Some people will do anything for their pets. But a majority of owners draw the line after spending $500 for veterinary care, according to a recent survey by the Associated Press and Petside, a website. As costs move closer to $1,000, fewer pet owners are likely to pay for care.
That's where pet insurers say they can help. For monthly premiums of less than $10 to more than $90, they promise to pay a portion of your pet's bills for medical and surgical care, and, depending on the policy, some other types of care. What you pay depends on where you live, your pet's breed and age, the deductible, and the coverage. Pet insurance, says Dennis Drent, CEO of Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI), the largest insurer, is intended to help owners avoid having to choose "economic euthanasia"—letting a beloved animal go because they can't afford the vet costs.
Pet insurance is not widely owned. At most, 3 percent of dogs and 1 percent of cats are insured, by some recent estimates. By focusing on the potentially high cost of care, insurers are hoping to change that. You'll find the coverage promoted on TV, online, in supermarkets, in retail stores like Petco, and in veterinary offices.
But do you need it? More specifically, is it worth the money? We shopped online and analyzed coverage by three brands—VPI, ASPCA Pet Health Insurance, and 24PetWatch QuickCare—whose parent companies together control an estimated 87 percent of the market. We also examined a relative newcomer, Trupanion, which offers a simpler approach than the others. Counting variations in coverage and deductibles, we looked at nine plans.
To compare them, we used as a model Roxy, a purebred beagle, age 10, in Westchester County, N.Y. Her vet calls her a "basically healthy" dog. Over the years she's had a few health issues. She was treated twice in an animal emergency room after downing potentially poisonous chocolate. She was also treated for a puncture wound after a fight with another dog. She's had two costly dental cleanings under anesthesia, suffered a few ear and eye infections, and as a pup had gastrointestinal distress.
We adjusted Roxy's total vet bills into present-day costs to create a model to judge how her lifetime expenses would have been covered under the nine policies. We also looked at how the value of the coverage changed if we added potentially costly elements to her medical history: chronic arthritis; incontinence as a result of spaying; hypothyroidism; the removal of a benign tumor; and euthanasia. Here's what we found:
Like human health insurers have traditionally done, pet insurers exclude pre-existing conditions from coverage. An insurer also might exclude a pet's condition from coverage at renewal. To address this, ASPCA Pet Health Insurance offers a "continuing care" option to new customers, which added 36 percent to Roxy's estimated premiums.
You'll face either a deductible, a co-pay, or both with most insurers. They might impose a maximum limit on treatment for individual illnesses, or on the yearly or lifetime reimbursement.
Carriers often exclude hip dysplasia, a chronic malady. QuickCare Gold won't cover any illness claims for Chinese shar-peis or their crossbreeds, though it will cover accidents. VPI has its own long list of excluded conditions.
They include a one-time fee of $25 for Trupanion and $2 a month for VPI and QuickCare customers who pay their premiums monthly rather than annually.
With these plans, you foot the bill yourself and wait for reimbursement. ASPCA limits coverage to "reasonable costs" based on veterinary pricing in the area in which the fee was incurred. VPI posts a long schedule on its website outlining the maximum payouts for each illness or injury. We wager most people won't slog through those details until after a claim is paid. They probably should. While consumer complaints to the national Better Business Bureau about all four insurers are few, they focus heavily on disputes over contract language. (The BBB rates newcomer Trupanion A-, and gives the others A+, its top rating.)
Costly or unnecessary add-ons
Some carriers let you add "wellness care" coverage to their accident and illness policies. We found it's generally not worth the cost. ASPCA's Level 3 coverage adds spaying or neutering, an annual physical, three common vaccines, and fecal and heartworm tests to its Level 2 accident and illness coverage. The coverage also promises higher maximum benefits. But for Roxy, it added $2,766 to the insurance cost over 10 years and paid out just $1,159 in benefits. VPI offers a "CareGuard Core" rider that costs $12 per month—$144 a year—but it never paid out that much in any year.