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Do you need pet insurance?

  • Story Highlights
  • Advances in pet health care can leave owners with big vet bills
  • Some owners purchase pet insurance
  • Age, breed-specific ailments may limit coverage
  • Coverage for dogs costs more than cat insurance
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By Joan Shim
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(LifeWire) -- When David Quilty of Santa Monica, California, took his cat Damon to the vet for a checkup, he didn't expect to spend $1,000 to get two of Damon's teeth pulled because of cavities.

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Insurance covered much of Storm's three operations to repair his leg that was mangled by another dog.

"It was quite a shock," Quilty says. "It's the biggest expense we've ever had on him, and the cat is 13 years old."

Like Quilty, many pet owners are concerned by the rising cost of pet health care, which is partially the result of advances in veterinary medicine. Some are looking to pet health care insurance as one way to cope.

"The medical treatments and technologies being used for humans are now being used for pets," says Laura Bennett, chief executive officer and co-founder of Embrace Pet Insurance. Chemotherapy, heart surgery and MRIs are becoming more common in the pet world. But advanced treatments and surgeries can cost thousands of dollars.

Some pet owners facing an animal's serious illness or injury will choose to euthanize -- put the animal down -- for financial reasons. Or they will decide on a less expensive treatment for an injured animal.

"If they have a fracture that they can't afford to get stabilized -- can't afford to go to the orthopedic surgeon to plate it -- they might choose amputation rather than fix the fracture," says Dr. Lauren Adams of Emory Animal Hospital.

Such tough decisions are more likely in rural areas, Adams says, noting her clients in Decatur, Georgia, usually are able to pay for any specialized treatments that their pets may need.

Statistics show that people are willing to foot the growing medical bills for their beloved pets. U.S. pet owners spent $10.5 billion on vet care in 2005, compared to $7.2 billion in 2000, according to the Pet Industry Strategic Outlook report from Dillon Media LLC, a marketing and research firm.

Statistics vary on the percentage of pet owners in the U.S. who insure their pets. A 2004 survey by the American Animal Hospital Association estimated that three percent of pet owners carried insurance. That's far lower than in Sweden, where nearly 50 percent of pet owners insure their animals, according to market research publisher Packaged Facts.

Pet health insurance may be worth considering as a way to prepare for unexpected medical expenses. What's not always clear is whether it is cost-effective. Regardless, some pet care practitioners say such insurance may simply give owners peace of mind or help them make decisions about their pet's future that are not influenced by financial considerations.

When pet insurance makes sense

After Quilty felt the pinch of Damon's vet bill, he started looking into pet insurance. But he decided not to insure Damon when Quilty learned that most policies only offer full coverage to cats less than 9 years old. An older feline like Damon would qualify only for accident coverage, and dental coverage is not included.

On the other hand, Norma Jean Kern of Hickory, North Carolina, is sure that purchasing insurance was the right decision. Soon after she signed up to cover Storm, her Akita puppy, the policy paid off.

Storm was running along the fence in the yard when the neighbor's dog caught hold of his leg and tried pulling him under the fence. Storm's leg was severely mangled, and he needed three operations and regular X-rays. Embrace Pet Insurance has reimbursed Kern for most of her bills. She has a 20 percent deductible, and so far the company has paid about $3,000.

Choosing a pet insurance policy

Companies selling pet insurance in the U.S. include Veterinary Pet Insurance, Pethealth Inc., The Hartville Group, Pets Best Insurance, Embrace Pet Insurance, PetFirst Healthcare, PetPartners and Petplan USA.

These companies generally offer a few levels of policies ranging from $5 to $30 a month on average for a healthy pet. The cost varies depending on the extent of coverage, benefit limits, deductibles and co-payments. Dogs are generally more expensive to insure than cats.

Coverage varies according to company and plan as well. For example, ASPCA Pet Health Insurance's most basic "safety plan" covers only treatment for injuries such as broken bones, bee stings and burns. At the other end of the spectrum, Embrace Pet Insurance's policies, which can be customized, cover cancer treatment and alternative therapy like acupuncture.

When shopping around for a policy, find out exactly what the policy covers and what the exclusions are.

Most policies exclude pre-existing conditions and many exclude hereditary conditions, which purebred cats and dogs are more likely to have, or limit coverage for older animals.

Here are some additional questions to ask the insurance company:

• Are my claim payments based on my vet bill or the insurance company's benefit schedule?

• Are drug and dental coverage included?

• Will my premium go up over time, as I file claims, or my pet gets older?

• How will I be reimbursed? Do I pay the vet and then submit the bill, or will the vet handle billing?

• Does the plan cover chronic or recurring conditions?

• What are the financial limits of coverage? How are they applied?

If your pet is advanced in years, in poor health, or if you do not want to subject the animal to a major surgical procedure, insurance may not be a worthwhile investment. Talk to your vet about your pet's health and query insurance companies about the limits of coverage before purchasing a policy. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Joan Shim is a freelance writer and former editor at Pet Product News.

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