Should You Get Pet Health Insurance?

As a veterinarian and pet owner, I know that providing proper health care for our pets isn’t cheap. Keeping up with your dog's or cat's routine veterinary visits and all of the recommended testing and preventative care can add up. One unexpected visit to the emergency clinic can make owning a pet suddenly quite expensive.

For that reason, health insurance for pets is becoming increasingly popular. Having a plan in place for your dog or cat sounds great in theory, but it can be difficult to know whether insurance will truly benefit your pet and your pocketbook.
I often have owners ask me about the pros and cons of pet insurance. Due to my line of work, I am very lucky to have access to discounted care for my pets, which has saved me from some pretty hefty bills over the years. If I weren’t so fortunate, purchasing a health insurance plan for my pets is something I might seriously consider. It can be great to have something to help offset veterinary expenses. And, as every pet owner knows, there’s nothing worse than facing an emergency situation with your pet...and then having to worry about the costs.
What Exactly is Pet Health Insurance?
When it comes to buying insurance for your pet--just like when you purchase a policy for yourself--often what you’re really paying for is peace of mind. It’s impossible to know every health challenge your pet will face during his or her lifetime. Therefore, by purchasing an insurance plan, you are taking somewhat of a risk. If your pet remains relatively healthy throughout his or her life, you might not reap as much benefit from an insurance plan as you would, for instance, if your cat or dog ever required major surgery. However, in the event that something big does occur, it can be really beneficial to have an insurance plan to help cushion some of the expense.

How Does Pet Insurance Work?
It’s important to know that, even if you have insurance for your pet, you will most likely be expected to pay for services up front. Unlike your own doctor’s office, veterinary clinics are generally not equipped to accept various insurance plans and receive copays. Typically, the recommended services will be performed by your vet, and there will be required forms to fill out and send to your insurance company. Afterward, there is a period during which the company decides what procedures and products will be covered and then reimburses a certain percentage (or in some cases, all) of the costs. Just as is the case with your own health insurance plan, you can always elect to call ahead to see what services will be covered.
Can I Take My Pet to Any Veterinarian?
Pet health insurance companies typically do not restrict which practitioner you can visit. Many plans will cover your pet’s visits to veterinary specialists and emergency hospitals, as well as trips to your regular vet. This is especially helpful, as the non-routine and unexpected veterinary visits are often the most expensive. (One trip to the emergency vet can easily cost owners thousands of dollars.) If emergency and specialty care coverage is something that is important to you, check to make sure that it is included under your plan.
What Types of Pet Health Insurance Plans are Available?
A variety of health insurance plans exist for your pet. The type of plan you choose will simply depend on what you’re looking for. Are you searching for a preventative health-care plan to cover your puppy or kitten’s basic veterinary visits? Do you want to purchase an emergency plan for your 2-year-old Lab who tends to get into everything? Or maybe you have an older pet, and you simply want to consider a policy to help with any veterinary expenses you might incur during his or her senior years? These are all questions to ask yourself when comparing insurance policies. Not all plans are created equal, so it’s important to do your research.
What Types of Services are Covered?
As with your own health insurance policy, you need to know which services you can expect to be covered. There is a great degree of variation among plans here, too. Some plans, for example, will not cover any treatments or procedures related to a pet’s pre-existing conditions. Genetic or congenital conditions (such as heart defects) or health issues occurring within the first year of your pet’s life might also be excluded under certain policies. Cosmetic procedures and breeding-related health issues are generally not covered by insurance plans.
Many pet health insurance policies focus solely on coverage for non-routine procedures or those that are medically necessary. Under these plans, wellness exams, vaccines, spay- and neuter-associated fees and routine dental cleanings (which can be expensive) would not be covered. While some plans do offer reimbursement for preventative care, there is often an additional monthly charge for this coverage.
How Much Does Pet Insurance Cost?
Monthly pet insurance fees will depend on a number of variables, starting with the age and breed of your pet and the cost of veterinary services in your area. Plans generally start around $20-$30 per month for cats and $35-$50 per month for dogs but can vary greatly depending on the type of coverage you desire. For example, you can expect to pay upwards of $150 a month for premium plans that include reimbursement for boarding and kenneling fees and even cover the cost of a reward in the event your pet is lost. Many companies will give you a free quote over the phone or through their website to give you an idea of what you can expect to pay for your pet.
Just like with your own health insurance, you can generally opt for a higher deductible for your pet’s health insurance plan, which will lower your monthly premium payment. This can be helpful, for example, if you want to minimize your monthly spending but would like some insurance against a major unforeseen expense, such as a trip to the emergency vet. Monthly premiums and reimbursement can vary greatly among companies. Some plans will cover your entire veterinary bill, while others might only reimburse a percentage of costs (typically 80%-90%). Most plans do not cover the veterinary exam fee. When doing research, I found that quotes for the same pet can vary greatly among companies (premiums for senior pets, for example, can be considerably higher with some plans), so it definitely pays to compare policies and prices.
What Should I Look for in an Insurance Company?
When shopping for an insurance company, you want to look for one that is reputable, with good customer reviews. Consumers Advocate recently ranked the 10 best pet health insurance companies of 2013. (The list can be found here and is a good starting point.) Once you’ve found a few companies that meet your needs, you can begin to compare policies for your pet. Below are some questions you may want to consider: 
  • What exactly is covered in my pet’s plan? Again, this can differ greatly from plan to plan. Variables can include illness/accident, diagnostics, treatments, genetic conditions and emergency care, among other things. Companies should be able to provide you with a comprehensive list of what will be covered.
  •  What, if any, preventative care is covered? Important preventative care for your pet can include vaccines, routine diagnostic testing such as heartworm and fecal exams and regular dental cleanings. These services can all add up!
  •  Is there any cap or limit on reimbursement per incident or over the pet’s lifetime? This is important to know in the event of a major medical issue. For example, if your pet is hit by a car and requires surgery and multiple recheck visits totaling $5,000, but your plan has a $3,000 per-incident limit, you could be responsible for $2,000 of the bill.
  •  Are chronic issues covered and is there any per-condition limit? This might be a deciding factor for owners of breeds who tend to suffer from chronic conditions such ear infections. 
Lastly, check reviews to see what other customers are saying, and don’t be afraid to shop around! As previously stated, there is a great deal of variation among plans. Many companies offer various perks for having a dog or cat that is microchipped, or multiple pets on plans. Being a member of the veterinary profession or military, volunteering for animal welfare services or owning a service dog can grant you a 10%-20% discount on certain plans. Some companies offer up to 5% off for simply enrolling online.
What are Some Alternatives to Pet Insurance?
Pet health insurance may not make sense for every dog or cat. In certain circumstances, such as an older pet with multiple pre-existing conditions, the payout simply may not be worth it. In these cases, having a credit card or savings account dedicated solely to your pet’s veterinary bills or emergencies might offer a good alternative to insurance.