What about pet insurance?

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By Tracie Korol

Pet lovers usually say they’ll do anything for their pets. But when the price of veterinary care starts bumping into thousands of dollars for a single procedure, “anything” begins to look a little different.

That’s where pet insurers say they can help. For monthly premiums of $30 to more than $90, they promise to pay a portion of your pet’s bills for medical and surgical care. What you pay depends on where you live, your pet’s breed and age, the deductible and the coverage.

Although pet insurance has been around for a couple of decades, what has changed, perhaps because pet insurance has been around for a couple of decades, is the state of veterinary science as well as the economics of running a veterinary practice. Vets now offer treatments for our pets that were unheard of a few years ago at prices that make the hair stand up on the back of your neck.

Isotope therapy, kidney transplants and facial reconstruction are now available for our animals. Once-fatal conditions are now treatable at costs ranging from $1000 to more than $10,000 per procedure. Vets now have access to increasingly sophisticated and costly diagnostic tools, such as MRIs, allowing them to detect problems that would have previously gone unnoticed and untreated but also result in boosting the cost of exams to unaffordable levels for the Regular Joe pet owner. Even the “affordable” clinics are no longer affordable.

Maybe pet insurance can help offset the cost. Maybe not. Consider this:

Coverage limitations: All pet insurers exclude pre-existing conditions just like human health care policies. Pre-existing conditions for pets can include hereditary conditions (the dreaded hip dysplasia), allergies, fractured teeth, eye disorders, diabetes, and urinary tract malfunctions. An insurer might also exclude a pet’s condition from coverage upon policy renewal.

Cost sharing: On top of the monthly premium there’s a deductible, co-pay or both with most insurers. There might be a maximum limit for individual illnesses, or on the yearly, or lifetime reimbursement.

Claim quirks: With some plans you foot the bill up front and wait for reimbursement. With most plans, the older your animal, the more you’ll pay in premiums. Some insurers do not cover pets older than nine. There’s also the aggravation factor of doing battle with a customer service representative when what you thought was covered, what you read was covered in your policy is suddenly not covered for no apparent reason.

Costly or unnecessary add-ons: Some carriers let you add “wellness” (whatever that means) coverage to accident and illness policies, but it’s generally not worth the cost.

While it’s impossible to predict your dog’s odds of contracting a costly illness or accident, you can take a number of steps to keep him healthy and minimize vet visits:

Shop with your eyes open: Do the research when it comes time to get a puppy. Don’t pick a breed that is congenitally prone to a known disorder you’ll have to treat for the next 16 years. Some breeds are mighty cute but come with the problems built in and waiting to happen.

Spay or neuter: Neutered animals are less likely to roam or scrap. Spaying reduces the risk of mammary cancer and, oh, repeated pregnancies and lots of puppies.

Feed a clean and healthy diet: So many ailments are a result of or exacerbated by poor nutrition — obesity, arthritis, diabetes, skin allergies, cancers, auto-immune disorders and chronic ear goo to name a few. Eliminate or drastically cut back on chemical intrusions — vaccinations, topical pesticides, household cleaners and dog perfume, my personal “pet” peeve.

Get the annual checkup: Head off a possible medical problem before it grows into something unmanageable. But don’t be afraid to say “no, thank you” if you feel a test or procedure is beyond your budget or beyond the borders of common sense. Just because they can doesn’t mean you have to accept it.

Pet insurance may a good plan if you have unlimited disposable funds. But here’s another idea — call three pet insurance companies and ask for quotes based on your dog’s particulars. Average the cost of all three. Then contribute monthly that amount to an interest bearing savings account ear-marked only for your pet’s medical needs. With common sense and good dog maintenance, in 16 years you’ll be able to roll that amount into your child’s college fund.