I am one of the 44% of Americans who own a dog. I love my little purebred Yorkie, Sir Winston Churchill Coleman, affectionately known as Winnie in our household. I would do almost anything for him (much to the irritation of my wife).
My Yorkie is only five years old, but he came down with cataracts in his right eye, which was surprising because of his young age. I took my beloved fur child to his veterinarian right after the eye became cloudy and was referred to a veterinary ophthalmologist.
Winston was diagnosed with cataracts that, of course, had a complication. My wallet was screaming already.
The doctor needed to conduct additional tests because he had damage to the retina, too. One test, that featured a fancy gold-plated contact lens ,would check Winston’s eyes to see if the retina was still functioning and attached to the wall of his eye.
These tests weren’t inexpensive, to say the least. It cost more than $500 to see if my dog qualified for the $1,000 cataract surgery. These costs were on top of the $100 office visit fee every time we walked through the fake barn door out front. My wallet was officially crying.
Didn’t I have pet insurance?
Even though I’m a die-hard animal lover, and I grew up with dogs in the house, I’m also cheap. I didn’t have pet insurance to help cover Winston’s bills.
The monthly premium for pet insurance is a bill I didn’t want to pay. Winston is young. I rolled the dice that he’d be healthy. And when you consider that, depending on the type of animal and age, comprehensive pet insurance can be as little as $23 per month, I may have lost the bet.
Winston is full of energy, love, and amazing spirit. He’s also now 100% blind in one eye. Those monthly premiums don’t look so bad today with more than $1,500 in doctor bills looming.
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What is pet insurance?
If you’re like most animal owners and lovers, you’ve probably seen advertisements for pet insurance.
This type of insurance acts similarly to car insurance where it reimburses for you unexpected expenses if something happens to the pet and you need to take it to the veterinarian. Having pet insurance can help prevent unexpected vet bills from breaking your bank account or, worse, putting you in debt. A comprehensive plan will help pay for out-of-pocket costs associated with accidents, illnesses or hereditary issues.
“We didn’t buy pet insurance for either of our dogs, but we would have come out ahead if we had,” said Mark, husband, father, and owner of two dogs. “Both of our dogs had health issues in their first six months that cost us quite a bit of money. Plan on at least a few hundred dollars a year for annual vet visits per animal and $30 or so a month for meds. If pet insurance would cost you less per year and can cover those expenses, then it might be worth it.”
How does pet insurance work?
Transactionally, pet insurance is much more similar to car or homeowners insurance than it is health insurance because the vet isn’t paid directly. For example, if you have coverage and your pet becomes ill and goes to the vet, you pay for procedures out of your own pocket, Then, you file a claim with your pet insurance company to be reimbursed for the expenses. One of the great things about pet insurance is that it usually covers you for any vet you choose to take your fur-baby to.
It’s also important to know that, just like with any kind of insurance, there can be limitations with pet insurance coverage. Pet insurance comes in a couple varieties — those that cover accidents only or those that offer comprehensive coverage.
Accident-only plans usually cost less than comprehensive ones due to offering a smaller range of protections. But over time, just like with humans, as your pet ages, it’s more likely to have vet visits due to illnesses than freak accidents.
What does pet insurance actually cover?
Most pet insurance companies offer different levels of coverage. Basic policies cover surgical procedures, hospital costs, and other emergencies. More comprehensive coverage includes routine veterinary care, vaccines, and annual exams.
Determining what exactly pet insurance covers can be complicated. Therefore, when choosing a policy, there are many factors to consider, such as reimbursement limitations and deductibles, and you’ll need to choose what kind of vet visits you want covered. For example, many policies will let you add on features that includes wellness visits for things like flea and tick prevention and heartworm. Few will offer comprehensive coverage to pets with incurable pre-existing conditions.
Like with any type of insurance, before adding on endless amounts of covered features, be sure that you’ll use this insurance to the best of its ability so you can get your money’s worth.
Across many insurers, accident-only plans only cover unexpected injuries and emergency procedures needed due to, you guessed it, an accident.
Comprehensive (accident and illness) plans, on the other hand, will often cover costs veterinary and medicine needs associated with:
- Emergency care
- Orthopedic conditions
- Hereditary disorders
According to PolicyGenius, optional wellness coverage can cost an additional $7 – $25 per month. Basic preventative care help cover:
- Annual checkups
- Flea & tick control
- Heartworm medication
- Teeth & ear cleaning
More advanced wellness options will even cover spay and neutering, which could be a good value if you have a young pet.
“We opted for pet insurance coverage that offered far more benefits if something went wrong,” said Campbell, owner of a french bulldog named Moo. “My point of view is that it’s easier to budget for ongoing wellness. But, when they get sick (or even have allergies and need to see a dermatologist), it can be anywhere from $150 to $1200 for vet visits and medication, which can be shocking for your wallet if you don’t have the right coverage in place.”
Campbell also noted that when Moo was a puppy and needed multiple visits for spaying, shots and more, they opted to pay for a puppy wellness plan through their vet, which was $90 per month. It was a much lower price to pay than vet visits in New York City. She stopped paying for the wellness visits after the first year, but because the puppy had a few sicknesses when she was little, they were very glad they paid for that benefit.
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The average cost of pet insurance
The price for pet insurance varies widely based on a number of factors, including your location, type of pet, breed and its common issues, as well as the deductible, coverages, and copays you choose. A policy might cost as little as $10 per month or as much as $80 or more per month.
Like life insurance, the younger and healthier the insured, the more affordable coverage will be. And, as long as you pay your premiums and keep coverage in force, your monthly price stays the same — no matter how old your pet gets or how often you have to file claims.
According to Policygenius, coverage for a healthy five-year-old, purebred Yorkie with no previous medical conditions would be around:
- $14 per month for accidents only with the ASPCA Pet Health Insurance. The insurer would reimburse 70% of the vet bills for up to $5,000 per year with a $250 deductible. If I wanted to increase the coverage to $10,000, it would be $16 per month.
- $23 per month for accidents and illness with PetsBest Pet Health Insurance. The insurer would reimburse 70% of vet bills up to $5,000 per year with a $200 deductible. Increasing coverage to $10,000 per year would raise the premium to $30 per month.
With Winston’s health history, though, I’m sure prices would be higher, which is why if you think you’d want pet insurance for your beloved cat or dog, you should purchase a policy sooner rather than later.
Are there alternatives to pet insurance?
Short answer: not really. If your pet winds up with an injury or illness that results in considerable medical bills, you may be able to set up a payment plan with the veterinarian. Additionally, some creditors may offer a veterinary loan, but you should pay close attention to the interest rate, fees, and other terms.
If you’re thinking of skipping out on pet insurance coverage, then make sure you have a significant emergency fund just like you have for other incidentals in your family. Pets become a much-loved member of your household, and many people are willing to spend any amount of money on medical treatments. Yes, that could even mean thousands of dollars.
I’m an advocate for setting aside money in a savings account explicitly earmarked for significant events. Most banks now allow you to nickname your money market funds or savings accounts. You may be less inclined to spend the money on other things when the name of the account is Fluffy’s Vet Bills.
Consider setting aside the amount of money that you would spend on premiums each month. Make the deposits automatic. But, keep in mind, not everyone has the discipline to do so, and $25 per month would not cover a catastrophic event in the first year (maybe two) of owning your pet.
Is pet insurance worth it?
Whether or not to buy pet insurance is a choice many animal lovers are faced with. I hear story after story from friends and coworkers who have pets battling cancer, have blown out their knees or have other health issues (like cataracts).
Most of us love our pets like we love our children. We want the best for them. We don’t want them to suffer, which is when many people find themselves forking over thousands of dollars on treatments, medications, and surgeries to make their pet more comfortable.
Whether to buy a policy has no one-size-fits-all answer. Primarily, you should look at your financial situation — namely your savings and propensity to take on the monetary risk of paying for an emergency procedure — and that should help you decide if the monthly premium is the right choice. Each owner must weigh his or her own options, circumstances and priorities.
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Hank Coleman is the founder and publisher of Money Q&A, a personal finance blog that focuses primarily on investing and retirement planning. Hank has a Masters in Finance from the University of Maryland and holds a Certificate of Personal Financial Planning from Kansas State University.