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Pet Insurance: What’s Right For You?

Dog poised to eat his own pet insurance policy

As nutty as I can get when it comes to berating myself for the things I should have done with Frankie, there’s only one thing I regret with any rationality: Not getting pet insurance for him.

So every now and then, as a public service announcement — usually after I come back from my vet — I dedicate a post to the topic.

Why Pet Insurance?

It’s against the law not to have car insurance and I wouldn’t dream of not having health insurance for myself, though I scream and curse at the insurers and their rising premiums and restrictions.

I also have homeowner’s insurance, which I’m sorry to report I’ve had to use because of break ins.

And yet…the idea of insuring my most precious possession, Frankie, was not on my radar. In my defense, it wasn’t really part of the conversation about dogs seven years ago when I adopted him. By the time I became aware that pet insurance existed and was a good thing,  Frankie was too old to get the most useful kind, and he was already diabetic. Talk about preexisting conditions.

What About the Expense?

Every time I’ve brought up this topic before, someone asks why I would want to add another expense to my already considerable group of bills. That’s not the issue. Unless you have a robotic dog, there are always going to be health care or accident costs. It’s about having an anticipated, manageable monthly expense vs getting hit with a crazy expensive bill — or with the awful awareness that you can’t afford to pay for a treatment that might help.

There are people who set aside money each month for health care expenses, including for their pets. I applaud them; I just do not walk among them.

And the good news: Pet insurance is getting to be so common that prices have become more and more competitive (while not being common enough that the large companies have agreed to fix prices as they do with human health care in the US, she says cynically). You should always take the time to compare dog insurance quotes in order to find the best fit for your pet and for you.

What to Look For in Pet Insurance

It’s not always a question of finding the most inexpensive policy. It’s most important to find one that best matches your needs and your life circumstances. In all cases, be sure to check the small print.

A few questions to consider:

What is the policy’s deductible?

Some policies have a general deductible. Others have a condition deductible, so you can’t claim the first $50, say, in vet fees for a particular condition. This should be only payable once per condition, so if it recurs or is ongoing you don’t have to pay the deductible again for the rest of the policy year.

What are the exclusions?

There are always exclusions, usually related to the breed of the dog. For example, hip dysplasia may be covered for some breeds, but excluded in others, such as German shepherds, who are at high risk of developing the disorder. No insurer will cover you for a condition that existed prior to you taking out an insurance policy. Other exclusions may include preventable diseases, that is, those for which routine vaccines are available. Pregnancy-related expenses and nonessential procedures are other common exclusions.

Does the policy cover all or part of the vet bill?

Most insurers only cover part of the vet fees, say 70 or 80%. This is in addition to the deductible, and again you can often make this amount higher or lower by increasing or decreasing your premium.

What are the age restrictions?

Most insurers have age limits on new policies, and will not accept older animals — usually over 9 years old — as new clients. A pet insured continuously from a younger age, however, should be eligible to remain insured for her entire life.

What are the annual caps (limits)?

Insurers have an annual cap on what they will pay out on a policy, and within this limit there may be sub-limits. Annual amounts paid out for each condition or for medications, for example, may be capped.

Do they pay the vet directly, or are you expected to pay the vet and then be reimbursed by the insurance company?

Some vets don’t like the former type of insurance because they don’t get paid quickly enough; some owners are concerned that they won’t be reimbursed in a timely fashion. This is crucial to your choice so search peer review sites for what other people are saying about any potential insurer.

What are the payment options?

Usually you will have flexible options allowing you to pay annually, bi-annually, or monthly to make the premium costs fit your circumstances.

Do you have a choice of veterinarians?

Most plans let you see anyone you like; others are similar to HMOs, limiting you to certain health-care providers.

Is there a good prescription policy?

You often end up spending far more money on medicines than on office visits and services, so be sure your plan offers good coverage.

Is the language specific?

You’ll find plans that say they reimburse you for “reasonable and customary fees.” That’s way too much wiggle room. You’re far better off with an insurer that provides a chart detailing what you can expect to get back for what you pay out.

Are there rate guarantees?

Some companies adjust their premiums on a quarterly basis; that means if they pay a claim they can raise your rates in the next period. Make sure the company you choose offers contracts for at least one year, with no fee-rise adjustments if you submit a claim.

Is the policy renewable?

You want a plan that doesn’t consider a condition diagnosed after you first contracted with the company as pre-existing, and thus as a reason for not renewing your insurance.

Some things you might not have considered….

In addition to covering your pets against the cost of veterinary treatment, some policies will also provide third party cover in case they damage the property of others. This can be particularly beneficial if you have a canine escape artist. Similarly, some pet insurers provide help with pet care — the cost of boarding for a specific period, usually — if something happens to you and you need to go to the hospital.

For those who have, or who have considered getting, pet insurance: Have I missed any other things to look at?

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21 Comments

  1. Posted October 31, 2011 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    These are some good things to consider. We never insured Bella, and now I really wish that I had (especially in light of the recent bills for her lump removal, etc.). I’ve considered looking for policies that will accept seniors, but I’m not sure if it would be worth it. However, I will definitely be checking into it when I add another pup to the household.

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 7:11 am | Permalink

      I’ve checked into some senior insurance policies but it’s mostly accident oriented and Frankie’s behavior — i.e., he doesn’t run off or get into stuff — doesn’t warrant the expense. If only there were dental plans for pups (I’m thinking of future dogs too) — but I suspect most pet insurers would not include it. Few human insurers do!

  2. Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    I’ve thought about it, but by the time I thought of it my dogs were already older and the advice I got was that its not worth it for seniors. My long-term foster has incurred nary an expense for the 2 years I’ve had him, while my senior dog has cost thousands for random things. It does seem like overall, it would be a good thing to have!

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      Yeah, that’s what I think — not worth it for dogs who haven’t been signed up early on and are therefore eligible for senior care but well worth it to start early on… just in case.

  3. Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Mea culpa. I’m so sorry I didn’t purchase insurance for Sadie. My last dog was so healthy throughout her life that years would go by without vet visits except for annual exams. Who knew Sadie, who I got from the same breeder as my last dog (as if that really means anything), would have one trouble after another?

    A friend of mine was smarter. She bought health insurance for her dog, also a standard poodle, and it’s a good thing she did. He’s almost 5 years old and has cost her well over $15,000 in vet bills for all sorts illnesses and accidents. Oy.

  4. Posted October 31, 2011 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    SO MANY people ask me “Why didn’t you get pet insurance for Stan?”…especially when they find out how much money I’ve spent on his care. I always say exactly what you wrote about Frankie–when I got Stan 8 years ago, pet insurance really wasn’t part of the conversation. IIn fact, I remember thinking about getting pet insurance and people (vets included) telling me it was not to waste my money.

    Stan’s ailments probably wouldn’t have been covered, either, as disc disease and disc herniations are common to Pekingese. He’s got too many issues now for me to do anything about it! I do recommend to friends that they look into pet insurance or set aside money to pay for vet care. After all the money I spent on Stan I started putting some aside for future senior care, just to have a cushion. Great article Edie! I’m sending it to friends!

  5. Posted October 31, 2011 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    I’m a huge proponent of pet insurance. Maggie came with a 30 day policy when we adopted her and we decided to extend it and keep it going. Within 2 years, the insurance had paid for 8 years of premiums! The best part was that when she needed surgery to correct her lady parts and solve the chronic UTIs, we didn’t have to think about whether we could afford it or not. Thanks for highlighting the important of pet insurance! I couldn’t agree more.

  6. Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    I’m lucky that we’ve done ok with self-insurance (keeping a cushion to cover expenses as they come up.) But I’m not sure how we’d deal with a long-term, chronic condition like diabetes. That’s one of those crazy things where life really throws you a loop.

    I’m curious to know how having insurance changes people’s views of what is appropriate treatment for their dogs. I attended a workshop on pet hospice this weekend and I’m really wondering about the intersection of money and ideas about appropriate care when it comes to our animals.

    Do you think people are choosing invasive care for their dogs that might not be in the dog’s best interest because insurance is available?

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      I interviewed the founders of a specialty vet practice for a story I did and I got the impression that people are choosing complicated procedures because the procedures are available because of advances in veterinary science, not because of insurance. Insurance simply takes cost out of the equation and puts choice back in. It would be terrible to know that you don’t have an option for care because you can’t afford it.

  7. Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    I have 6 personal dogs excluding those who are adoptable. The two for whom I consider pet insurance are my tweenie Dachshunds because they are prone to back disorders and IVDD. However, in reading this post and comments, I wonder if they will be ineligible simply because of their breed; otherwise they are healthy, though Danny Quinn, a puppy mill puppy, needs a full blown dental each year due to his noxious start in life. Thanks for the information.

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

      I suspect that your doxies may be excluded from coverage on back issues, specifically, but eligible for coverage of other types of conditions. If it’s any consolation, lots of small dogs — including Frankie — need dentals yearly (or even more often), even if you take good care of their teeth. A company that covered dentals would instantly go broke!

  8. Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    I think you did a great job of covering the things to consider when purchasing pet insurance, Edie. One thing I would add is to consider the reputation of the company underwriting the policy. You don’t want to purchase a policy for your pet, pay the premiums regularly and then found out the company has gone out of business or otherwise disappeared when it comes time to pay a claim.

    I would also add that I know lots of pet owners that regret not purchasing pet insurance. There are situations where having insurance may mean the difference between being able to take care of your pet properly or not. Some medical conditions can be very expensive (into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars) to treat. If you can afford those types of unexpected costs, you probably don’t need pet insurance. But I don’t know very many people who can afford an unexpected bill of several thousand dollars for their pet, especially in today’s economy.

    Thanks for talking about this, Edie. Great post!

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for responding, Lorie; I really appreciate getting the vet’s perspective on this.

  9. Posted October 31, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    We have it for Lilly because it came with her adoption @ 6 months old, and we simply continued it. It’s like $35/month, and it has paid out a few times, where it was a big help … her first rattlesnake bite, her paintball poisoning, for example.

    In fact, I just got a check over the weekend for about 1/3 of her recent surgical biopsy. The total was roughly $300. My deductible is $100. My co-payment (30%) was $88.25, and they paid $105. So, even though I have a 70/30 plan, this time the reimbursement amount (I pay the bill in full to the vet, and the insurance sends ME a check.) was only about 30%, instead of 70%.

    The only times it has really added up to a true 70% of the total bill was for SUPER expensive stuff.

    I often toy with dumping it, but then I get superstitious about it and keep it.

    Next time with any new dogs, I’ll likely do more comparison shopping.

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      It sounds like, on balance, the policy has paid for itself if the super expensive stuff was covered. But yes, I imagine that things have changed enough since Lilly’s puppyhood to make policies much more competitive these days.

  10. Posted October 31, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    I absolutely hate insurance of all kinds and most of the time feel like it’s legalized rip-off so while I have insurance on my house, my health, and my car — I have never even thought about getting it for my dogs. Painter could’ve used it and Lily was not sick until she turned 10. I have heard good and bad. I looked into it for Jett (and it was almost $500/year). I didn’t fill out the paperwork. Now Girlfriend Greyhound is slightly older I probably could’ve used it for her. We did get the CARE credit card which doesn’t charge interest. I have not seen a bill yet and only certain vets accept it. Good info though. I like to throw the dice.

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted October 31, 2011 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

      I hear you, Karyn — though I wouldn’t think anyone as opposed as you are to gambling (ok, only the greyhound kind) would like to throw the dice 😉

    • Posted November 1, 2011 at 7:39 am | Permalink

      I used Care Credit for all three of Stan’s major medical expenses. If you’re a responsible credit user it can be a lifesaver. But, if you miss a payment they really get you with the interest! I’m really thankful I was eligible for the credit card though!

      • Edie Jarolim
        Posted November 1, 2011 at 8:45 am | Permalink

        Thanks for the heads up on Care Credit, Erin. I’ll pass the word along to my friend Karyn. And, belatedly, thanks for your nice words about the article and for passing it along. Your Stanny is even more of a poster child for insurance regret than Frankie!

  11. Posted November 1, 2011 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    Many moons ago, I wrote a blog post about health insurance for pets. My general consensus was that unless you are getting one of the “platinum” plans, they just aren’t worth the money that you pay in premiums.

    http://www.doggiestylish.com/store/blog/2010/01/the-great-pet-insurance-rip-off/

  12. Posted November 2, 2011 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    We have pet insurance for Ty, but when we found Buster he started having seizures before I got around to getting him a policy. I look at it like so many other things – I don’t like paying for it, but one day I may be very glad I did. Cancer is so common in dogs these days, I guess the premiums I pay for Ty’s policy are worth the peace of mind I get from the protection.

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