I recently took my dog to a new veterinarian. As I was leaving, the vet handed me a sheet listing the costs of all of his services. While the wellness exam, heartworm medication, and vaccinations all seemed more than fair, my heart stopped beating for a second when I got to the bottom of the list – surgery, x-rays, MRIs, and chronic treatments all cost more than I could comfortably pay out-of-pocket. The vet must have noticed my horror because he threw in a pamphlet on pet insurance when I was leaving.
At first glance, pet insurance seems like a great deal (i.e. an insurance company willing to give you most of your money back). But in reality, pet insurance only benefits some pet parents, some of the time. How much or how little it can help you in lowering the costs of veterinary care really depends on where you stand financially and how healthy you think your pet is.
Here’s a breakdown of the costs and coverage available to help you decide if pet insurance is worthwhile.
How Pet Insurance Works
Pet insurance works much like your medical health insurance. You take your pet to the vet, pay the cost upfront, then submit a claim against your pet insurance later. Most insurance providers allow you to see any licensed vet, and will reimburse you the eligible costs.
How much of a reimbursement you’ll see depends on the insurance provider. For example, the pet health insurance offered by the ASPCA reimburses 80% of typical costs. So what does pet insurance cover?
Like any type of insurance, companies sell pet insurance using a tiered system. Basic, no frill coverage will cost the least in terms of monthly premiums, while the top tiers offer the most well-rounded coverage options. The various levels of available coverage include:
- Emergency coverage is the lowest level, and cheapest, insurance you can get for your pet. Emergency coverage covers vet bills, hospitalization, and necessary medical treatment after an accident. It does not cover routine visits or standard procedure surgeries.
- Emergency and illness coverage, the second tier, covers both accidents and unexpected illnesses. You can take your dog or cat to your regular vet, an emergency clinic, or an animal hospital. At this level, the insurance company will cover office visits, necessary medical care, and x-rays.
- Emergency, illness, and routine coverage, the third tier, reimburses you for accidental injuries and sudden illnesses, as well as more routine surgeries and treatments. Under the third tier, you can file claims for spaying and neutering, vaccinations, and one physical exam a year.
- Full coverage, the fourth tier, covers all of your pet’s medical expenses. Full coverage pet insurance accepts claims for accidents, illnesses, wellness exams, vaccinations, spaying and neutering, heartworm prevention, dental care, and chronic illnesses.
Once you’ve determined the amount of coverage you need, it’s important to consider the impact it will have on your wallet. Take a look at the following price list to get an idea of how pet insurance could affect your budget.
Just as with your own insurance, you will have to pay a monthly premium to keep the pet insurance coverage. The premium rate depends on the level of coverage you choose, and runs the gambit from dirt cheap to downright expensive.
To provide you with a better idea of the ranges of premiums for each type of coverage, I requested a quote from three pet insurance providers – ASPCA, ShelterCare and PetFirst Healthcare. I used a two-year old, healthy, Beagle breed dog as a the “control” for the example.
1. Basic Emergency Coverage:
- ASPCA – $11 per month
- ShelterCare – $19.95 per month
- PetFirst Healthcare – $16.95 per month
2. Emergency and Illness Coverage:
- ASPCA – $32.13 per month
- ShelterCare – $25.95 per month
- PetFirst Healthcare – $38.95 per month
3. Emergency, Illness, and Routine Coverage:
- ASPCA – $54.15 per month
- ShelterCare – $31.95 per month
- PetFirst Healthcare – $50.95 per month
4. Full Coverage:
- ASPCA – $90.04 per month
- ShelterCare -$46.95 per month
- PetFirst Healthcare – $68.95 per month
You will also have a maximum per incident and per year cap. The cap depends on the level of insurance you choose, but usually covers several thousand dollars worth of vet treatments.
It is important to note that some insurance providers require a higher monthly premium for, or flat-out deny, certain breeds of dogs. You may have trouble qualifying with any dog that falls into the aggressive breed category. For example, Pit Bulls and Pit Bull-like breeds, Rottweiler, Llasa Apsos, and Chow Chows may either come with a higher premium or not qualify at all.
However, not all insurance providers come with restrictions. For example, my dog falls into the Pit Bull breed category and the ASPCA pet insurance had no problem offering me an affordable insurance plan.
Now that you have some information about pet insurance coverage, you can apply it to your own situation. As with anything, the most important thing to think about is whether it is a necessary investment for you.
What to Consider
When deciding on pet insurance, you really need to consider two things: your dog’s current health and your own personal resources.
- Your dog’s age and health. Young puppies and healthy young adult dogs do not need to visit the vet often. Outside of an accident, you may only have to take your dog to the vet once a year for an annual checkup. Basic pet insurance may not be worth it for young pets, so you may want to consider sticking to an emergency-only coverage option. However, keep in mind that generally, while lower-tiered plans charge lower monthly premiums, they will require a higher deductible for each incident. Because of this, you will likely get the most out of a pet insurance plan with an older dog. As dogs age, they tend to develop more illnesses, become more susceptible to injury, and spend more time at the vet. Remember, even with a full coverage plan, some insurance companies do not pay for pre-existing conditions. You should research the insurance company’s specific requirements on chronic conditions before signing up if your pet has a pre-existing illness.
- Your finances. Vet treatments, especially after a major accident, can cost thousands of dollars. Most people cannot afford to pay for that expense out-of-pocket. Having pet insurance will ensure you can afford costly, but necessary, operations without facing serious financial hardship.
As an alternative to pet insurance, you can start a savings account (e.g. ING Direct or Ally Bank) or emergency fund to save up for unexpected pet needs. Ultimately, I’d suggest that if you can reasonably cover basic vet care, but would struggle to pay for a surgery or major illness, then paying at least the lower premium on basic pet insurance will be worth it for you.
Many people don’t realize that medical expenses are a big part of how much a dog really costs. Fortunately, pet insurance will ensure that you always have a way to keep your pet healthy, and the coverage can save you thousands of dollars over the course of your pet’s life. If you run into trouble deciding on which coverage level to choose, start low. You can always add a higher coverage level later on if you realize you need it.
Do you have pet insurance for your dog or cat? If so, what type of insurance do you have and how has it worked out for you?
(photo credit: Shutterstock)