Pet Insurance: An Unknown & Underutilized Entity

by Teresa Garden, DVM

The dire economy of the past few years has caused many of us to re-evaluate and change our spending and saving habits. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But many of those facing financial hardship are having to make tough choices when it comes to veterinary care for their pets. This is why I find myself pondering the pros and cons of pet health insurance through a new set of eyes. Pet insurance can be a helpful tool for pet owners who prefer to budget for veterinary care rather than pay for large or unexpected expenses using credit cards or a savings account. An insurance policy on your pet could give peace of mind knowing you can provide the best veterinary care for your pet and be financially protected at the same time. The goal of pet insurance companies is to make pet care more affordable. An unexpected illness or injury can lead to a financial crisis for some pet owners. It can be anguishing and heartbreaking for a pet owner to have to make a difficult medical decision due to lack of resources.

At the present time few pet owners carry health insurance on their pets. Interest in pet insurance has increased as spending on veterinary care has increased. The average routine vet visit nationally costs $200; a surgical visit is $450. New diagnostic procedures such as MRI and CT scans can be life-saving but can cost $1500-$2500. Cancer treatments such as surgery, chemo, and radiation are becoming routine yet can be cost prohibitive for some pet owners. It is worth noting that the ASPCA reports pet owners spend on average $225 per year for insurance on a pet. Most insurance plans reimburse the owner 50-90 % of covered expenses. Most plans carry a cap.  A typical annual cap or ceiling ranges from $7,000 to $20,000. Many plans will allow you to mix and match benefits to best suit your needs and pocket book. Most plans offer a discount for insuring multiple pets. Coverage, co-pays, caps, and deductibles vary widely from policy to policy. As with human health insurance: READ THE FINE PRINT! Pet insurance plans may contain exclusions such as: behavioral problems, breeding problems, pre-existing conditions, hereditary conditions, and congenital problems.

Pet health insurance is not modeled after human health insurance. The pet owner must submit the claim form. The veterinary clinic will usually fill out the medical information on the form. The fee for the vet visit is paid by the client at the time service is rendered. The insurance company then reimburses the pet owner after the claim is submitted and processed.  Most plans will allow any veterinarian to be used:  private practice, specialist, university, or emergency.

When comparing different plans consider the following: age limits, waiting periods, exclusions, coverage caps/ceilings, benefits, co-pay choices, deductible choices, and multiple pet discounts. Ask if chronic conditions are covered, do premiums increase, and how long does it take to get reimbursed. No two plans are alike. As an example, Embrace Pet Insurance company offers customized plans based on breed and geographic location. They offer coverage for alternative therapies such as acupuncture-most plans do not. They also cover hereditary and chronic conditions whereas most plans do not. The ASPCA Pet Health Insurance company uses a portion of the premium to support their work. Their plans will cover spaying and neutering which they support but will not cover surgical procedures they are opposed to such as tail docking, ear cropping, and declawing. Other companies to consider are: VPI (Veterinary Pet Insurance), Pets Best Insurance, Petplan USA, Purina Care, Trupanion Pet Insurance, and AKC Pet Healthcare Plan.

When is the right time to purchase pet health insurance? BEFORE there is a crisis, injury or diagnosis of major illness. It may be wise to consider it when first getting a new puppy or kitten. When adopting an adult pet from a shelter or rescue group it may be prudent to purchase a plan. These animals need a lot of love and often they may have medical conditions that need attention. A health insurance plan can provide a lifetime of high quality veterinary health care for your pet and perhaps save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars along the way. You may find the following websites helpful in considering a plan for you and your pet: www.healthypet.com, www.ncvei.org, www.naphia.org, and www.petinsurance.com.

Dr. Teresa Garden is chief veterinarian/owner of Animal Health & Healing, a full-service holistic and conventional veterinary practice in the Maplewood / Richmond Heights area. AnimalHealthandHealing.com; phone: 314-781-1738.