Just like their owners, dogs and cats are living longer than ever and running up some pretty big medical bills in the process. While most humans are covered by some kind of health insurance, many pets are not -- and this can present a big problem when illness or injury strikes.
The same modern diagnostic and treatment procedures used on pet owners -- x-rays, MRIs, chemotherapy and microsurgery -- are now available for dogs, cats and other companion animals, but a major illness can run up a $10,000 bill.
And, unlike humans, animals have no guaranteed rights. A hospital can't turn away emergencies but animal hospitals can and do. Not only that, but many animal hospitals demand payment upfront, so if your pet gets sick or injured, it means you will either have to cough up a working credit card or quite a lot of cash to get any help. That's not easy and pet owners all too often wind up spending the month's rent money on their sick pet.
Looked at strictly from a financial standpoint, having an uninsured pet is a financial disaster just waiting to happen. Unless you are wealthy enough to self-insure, having insurance that will at least pay some of the cost of a major illness or accident is essential.
While dogs, cats, humans and other mammals are basically the same inside, the similarities end when it comes to insurance. Leaving aside deductibles and other details, human insurance generally covers everything that can happen to us -- illness, accident and some preventive care.
Pet insurance, on the other hand, is generally broken into three categories:
- accident; and
It just so happens that this is also how costs tend to run. Preventive insurance, covering vaccinations and so forth, is the cheapest. Accident insurance covers injuries caused by accidents and is generally mid-range in terms of price. Comprehensive covers everything -- from ear infections to cancer -- and, not surprisingly, is the most expensive.
Older dogs and cats are, of course, more likely to get sick and therefore comprehensive insurance is much more expensive and may even be unavailable for them. Also, purebred animals are more likely to have genetic conditions that predispose them to certain illnesses so comprehensive insurance for them may also be more expensive.
How to prepare
So here's the question every pet owner needs to ask him- or herself: how can I best prepare for a serious accident or illness affecting my pet?
The idea behind insurance is that it helps pay for things you could not otherwise afford. Homeowners insurance pays off when your house burns down. Good thing too, as most of us couldn't afford to rebuild our home from scratch. Cell phone insurance pays off if your iPhone falls in front of a bus.
Which one can you do without?
That's right -- you can do without cell phone insurance but you can't do without homeowners insurance. You can always scrape together enough money for a new cell phone but not for a new house.
Same thing with pets: you don't really need insurance for preventive care because it only amounts to a few hundred dollars a year. Unless you're wealthy, you do need insurance that covers serious illness or injury, even if you have to accept a high deductible to make it affordable.
Let's say your dog comes down with cancer and the treatment is expected to cost $8,000. A policy with a $250 deductible might cost you several hundred dollars a year but it could save you thousands -- and it might also save your pet's life. (Obviously, you need to have the insurance before your pet gets sick. The insurance company won't issue a policy on a burning house and it won't knowingly insure a sick pet either).
After all, when a pet becomes seriously ill, if you can't afford to pay thousands of dollars for treatment, the only humane option is to keep the poor creature as comfortable as possible as it nears the Rainbow Bridge -- hospice care, in other words.
This may also be the only realistic option with an older animal that no longer qualifies for comprehensive insurance but, hey, we all die and if it happens after a long life of gnawing on bones, chasing balls and sitting in laps, it's not so bad.
So for all those reasons, having insurance on your pet is just another cost of being human in the 21st century. It's not really optional.
Which plan is best? Well, taking into account all the things we talked about above, it's the one that provides the best and most affordable coverage for your specific animal at its current stage of life. The plan that's best today may not be best five years from now, so an annual review is highly recommended.
There are many pet insurers out there and they all have their fans and their detractors. Check our site for consumer comments on specific companies but keep in mind that some of those who complain about their plan may be guilty of not picking the right plan or simply not taking the time to understand exactly what is covered. If you buy preventive care it won't cover cancer.
Like their parent company, Nationwide Insurance, VPI says it's on your side. It makes it easy to calculate a quote for your pet online. I put in the stats for my dog, Tater, who is 12, and found that -- again, like humans -- full private health coverage is not available for the senior set (and there's no Medicare for dogs, yet). I could pick up an emergency care plan for $8.55 a month that covers only injuries, but none of those pesky age-related ailments.
Our cat, Lucy, is another story. She's only 2 years old so VPI is on our side bigtime, offering major medical comprehensive with a $250 deductible for $16.95 a month -- $200 a year, in round numbers. You can add a wellness plan to that, covering vaccinations, flea and heartworm treatment and other preventive measures for anywhere from $19 to $29 a month.
VPI plans are widely accepted around the country and are recommended by many veterinarians. Not all consumers are pleased, as the reviews on our site indicate. One thing that comes through loud and clear reading through the consumer postings is that it's vital to keep your plan up to date and to know what is covered and what isn't.
You might say this is the AARP of pet insurance. ASPCA, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, is a charity not an insurance company. So, just as AARP chose UnitedHealth and other companies to issue its various insurance packages, ASPCA chose Hartville Pet Insurance, itself part of a larger conglomerate.
That being said, the ASPCA Pet Health Insurance site does a pretty good job of describing the various plans available and takes a very complete medical history of your pet in its online application process. It would be reasonable to think that this results in a premium that accurately reflects your pet's health status, which could save your money if your pet's outlook is good and cost you money it it's not so good.
Keep in mind that, just as with humans, pet insurance companies don't pay for treating pre-existing conditions. It's always possible to argue about this so it's wise to err on the side of complete honesty when filling out applications. Anything that can be used against you will be, by any insurance company.
24PetWatch takes insurance one step beyond -- offering microchips and pet recovery assistance if your four-legged friend goes missing. It offers comprehensive insurance covering dogs up to a coverage limit of $20,000. Various deductibles are available; there is a 20% co-pay -- meaning the insurance pays 80% of covered expenses and you pay the rest.
24PetWatch also offers such extras as trip cancellation coverage, kennel and boarding reimbursement and even a $1,000 accidental death benefit.
Whether it takes a step beyond the ordinary in processing claims may be an issue, according to the reviews submitted to us by policyholders.
The company is part of Praetorian Insurance Company, which in turn is a division of Australia's QBE Insurance Group, one of the world's largest international insurers and reinsurers.
As the name implies, this company is affiliated with AKC, the American Kennel Club, and is often recommended by breeders. It offers the usual range of policies and explains them in very clear and easily understood terms on its website.
Unlike some other insurers, AKC offers coverage that specifically covers inherited and congenital conditions and their secondary complications, as well as arthritis and diabetes. This can be a big plus if your canine pal is a purebred, since all those years of selective breeding can result in a higher incidence of genetic issues.
AKC gets more than its share of positive reviews from our readers. That, plus its plans that accommodate purebreds, certainly make it worth a look if you're in the market for a policy.
We were a little surprised when we got around to looking at Petplan. As we plugged in the information for our 12-year-old pug, Tater, we expected to see the usual results -- accident and preventive coverage only. But Petplan actually came up with three comprehensive coverage plans. Admittedly, they cost in the neighborhood of $200 a month with annual coverage ranging from $10,000 to $22,000.
Considering that we spent close to $10,000 on the final illness of Tater's pal, Chester (as recounted in a story earlier this year), this would seem to be a bargain, although it would take some research to ensure that Tater would be covered for his pre-existing conditions. Basically, being an old pug is a pretty serious pre-existing condition all by itself.
It's hard to find critics of Petplan, which by the way is officially AGCS Marine Insurance Company, a member of the Allianz Group. There are very few consumer comments, good or bad, on the web. The scattered complaints we found had to do with high premiums and unexpectedly high increases in those premiums each year.
One pet owner who moved from California to Virginia found it odd that her premium nearly doubled. She's not alone. Many California refugees are shocked to learn that the tough consumer protections in their former home don't apply in reddish-tinged states like Virginia, which sometimes seem bent on penalizing anyone who dares live there.
Which one is best?
There's really no simple answer to that question. We've covered only a few companies here. There is plenty of information floating around out there, much of it of dubious value. The more research you do, the better.
As the former Californian mentioned above will now tell you, insurance premiums, coverage and regulation vary widely from one state to another. Some states regulate insurance companies closely, others basically sit back and let the good times roll.
Beyond geographic considerations, rates vary for different breeds, different ages and your pet's overall condition at the time you apply. You also want to be sure that your vet is onboard with your choice, assuming you are happy with your vet and want to stay with her or him.
After talking to your vet, reviewing online comments and filling out applications at a number of sites, you should eventually come up with a couple of options that seem to fit your needs. Remember that no plan will cover every eventuality and it's not likely that any affordable plan will pay 100% of every vet bill.
Also, be prepared for hassles in getting reimbursed. Insurance companies are not charities and they put everyone through the ringer before releasing any money.
Life's not fair and the world's not perfect but a good pet insurance plan can smooth out some of the rough spots.