus making plans that are less than $50/month worth the investment. Unfortunately, pet owners are not always able to anticipate when, or how many times, our pets will require medical attention. We all want our pets to stay healthy while keeping our pocket book healthy. The best way to ensure this is by doing your research and investigating the pet health insurance options thoroughly to make certain it is the right decision for you and your pet.

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