Twenty years ago, if you suggested getting a pet health insurance policy, most pet owners would have taken it as a joke.
Not anymore. As veterinary treatments have gotten more advanced and sophisticated -- and vet bills for serious conditions can quickly add up to thousands of dollars -- buying pet health insurance is something to consider.
Don Klingborg, DVM, is associate dean for extension and public programs and director of the Center for Continuing Professional Education at the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine. He tells WebMD that only about 5% of U.S. pet owners have pet insurance. But in other countries, he says, pet medical insurance has caught on among a much higher percentage of the population.
One reason for the difference is that these insurance products are relatively new here. Pet insurance appeared only about 15 years ago, but it is slowly building. Today, there are a handful of companies and organizations that offer plans.
If you have a new kitten or puppy -- or an older pet about whose health you have concerns -- here are some things to consider before you buy a pet health insurance policy or choose a plan.
What is pet insurance?
"Pet insurance is very much like human insurance," says Jo Sullivan, executive vice president of external affairs for the ASPCA in New York. She notes that the same general principles and array of options exist.
"Pets live longer and longer lives these days, thanks to advances in medical care," she says. As treatment options have become more sophisticated and more widely available, they’ve also become more expensive. Veterinarians now routinely perform hip replacements and administer cancer treatments, Sullivan says. "But longevity definitely comes with a price tag."
Which types of pets are covered by pet health insurance?
Pet insurance plans primarily are for dogs and cats, Sullivan says. She’s not aware of any plans that cover more exotic or uncommon household pets, such as ferrets or snakes. "Everyone,” she says, “seems to be sticking to primary companion animals."
What services does pet health insurance cover?
Basic plans offer reimbursement for accident or illness expenses only. But there are plans that cover such routine needs as vaccinations. Coverage on some plans may include dental care, flea prevention, prescription medicines, and common medical screening tests, such as blood work, fecal examination, and urinalysis.
With all plans, there can be caps or limitations on coverage. For instance, a company may pay only up to a certain amount per incident of illness or per accident.
Sometimes, pre-existing conditions are excluded. "Some of the higher-quality programs will waive pre-existing," Sullivan says. Or a plan may not exclude a common pre-existing condition that requires fairly inexpensive treatments, she adds. Sullivan suggests that before you get a plan, you should ask about coverage for pre-existing conditions.
How much does pet health insurance cost?
Costs vary. Typically the fees are paid monthly and there may also be an annual fee.
Online quotes are easily accessible. For instance, an ASPCA basic plan for a one-year-old mixed Beagle puppy living in Los Angeles would cost $8.99 a month with an annual issuance fee of $10.50. It's a level 1 plan, which is basic accident coverage. Boosting coverage to accident and illness would increase the premium to $26.64 a month. A plan that adds wellness care would be $43.23 a month. The premiere plan, with the most extensive coverage, is $72.01 per month.
John Tait, DVM, president of the American Animal Hospital Association, says it’s important to ask if the premium changes as the pet ages. “Most,” he says, “are flat premiums that don’t change as the pet ages."
How much does pet health insurance pay?
Pet health insurance plans range from basic to deluxe, and the coverage varies from plan to plan. Typically, pet insurance plans are set up with a deductible that ranges from $100 to much higher. Then, Sullivan says, much like the human "fee-for-service" or indemnity model, the plans provide an 80% reimbursement for covered expenses.
Plans are likely not to pay for "cosmetic" procedures, Klingborg says. For instance, ear crops, often performed on show dogs, won't likely be covered unless they are medically necessary.
Plans offered online often include a schedule of coverages.
How can I find a reputable provider of pet insurance policies?
Asking your vet to recommend a plan is a good first step. They're not permitted to sell pet insurance, Sullivan says, so you don't have to worry about them pushing "their" plan. She also tells WebMD that your vet will likely recommend a plan that other clients have had success with.
No single organization, as yet, sets policy or standards for pet health insurance, but plans are regulated state by state by the state attorney general's office. Sullivan says you can call your state attorney general's office and ask if any complaints have been filed against the company or companies you are considering.
You can also ask others with the plan to tell you about their experiences.
What should I look for when shopping for a pet insurance policy?
It sounds obvious, but try to fit the policy to your pet's needs and your own. If you can easily handle routine vaccination expenses for one pet, you may not need a wellness coverage policy.
But if you have four dogs or cats, such a plan might be cost-effective.
If you have questions after reading the marketing material, call the company and ask what is covered and what isn't.
If you have more than one pet, Sullivan suggests you ask if you can get a group rate. Two dogs in a single household might get a group rate, but it's less likely to be given to a dog and a cat under the same roof.
When should I buy pet medical insurance?
''Better late than never is one approach," Klingborg says. "However, it would make sense to look into it if you are bringing a new animal home."
"A lot of these companies focus on wellness care,” Klingborg says. ”So they will often provide very good reimbursement for the vaccination series and for spaying and neutering. All of those [services] are associated with fewer animal [health] problems in the future."
If you wait, a health condition in an older dog or cat might rule out coverage.
Sullivan, for instance, can't get coverage for her 16-year-old Lab, who has heart disease and a history of ear and knee problems.
You might ask your vet if your particular breed has a tendency for certain health problems, especially expensive or complicated problems, Tait says. "Saint Bernards and German Shepherds are prone to orthopedic problems," he says. "Boxers are prone to heart problems. Little dogs, like pugs, often have breathing problems."
What are the pluses of covering my pet?
With a good coverage plan, you will be less likely to face substantial veterinary bills, of course. Also, your pet may be healthier if you are more likely to take advantage of wellness checkups.
"It brings someone else's wallet to the table,” says Klingborg, “particularly when you are facing an emergency situation.” Many animals are euthanized, he says, because owners simply can't pay a large or unexpected vet bill.
Is pet insurance really worth it?
The answer hinges on a lot of factors, including personal finances and your own comfort with financial risks, say Tait and Klingborg. “I think it is a matter of personal risk tolerance, as the decision is with most other forms of insurance,” Tait says. Those with high risk tolerance may look at the premiums and decide not to spend the money. They could put the amount of the premium into savings and prepare that way for future health care expenses.
But animal owners with low risk tolerance may see the insurance as a way to reduce that risk, especially if they have pets that may be prone to expensive health problems. For some, Klingborg say, having the insurance takes some of the uncertainty out of the future. “We can’t predict the future,’’ he says, "and insurance is there to help individuals when the unexpected happens to them.” Having the insurance, he says, might make the difference between saving an animal and having to make the painful decision to euthanize it.
But from a purely financial point of view, some experts contend that pet insurance premiums may not be wise for all animal owners. In a review published in Consumer Reports, experts advised readers not to buy the insurance for managing checkup costs alone and advised owners with older animals to consider affordable accident-and-illness policies (rather than more comprehensive plans) or to deposit the cost of premiums into an interest-bearing account instead.
Are there other ways to pay for costly for medical emergencies?
If you're faced with a large bill, some veterinarians offer payment plans, sometimes at low interest, Sullivan says.
Another option is to ask if your veterinarian works with a pet-care financing company. Many of these offer low-interest or no-interest plans if the balances are paid within a specified number of months, typically 3 to 18.