Pet Insurance: The Pros and Cons

September 11, 2013


 As a pet owner, one of the most stressful things to deal with is finances. Regular checkups and emergencies can add up fast. Some people turn to pet insurance and want to know if it will really help.

Well that depends.

If you adopt a young healthy animal and get insurance right away, it is your best bet. If you are adopting or already own a pet seven years or older, you may want to really weigh your options. Some groups only have “accident coverage” for pets starting between ages 7 - 10 which really doesn’t cover very much. Granted it will only be around $10-12 per month, but many times prescriptions aren’t covered and that is where the bills can add up with geriatric pets. As a vet tech, I saw people benefit from their insurance and others who had to submit multiple claims and didn’t get much back.

With several insurance companies to choose from, how do you decide? Many sites have great charts to “compare” them to the competition, but they are clearly biased and require additional research. Here are some things to look out for if you're going to go the pet insurance route.

Quotes: Go to each site and get a quote. Do not use their comparison charts. They are only going to hype up themselves and accuse the others of overcharging you. Ultimately, they may be the ones overcharging you, but you wouldn’t know unless you compared on your own.

For a 3 year old female spayed Boston terrier I found that the rates for the “same” level of coverage fell between $34-$60. I entered the same amount for a 14 year old Boston terrier (which is the true Hollywood age of my dear Betty) and the coverage was cut back to emergency only with the cost dropping to $10-15. This didn’t cover much past the exam fee and in-hospital medications (read that as NO prescriptions).

Coverage: You don’t need to compare each line item, but look at things like office visits, vaccines, lab work and prescriptions. Some reference number of visits and some reference dollar amount. Pay attention to how they truly compare. Like in school, find the common denominator. Some big ticket items to compare are their estimates for surgeries like cruciate repair or foreign body removal. This may be better explained in a percentage rather than a dollar amount since each hospital will be different for cost anyway.

Accuracy matters: One site quoted a chronic ear infection around $3,500-$4,000. In my experience, I never saw anything that ended up that high for chronic ear infections. I don’t know if that is quoting expensive hospitals, incompetent doctors, or if it’s just a way for them to scare you into buying their insurance. Talk with your veterinarian for a possible range of cost on items. Most are very accommodating with estimates.

Fine print: They all have it. They all hide it. Be sure to look at the details -- especially about pre-existing conditions. One company said that if your pet had a cruciate repair to one leg before insurance was acquired, it would be considered a pre-existing condition if they needed the other one repaired in the future, therefore it wouldn’t be covered. Not every animal needs that surgery to both legs.

Granted no insurance company will insure a pre-existing condition but it might differ in how it is defined. Some may consider the above situation pre-existing but some may not. If the info isn’t on the site, then contact them.

Most ridiculous point of coverage: Under the accident plan with Embrace, NUCLEAR WAR IS NOT COVERED. Seriously, they make a point of saying it. So if there is a nuclear war, bring your dog into your trusty lead lined box for safety and hope for the best.

So after all of that… is it worth it?

I was a vet tech for 12 years and I saw healthy pets and what I like to call “lemons.” I have my own “lemon,” five-year-old Charley. He is on a medication that costs around $100 a month that treats his EPI (exocrine pancreatic insufficiency). This means he doesn’t have the digestive enzymes to absorb nutrients properly. He was diagnosed when he was one and we were feeding him enough food for an 80 pound dog yet he was a gangly 45 pounds and losing weight. Not to mention that I also have my geriatric Boston terrier, Betty, who, after 10 years of perfect health, is now 14 and on five different medications and is epileptic.

The point is, you don’t know what will happen in the future. Had I purchased insurance when I adopted both of these guys, I might be getting a break somewhere, but I’m not. I won’t sign Betty up for insurance because honestly I would rather save that $10-15 a month for paying for her meds that insurance wouldn’t cover right now. Charley also only needs medication coverage so I need to weigh whether or not I want to spend that money on insurance or save it for his pricey meds.

In my opinion, if you have a young pet, get insurance if it works for you financially. It’s a great safety net to have in place especially when it comes to those lab puppies that like to eat socks. If you have an old pet, I would skip it. If you are dying to have that possible emergency covered and you can afford the monthly payments, then go for it -- but keep in mind that old age is NOT part of the coverage and that’s when it gets costly.