Are You Expecting the Unexpected?

If your pet needed emergency veterinary treatment today, could you handle the cost? Veterinary emergency fees can quickly reach the thousands, and must often be paid in part or full before services can be performed. In some situations, life-saving medical decisions must be made quickly—creating emotional stress and financial strain for pet owners torn between their love for their pet, and their bank account’s limitations. 

Unexpected diagnoses, sudden illness, and accidents can leave your pet’s health hanging in the balance. Pet health insurance allows owners to cover veterinary costs at a moment’s notice without burden or compromise, lets veterinarians practice medicine without financial constraints, and gives pets the care they need.

Pet Insurance: New Fad or Well-Kept Secret?

Currently, more than 3.4 million U.S. pets are insured, and the industry has maintained a 24% annual growth rate for the past five years. But, pet insurance actually dates back to 1890, when the first policies were drafted for livestock. Sweden and Britain began insuring pets in the mid-1900s, although the first North American pet insurance company wasn’t founded until 1980. In 1982, when Lassie became the first dog in the United States to be covered, pet insurance was truly established in America. By 2005, a half-million pets were insured, and in 2007, the North American Pet Health Insurance Agency (NAPHIA) was founded, to establish and maintain industry standards. 

Pet Insurance is Evolving

Over the last decade, pet insurance has evolved to meet the changing status of dogs and cats from “family pet” to “family member.” Now, in addition to accident and illness costs, some insurance providers offer add-on options (i.e., riders) for wellness care, alternative medicine (e.g., acupuncture, herbal therapy), behavior modification, or physical therapy, and also offer incentives for grooming, training, and boarding.

Pet Insurance is …

Pet insurance is a healthcare policy that provides financial support or full coverage for veterinary care costs. Much like your own health insurance, for a monthly premium, pet insurance provides access to expensive health services that would otherwise be beyond most pet owners’ reach. Additional advantages to pet insurance include:

  • Efficient decision making — No need to hesitate during an emergency  
  • Financial protection — Pet insurance safeguards you from depleting your savings, to save your pet. 
  • Better veterinary care — Your pet receives the care they need, and sees the veterinarian more frequently, since cost isn’t such a concern.
  • An end to economic euthanasia — When treatment is available but cost-prohibitive, many owners are tragically forced to euthanize their pets.

Pet Insurance is Not…

Before you sign up your pet, you must realize that pet insurance is a specific type of care plan with its own requirements, rules, and expectations. Pet insurance is not:

  • A low-cost assistance program — Pet health insurance requires a monthly payment (i.e., premium), and sets a deductible (i.e., a set cost or percentage that you pay per year, or per condition, before benefits begin). 
  • All-inclusive — Like human insurance, pre-existing conditions are generally not covered.
  • One-size fits all — Policies must be carefully scrutinized, based on your pet’s current and anticipated needs.
  • Instantaneous — Waiting periods apply for accidents, illnesses, and orthopedic injury.
  • Limitless — Policies may have a maximum payout by condition, year, or lifetime.
  • A reason to skip your pet’s preventive care — Routine care allows early disease detection and improves your pet’s health, reducing lifetime costs.

How Pet Insurance Works 

Pet insurance policies don’t rely on networks, so you can stick with your pet’s current veterinarian and change whenever you choose. Two options are available for payment, depending on the provider:

  • Reimbursement — With this model, you pay the full veterinary bill at the time of service. After you’ve submitted a claim to the insurance company, you’ll be reimbursed online or by mail. This is currently the most common payment method.
  • Direct bill pay — The veterinary office submits their invoice online and receives payment from the insurer. You pay only your deductible or copay costs.

Understanding your payment method helps ensure that you can cover any short-term costs in a reimbursement-based plan.

Pet Insurance Coverage Types

When selecting a pet insurance policy, you should first calculate how much you can comfortably spend for veterinary care. Pet insurance coverage is typically categorized as:

  • Accident and illness — Includes emergency events and chronic illnesses (e.g., cancer, kidney disease, diabetes), and is the best option for most pet owners
  • Accident only Hit by car, toxin ingestion, bloat, or other emergent events 
  • Wellness or preventive coverage — Some providers offer this add-on policy as a cash-back program for annual care costs.
  • Supplementary riders — Optional coverage that varies by provider, and requires an additional fee

What to Look for in a Pet Insurance Policy

Shopping for a pet insurance policy can feel overwhelming. Before you begin collecting quotes, learn what to look for:

  • Coverage for major medical conditions — Always look for a policy that includes coverage for:
    • Cancer — Cancer affects 50 percent of pets, so ensure your policy includes cancer coverage and a high payout limit.
    • Hereditary or genetic conditions This includes conditions present at birth or that develop later in life, including luxating patella and hip dysplasia. 
    • Chronic disease Ensure your policy includes “continual care,” to ensure you don’t lose coverage at year’s end.
    • Breed-specific conditions — Ask your veterinarian about conditions that are commonly diagnosed in your pet’s breed.
    • Dental cleaning and extractions Some policies include an annual dental “allowance.” 
  • Coverage limits —Ideal policies have high yearly or lifetime limits, or no limit at all.
  • Easy claim filing and reimbursement — Using your policy should be simple, convenient, and give you a fast return. 

What to Avoid in a Pet Insurance Policy

While you may be tempted to select an inexpensive policy, the hidden stipulations, limits, and poor coverage will make the plan worthless. Consider your pet’s insurance an investment, and stay away from the following:

  • Small or new companies — If they lose their underwriting, you’ll lose coverage.
  • Expensive wellness coverage — Do the math; some plans cost more than you’d pay normally at the vet.
  • Per-condition deductibles — If your deductible isn’t annual, your pet’s benefits may never kick in.
  • Coverage limits by condition — If your pet has a chronic condition, their benefits may max out quickly, so look for annual coverage limits.
  • Companies with poor reviews — Check the Better Business Bureau and read customer reviews. If you notice a pattern of denied claims, poor customer service, or slow reimbursement, keep shopping.

Most insurers provide online quotes based on your pet’s age, breed, and location. After you’ve narrowed your search, read each policy carefully, and call the company with any questions. This may sound incredibly boring, but understanding exactly what an insurance policy does and does not cover can prevent unexpected surprises, high costs, and heartache—problems pet insurance should help you avoid.