9 Things You Should Know about Pet Health Insurance

We pay for car insurance, homeowner’s insurance, and health insurance for ourselves and our family.

We may have life insurance and perhaps an all-encompassing umbrella insurance policy. Plus, if you own your own business, you have insurance for that, too. Now many experts are advising us to buy health insurance for our pets.

A friend of mine used pet insurance to help her dog live far longer with cancer than she otherwise would have. The pet insurance paid for cancer treatments as well as hospice care towards the end of the dog’s life. Her experience isn’t unusual; several pet owners gave pet health insurance glowing reviews, yet other pets owners I talked to complained that there were too many restrictions and exclusions, and figuring out what was covered and what wasn’t was difficult.

I’m not going to make a decision for you as to whether pet insurance is necessary or a rip-off; that’s a decision only you can make. However, there are some things you should know (or questions you should ask) about pet health insurance prior to making a decision.

Could You Pay Your Pet’s Bills Without Insurance?

If you didn’t have pet health insurance, could you pay for your pet’s health care costs on your own? For example, if your dog swallowed a tennis ball and needed surgery, that could cost upwards of $2000; depending on where you live. Take a look at your budget or your savings; do you have some leeway to add a large bill if your pet needed care?

Some pet owners start a dedicated savings account and deposit the money they would otherwise use to pay the insurance premiums. This can work if you don’t raid the savings account for other expenses. Keep in mind, too, interest rates paid on savings accounts is negligible so don’t count on that helping to build the account.

Pet owners often open a credit card that will be used only for pet health costs. This can work, especially in an emergency, but make sure you figure in the interest charges on the balance of that credit card as they can add up quickly if the balance isn’t paid promptly.

With Insurance You Still Have to Pay the Bill

When you have pet health insurance, your veterinarian doesn’t bill the insurance company for payment. You still have to pay the bill and then submit for reimbursement. So if you use money out of your budget, your savings, or a credit card, you can replace that money used (minus the deductible) when the insurance company reimburses you.

How long the reimbursement takes depends on the company and whether any additional information is needed. If paperwork is complete, I’ve heard from some pet owners that they have received a check with a week and a half. Other companies have taken much longer.

Various Types of Coverage

Most pet health insurance companies offer a variety of plans and some will even provide customized plans to suit your pet’s needs. The costs vary, of course, depending on the coverage.

A wellness plan generally covers annual examinations, vaccinations, worming, spaying and neutering, and sometimes dental care. A major medical plan, also called a catastrophic coverage plan, pays for accidents, emergencies, and other incidents that require immediate help. A comprehensive plan usually combines both wellness and major medical.

A few companies offer genetic condition coverage. For example, if your dog is of a breed prone to a specific medical issue, this plan would cover your dog’s care should this condition occur. This plan tends to be expensive.

Chronic condition coverage is not offered by all insurance companies. It covers a chronic condition that, when diagnosed, might last your pet’s life time. This might include something like arthritis or diabetes.

When doing your own research for pet health insurance, talk to several companies and ask what they offer because individual companies may arrange their coverage or plans in different ways.

Deductibles, Annual Limits, and Prescription Drugs

Most plans allow you to choose a higher or lower deductible. Just as with your automobile insurance, a higher one (for example, $300 to $500) means you will pay more of each veterinary bill but your monthly premiums will be lower. A lower deductible (perhaps $100 to $200) means the opposite; you’ll be reimbursed more of the bill but will have a higher monthly bill.

Some companies and coverage plans have an annual limit of reimbursements. For example, in researching companies, right away I found one company that has a $5000 annual maximum on reimbursements and two others with a $10,000 annual maximum. This may seem like a lot of money but if your dog is being treated for cancer or needs surgery, costs increase quickly.

It’s always important to read the fine print because it can affect your out of pocket costs. A few companies state in the fine print that take-home prescription drugs are not included in their reimbursements. Medications can be expensive so make sure you find out before you sign on the dotted line whether take home drugs are covered or not as well as any other exclusions.

What Happens when Your Pet Grows Older?

Some (but not all) pet health insurance companies make it clear they would rather not cover older pets. A common way to do this is by increasing premiums for older pets so much so that pet owners refuse to continue the insurance. The company might also exclude coverage for chronic diseases that are often found in older pets, such as arthritis, or place a lifetime limit on reimbursing for that care.

Again, when researching companies, ask what happens as your pet grows older. How much do the premiums increase? How does the company handle geriatric health concerns? Are there lifetime limits for certain health problems?

If you are enrolling an older pet, you may find that many companies won’t enroll an older pet or if they do, it will be under a very limited plan. Check on that before enrolling.

Read the Plan and then Read it Again

As with any insurance, before you sign up for it, read the plan. Know what the plan covers, what it doesn’t cover, what exclusions there are, and what limits the plan has. Make sure you understand what breed limits there might be, if any, and what happens as your pet grows older.

If you’re talking to a customer service representative, get the person’s name and company identification number, if there is one, and make notes. Then ask for any information that you’re interested in or feel needs clarification, to be put in writing. Have it emailed to you or added to your pet’s policy. Get everything important in writing!

Some of the pet owners I talked to who were disappointed in pet health insurance were unhappy because they were caught unaware. They either hadn’t read the plan completely or had read it and didn’t really understand the plan. Their disappointment perhaps could have been lessened had they asked more questions.

Talk to Your Veterinarian (and his Staff)

When researching pet health insurance companies, I found my veterinarian and her office manager to be a great help. They hear the good and bad about insurance, and help many pet owners with the paperwork needed by some companies. Find out which companies your veterinarian and her office manager like, which companies seem to be the easiest to work with in your region, and which are the most difficult. Take all this into consideration as you’re making your decision.

As with anything, there are pros and cons to enrolling your pet in a pet health insurance plan or not. Just do your research—more than just talking to friends—and ask each company’s representative a lot of questions. Compare answers, costs, reimbursements, and coverages. Take a look at your own budget, too, to see if you would be better off covering costs on your own. Then with all this information, make your own decision.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika, CDT, CABC

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer and Certified Animal Behavior Consultant as well as the founder and co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in northern San Diego county. Liz is also the founder of Love on a Leash therapy dogs; her dog, Bones, goes on visits on a regular basis. A prolific writer, Liz is also the author of more than 80 books. Many of her works have been nominated or won awards from a variety of organizations, including Dog Writers Association of America, San Diego Book Awards, the ASPCA, and others. Liz shares her home with three English Shepherds: Bones, Hero, and Seven, as well as one confident and bossy orange tabby cat, Kirk. To relax from work, or to take work on the road, Liz and her crew travel the West and PNW in their RV. If you see an RV on the road named "Travelin' Dogs", honk and say hi!

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