Is Pet Insurance the Right Choice for You?

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Dog at veterinary clinic.
It’s difficult to deny that dogs truly are man’s — or woman’s — best friend. They love you unconditionally and don’t care how much money you make or if you’re having a good hair day. But too many pet owners wonder how they’ll care for their best pal when it needs a costly checkup or, worse, becomes seriously ill or has an accident.

The costs to treat accidental poisoning (if your pet ingests food or household items that can threaten its life), chronic illnesses like arthritis and diabetes or life-threatening health scares like pancreatitis and cancer can surge into the thousands. Veterinarian Jules Benson, vice president of veterinary services at Petplan pet insurance, says the average claim submitted to treat pancreatitis is $940, adding, “We have seen claims exceed $6,000.”

“About 35 percent of the cases of pancreatitis that I treat require hospitalization for two to four days,” says veterinarian Jennifer Hennessey with Sugar Land Veterinary Specialists, in Sugarland, Texas. That bill averages around $2,000.

If there’s not enough cash in an emergency savings account, credit cards often are seen as a pet owner’s only option to foot the heavy bill for veterinary services. Some cards, like the CareCredit card, are available to fund only medical emergencies (they’re accepted at a dentist or human doctor, too), or your traditional credit card might be tapped to pay for Fido’s health care. But to prevent digging a deep debt hole or to spare themselves the painful struggle of having to choose between treating a sick dog or cat and saving a bursting budget, many pet owners look to pet health insurance policies.

And as the “mom” to three bichons, I’ve long wondered if our family should take a closer look at pet insurance. And here’s what I learned.

Who is covered?

Happy vet with dog and cat.
Most pet health insurance plans cover only dogs and cats. For instance, Trupanion insurance covers all dogs and cats between 8 weeks and 14 years old. And once your pet has insurance, they’re covered for life as long as you pay the premiums in full.

What is covered?
Veterinarian administering a vaccine.
Don’t expect coverage to begin immediately if your pet is sick or injured. Pet health insurance carriers like Veterinary Pet Insurance have a waiting period of 14 days for accidents and illnesses up to 12 months for certain injuries. Trupanion’s waiting period is five days from the date of the policy for accidents and 30 days for illnesses; other injuries can be five days or longer. And the typical policy is designed to cover unexpected veterinary expenses you cannot prepare for, not routine health visits.

Trupanion does not cover expected expenses that can be budgeted for, such as preventive care, yearly exams, dental cleanings and spaying or neutering. However, pet insurance typically covers accidents and injuries like your dog swallowing a chew toy, a stick lodging between teeth or a fractured leg.

Pre-existing conditions are another story. They are also the stumbling block between me and three shiny new pet health care insurance plans. With most carriers, any health issue that isn’t “pre-existing” — one that first occurred or had symptoms displayed prior to coverage — is eligible for coverage. Trupanion says pre-existing conditions are eligible for review if no symptoms have been present within an 18-month period prior to enrolling. But in our case, that means should one of my dogs need surgery for his bum knee, it might not be covered because he always has what would be considered symptoms.

Medications for conditions like diabetes or similar chronic illnesses are generally covered at 90 percent as long as the condition was diagnosed after the coverage eligibility date.

What is the cost?

Similar to human health care coverage, pet health insurance premiums vary based on a pet’s age, breed and geographical location. The average premium range is $12 to $36 a month for cats and $25 to $65 a month for dogs.

But don’t think having pet health insurance means you’ll never have to shell out money. In most instances, pet owners must pay the vet for treatment and then submit a claim for reimbursement. The claim form must be signed by the veterinarian and be accompanied by an itemized invoice explaining all charges.

Opposing pet insurance

Puppy licking vet's face.
Kenneth E. Sharperson, attorney at Anderson Kill & Olick in Newark, New Jersey, says pet insurance companies capitalize on consumers’ feelings for their pets and cautions that the policy descriptions and wording may be misleading. “The insurance companies use terms like “pre-existing condition,” says Sharperson; however, their use is different from the already widely used and understood definitions of such terms for human health insurance.

He says it’s common for a condition deemed “pre-existing” even if it was diagnosed after the purchase of the policy. “Sometimes insurance companies have limited coverage of that condition to one year, which leads to consumers thinking that the policies are health plans, only to find out that the policies are anything but comprehensive,” says Sharperson.

Before taking the pet health care insurance plunge, read all of the fine print and ask plenty of questions. Then, if you think pet insurance is right for you, rely on this checklist to find the right policy for your pet:
• Is the policy you’re considering easy to understand?
• Are you clear on what is covered and is not covered and what the limitations of coverage are (per year, lifetime, condition)?
• Do you understand the co-insurance and deductibles and if they will fit into your budget if you need to file a claim?
• The American Veterinary Medical Association says a pet insurance policy should meet the rules and regulations of the insurance commission of your state and provide coverage using ethical standards approved by the insurance industry. Ask the insurer if it’s licensed to in your state, and check with your vet or the Better Business Bureau for any referrals or history of complaints.

Photo credit: Getty ThinkStock

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