By Dawn Klingensmith
Thanks to advances in veterinary medicine, pets can undergo the same types of lifesaving procedures as people, including pacemaker insertion and kidney transplants. But these procedures are expensive. Pet owners who can't afford them face the difficult decision of putting their pet to sleep.
The worst-case scenario is the most compelling reason to buy pet insurance. In the event of an animal's serious illness or injury, it makes costly treatments possible for pet owners who otherwise couldn't afford it. However, pet owners should weigh the cost of insurance against the likelihood they'd submit a claim for a catastrophic situation. And they shouldn't assume that pet insurance will save them money. In fact, policy holders can end up paying more for veterinary care than if they didn't have insurance.
So what's a doting cat or dog owner to do?
"I definitely tell people they should at least look into it," says Los Angeles veterinarian Karen Halligan, who discusses the pros and cons of pet insurance in her book, "What Every Pet Owner Should Know" (Collins, 2008). "What happens if your pet gets sick or gets hit by a car? A lot of people consider pets as family members and would spend any amount of money to keep them alive."
Pet insurance premiums range from about $10 on up to $50 per month. Over a pet's lifetime, premiums can add up to several thousand dollars.
Many plans don't include routine care such as annual exams and vaccinations, and those that do usually cost more than paying out of pocket, Halligan says.
Often, there are lifetime maximums, per-incident limits or annual limits to what an insurance provider will pay out.
Many policies don't cover hereditary or congenital defects. Pre-existing conditions are seldom covered.
"It's buyer beware. You really have to read the fine print," says Janice Brown, editorial director, Tails Pet Media Group, Chicago. "Each company is different. Some will exclude certain breed-specific predispositions. For example, labs are susceptible to hip dysplasia so they might not cover it."
When shopping around for pet insurance, consumers should find out whether companies use a benefit schedule to reimburse claims. If so, the policy will only pay up to a set amount per condition regardless of the total cost of treatment, verses covering a certain percentage of the claim based on the actual cost.
Pet owners should also ask about prescription drug coverage and discounts for multiple animals, Brown says.
A veterinarian and fellow pet owners can point people to reputable insurance providers. The largest and oldest is Veterinary Pet Insurance, Halligan says.
For policy comparisons and reviews consumers can look up companies on Petinsurancereview.com and on A.M. Best's Web site, ambest.com, which rates the financial strength of insurance providers.
Pet owners also have the option of applying for CareCredit, which offers no-interest financing for human and pet medical care and may be a suitable alternative to pet insurance.