Pet Insurance

Healthcare is expensive for humans and pets, but when you compare the costs of similar procedures, pet healthcare is a bargain. As an example, surgery to repair a torn cruciate ligament in a person’s knee could run over $20,000, while the repair for a dog averages $5,000. People with health insurance likely don’t realize the difference because, having health insurance, they don’t see the actual cost of their own surgery. They notice their out-of-pocket cost, which may be $3,000—less than the cost for their dog. So what can you do to also reduce healthcare for your pet?

Four Lakes Veterinary Clinic’s employee Peg adopted a young, very active Dalmatian. Having had Dalmatians previously, she knew they’re prone to bladder stones, allergies, and sometimes behavioral problems, and that as a larger breed dog, knee and hip issues are also a concern. After working in a vet clinic, she became more aware of dogs eating socks, tearing their cruciate ligaments, requiring prescription foods, having dental disease, and developing cancer. Peg knew she couldn’t cover large, unanticipated vet bills, so she looked into pet insurance and then shared what she learned with me.

There are three types of coverage.

  1. Wellness. Covers annual exams, routine lab work, heartworm testing, vaccines, teeth cleaning, and spay/neuter surgeries. Not all insurers have a wellness plan.

  2. Accidental. Includes broken bones, torn ligaments, bite wounds, intestinal foreign bodies, etc.

  3. Illness. For things like allergies, cancer, arthritis, urinary tract infections, etc. Note that preexisting conditions and the age of your pet may reduce or eliminate some benefits.

Unlike human insurance that has networks and fee adjustments to reduce your payment to the provider, most pet insurance companies reimburse you for the cost of veterinary care; you pay then submit a claim for reimbursement. The reimbursement amount will depend on the policy details; exclusions; procedure allowances; and the plan’s deductible, which can vary from $0 to $2,500 per year. Reimbursement is typically 70 to 90 percent.

Some plans have annual dollar limits—Peg found $5,000 to be common, although one highly advertised company had a limit of only $1,000. Some plans also have lifetime maximums, and many have age restrictions and won’t insure older pets. Waiting periods are common. Peg reviewed one plan that had a 14-day waiting period for illness, 3 days for an accident, and 6 months for cruciate ligament injuries. The time to purchase insurance is certainly before your pet needs it.

Each company has coverage exclusions, which you’ll want to take note of. Some don’t cover alternative therapies, like chiropractic treatment or holistic medicine, behavioral treatment, or prescription medication or food. And some companies’ wellness or preventive care is only covered if you purchase an additional policy.

While Peg’s initial question was how she could afford pet insurance, it became how could she not afford it, so she moved forward to get quotes. ASPCA, PetsBest, Pet Plan, Progressive, and Petfirst have websites, which made option comparisons and quote requests easier. Not surprising, deductible and reimbursement percentages have a big impact on the monthly premium.

Purebred and large-breed dogs cost more to insure because of potential hereditary conditions. Pets living in the city are more expensive than those in the country. Cats can be insured, and their premiums tend to be lower. Some carriers, like Nationwide, will insure birds and exotic pets. Enrolling your pet when they’re young locks in lower premiums, and there probably won’t be any restrictions. Waiting and then enrolling an older pet can mean limited coverage, fewer options, and higher expenses. Plus, preexisting conditions may not be covered.

It’s important to look at the specifics of the plan you are considering. As with other things, don’t select one simply because it’s the cheapest. Bivvy only costs $10 per month for each pet, but they have a one-year waiting period for orthopedic problems, a $250 deductible, and a $1,000 annual limit. And while they have a $25,000 lifetime payout, that means your pet would need to live to age 25 to reach the limit!

Peg narrowed down to ASPCA and PetsBest. ASPCA was more expensive, but their insurance covered exam fees; prescription medications; alternative therapies, including stem cell treatments; and a microchip, which is only available as an add-on option with PetsBest. ASPCA also provided a 10 percent discount for other pets, while PetsBest only gave a 5 percent discount. But PetsBest’s accident waiting period was only 3 days, compared to 14 days for ASPCA.

If your employer offers pet insurance, take the benefit. I diagnosed bone cancer in the mouth of an eight-year-old rottweiler, and the family was devastated. The surgery to remove the cancer was over $10,000. Fortunately, they had pet insurance through their employer, so they didn’t have to make their treatment decision based on money—that’s never a good place to be.

Get quotes from established pet insurance companies to determine if a plan is right for you. Your pet will love you for it!

Lori Scarlett, DVM, is the owner and veterinarian at Four Lakes Veterinary Clinic. For more information, visit fourlakesvet.com .

Photograph by Brenda Eckhardt