Pet Insurance: Is it Worth it?

The cost of veterinary care can be through the roof. But is pet insurance always a better deal?


Pet Insurance Basics

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This country has gone to the dogs -- not to mention cats, reptiles, fish, and yes, even ferrets. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, more than 69 million households include pets, and when the time comes to fight for Fido's life, pet lovers are ready to put up their dukes -- and dollars. Hence, the newest trend in the multibillion-dollar pet industry: pet insurance.

But according to a recent report, less than 1 percent of the 136 million dogs and cats in the U.S. are covered. With insurance costing an average of $25 per month, savvy pet lovers could avoid the emotional strain of what vets call "economic euthanasia." So why aren't all pet owners signed up?

The Bare Bones

As with human health insurance, pet owners enroll in a plan, usually online, paying a monthly rate based on a quote that varies according to the owner's state of residence, coverage plan, and pet breed. Then, when you need to use the insurance, you pay 100 percent of the vet bill directly out of pocket, fill out a claim form (with the help of your licensed veterinarian), and mail it in to your insurance provider for reimbursement, typically 80 percent of the total cost.

Coverage and Costs

Depending on the type of coverage you're interested in buying for your pet, which can run the gamut from "accident and illness only" to "routine care" options, expect to shell out about $25-64 per month for dogs, and $21-50 on cats -- that's about $2,000-$6,000 over a pet's lifetime. The size and breed of your pet could bump up the cost. For example, Pets Best Insurance charges a 10 percent higher premium on bulldogs because of their susceptibility to respiratory problems. Larger dogs are also more expensive.

Moreover, Brian Ianessa, a spokesperson for the Veterinary Pet Insurance Company, explains that if your pet is adopted, and, therefore, might not have up-to-date medical records, you will need to provide proof of a pet's physical exam within the past year if the pet is 3 years or older. Otherwise, a new physical exam is required. Pets that are not adopted do not need to undergo physical exams unless they are 10 years of age or older, in which case medical records and blood work are required prior to enrollment.

Keep in mind, too, that pets are in the same boat as humans in terms of finding insurance for a pre-existing condition, such as a broken limb or diabetes. Pet insurance is just not going to cover it. The same goes for cancer, unless the policy predates the illness.

Still, given the growing sophistication of animal medical care, technologies such as digital imaging and treatments such as chemotherapy, a trip to the vet's office can cost hundreds, even thousands, of dollars. Vets like Dr. Robert Adelman of Layhill Animal Hospital in Silver Spring, Maryland, hate to see a pet owner forgo a life-saving procedure due to prohibitive cost. "The best thing about pet insurance for us is that it helps people care for their pets when they otherwise might not be able to," he says, "and it helps me provide better care.

Is It Really Worth It?

That depends on who you ask. Pet owner and dog breeder Joanne Prellberg, 46, of Scottsdale, Arizona, is happy that she insured her Burmese Mountain Dog, Gatsby.

"I came home from work and found that his head was swollen and he had a gash on his nose." Rushing him to the vet, the doctors could tell by looking at Gatsby that a rattlesnake had bitten him. His blood was still clotting normally, so with a catheter and anti-venom, he recovered quickly. Total cost? About $900, a discount because Joanne works in a related field. A week and a half later, her insurance company sent her a check for $768.

"Even if I didn't have the insurance, I still would have paid it, probably by credit card," she explains. "But it wasn't that long ago that another one of my dogs had to have knee surgery that cost about $6,000 and I wouldn't have been able to do that. The insurance covered $4,000 of that, too."

On the other hand, Christella Ritchwood, 30, of South Orange, New Jersey, still shrugs her shoulders at the idea of pet insurance, even after her Norfolk Terrier, Jake, suffered an expensive bout with an infected corneal ulcer in his left eye. He had the infection for three weeks, and his cornea eventually burst. Although $750 later he's home now, the vet wouldn't release Jake until Christella came up with the money -- an expense she couldn't really afford, but does not regret paying. "I still don't think pet insurance is really worth it," she explains. "This is the only time he was ever sick and I'll just suck it up again next time."

Finding An Insurer

Although pet insurance is only recently becoming a trend, it's not an entirely new concept. Dr. Jack Stephens was a veterinarian when he formed Veterinary Pet Insurance Company (VPI), www.petinsurance.com, in 1980. Stephens, who has since retired from VPI and started a new company called Pets Best Insurance, www.petsbest.com, says that consumers should make sure to find an insurer who is licensed in their state, and should seek advice from their veterinarian. Because they are not directly paid by the companies, vets can give objective reports of their clients' experiences with insurance companies.

What all pet owners can agree on, however, is the bottom line. As Dr. Stephens explains, "Pets provide an unbelievable value to us -- they improve our physiology and provide so many health benefits to us that they deserve to be protected." That goes for cash or credit, reimbursed or not.

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