We explore the pros and cons.
While on vacation recently, I received the kind of phone call no pet owner wants to receive: My 11-year-old dog was acting strangely and needed to be taken to the vet.
As it turns out, she had a life-threatening condition and needed immediate surgery. I was so sick with worry that the $2,000 cost was the last thing on my mind. But once I got home, I not only had a pet to nurse, but I also needed to figure out how to handle a significant and unexpected expense.
Just a month later, she needed a follow-up surgery with an equally high price tag. Shortly after, my other beloved dog was suddenly dealing with potential heart troubles and needed about $1,000 worth of testing.
I’m lucky. Today, both my dogs are doing well — and I was fortunate enough to have an emergency fund to cover these costs. But what if that hadn’t been the case? These surgeries and tests could have easily cost thousands more; and I might have had to choose between my pets’ lives and my own financial security.
I learned a valuable lesson from the experience — I really should look into pet insurance.
“If you don’t want finances to play the major role in deciding what you should do for your pet, pet insurance makes those decisions easier. [Also, be sure to] tell your veterinarian that you have pet insurance. This will make them more likely to at least give you the option of doing everything that might be possible for your pet,” explains Michael Cohen, veterinarian and owner of Center City Veterinary Hospital in Philadelphia.
Whether your pet gets the care it needs can depend on having insurance, he says.
“I was an emergency clinician for six years and saw way too many cases where a pet had to be euthanized, or get less-than-ideal treatment because of finances,” he explains. “Understandably, when finances dictated what an owner could do, sad situations would get much sadder… For those handful of owners who were able to do the extra treatments because pet insurance was there to help, we only had to deal with how terrible the disease or accident or injury was, and didn’t have the added stress and sadness of how an owner was going to afford treatment.”
So why do only a small percentage of pet owners opt for coverage?
Maybe they don’t feel it’s worth it, don’t think their pets need it, or don’t know where to even begin. Health insurance for humans can be confusing enough — and it’s no different when it comes to pet insurance.
But don’t worry. We did our research on the pawsitively confusing world of pet insurance. Here’s what we found out.
Pet Insurance Doesn’t Cover All Your Pet’s Veterinary Care.
The first thing you should keep in mind when shopping around for insurance for your furry companion: Pet insurance doesn’t cover all your pet’s veterinary services.
Some insurers, like Petplan, do not cover your pet’s routine care in their plan options. Rather, their policies are intended to help cushion the post of an unexpected illness or injury.
Other providers, like Healthy Paws Pet Insurance & Foundation, don’t cover the veterinary exam fee, or preventative care like spaying or neutering.
Preexisting conditions are also exempt from coverage through most, if not all, providers.
Cohen lays out the most important features your pet insurance plans should have.
“Avoid plans with breed restrictions. Avoid plans that have a fee schedule, [meaning] a list of common illnesses and treatments and the insurance company reimburses based on what they think a procedure should cost. This is often way different than what is commonly charged, and can leave owners owing more that they might otherwise.”
Plans that cover a percentage — say, 80 percent of the bill — are good choices, he notes.
There Are Different Levels of Plans.
Basic plans can be as low as $10 per month and can help cover your pet’s preventative care, such as vaccinations and annual wellness exams.
Medium-level plans at start at around $34 per month and, beyond covering basic care, may also cover certain conditions, surgeries, and hospitalizations.
Pet owners can also opt for the highest level of coverage, which can cost as much as $100 per month. These plans typically cover accidents, injuries, non-routine veterinary exams, cancer treatments, and medication.
Cohen says the level of coverage you should get all depends on what you are comfortable paying for yourself – and what you want covered by your policy.
“Just like with human health insurance, if you just want coverage for the major disasters that might happen and not so much for the occasional mild diarrhea and tummy upset, going with a high-deductible plan might make sense,” he says.
Opting for a plan that only covers major occurrences can lower your bill, Cohen says.
“This would lower monthly costs, but mild illnesses may not be covered. One thing to remember is that if we have a pet that has multiple episodes… and we find out after a period of time that all those little episodes were related to some underlying disease process, all of those previous episodes can be reevaluated together and owners might meet the deductible sooner than they initially thought, giving them more coverage later on down the line.”
Still not sure? PetInsurance.com provides a handy chart that compares their three levels of plans, what conditions they cover, and how much coverage they provide.
Also keep in mind that some pet insurance plans require that policyholders meet a deductible before the plan pays out, such as the $250 required deductible for a dog under five years of age through Healthy Paws.
So be sure to do your research and shop around. With the amount of specific terms, options, and inclusions and exclusions that exist when it comes to pet insurance, not having the proper amount of coverage could leave you with a massive vet bill.
You should also note that advertised premiums will not necessarily be the premium you pay. Factors such as the pet’s breed or even your location will affect your quote.
Age is also a major factor, so if you have older pets, your options may be limited. Not only will you likely have a higher premium, but you may need to opt for one of the higher levels of insurance, since an older pet often requires more veterinary care.
While you may think that your deductible is the only out-of-pocket cost you’ll pay with pet insurance, think again.
Most plans only cover 70-90 percent of covered illnesses or injuries, which means that you will still be left with a bill when all is said and done.
Keep in mind that there is often a waiting period (usually a few days, but can be upwards of two weeks) before your policy kicks in. And if your pet is due for an annual checkup, you’ll need to schedule one before your policy is effective.
You Don’t Have to Be ‘In-Network.’
One good piece of news: You likely won’t have to worry about switching vets or picking a plan that your vet accepts, either. Unlike health insurance for people, veterinarians can generally accept all pet insurance plans, because the claims process works a lot differently.
When you go to a doctor, they submit a claim to your insurer on your behalf, and they need to have a relationship with that insurer. With pet insurance, you submit claims yourself. If there is ever any doubt, you could always confirm with your veterinarian before enrolling in a particular plan.
Employers Are Starting to Pay Attention.
More companies are recognizing that their employees consider pets to be members of the family, and have begun offering pet insurance discounts as part of their benefits packages.
Even if your employer does offer such a discount, it’s important to thoroughly research the insurer and compare other plans before making your final decision. Even with a discount, the insurer your company works with might not be the best option for you and your pet.
As for me, I am still shopping around and comparing plans. It’s a tough decision, but one I’ll need to make fairly soon. What types of pet insurance do you use? Tell us in the comments!