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Pet insurance: Right for your family?

Will it be right for your family?

Posted: March 28, 2008 4:54 p.m.
Updated: May 29, 2008 5:03 a.m.

Susie Montes, left, and Nancy Vallejo, veterinary technicians at the Animal Medical Center in Valencia, prepare a cat named Clover for surgery. Here Montes is shaving Clover's fur.

 
If you've ever had a dog or cat that got sick and racked up hundreds of dollars in veterinary bills that you couldn't really afford, you know the anguish that such a dilemma can cause.

For many people, their animals are like part of their families, which means it hurts to be faced with a choice between pocketbook and pet.

The No. 1 reason that pets are abandoned is because their owners can't afford to get medical treatment for them, according to industry experts.

Buying pet insurance can be one way to mitigate the high cost of veterinary care, which is getting more advanced but more pricey by the day.

"A typical scenario is where an animal needs surgery or a procedure that can better its life, but is very expensive," said Lori Solano, manager of the Canyon Country Animal Hospital. "Sometimes people have to draw the line between paying for their pets or paying for other things in their life. But if they have the insurance, it can tip them over the line."

However, you need to first do the math and look at your needs as a pet owner to decide if it's the right option for you. And while it's not a perfect solution and does carry certain limitations, having pet insurance can help you avoid having to make life-or-death decisions about your pet based solely on money.

Background
According to the U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook, more than 58 million households have at least one dog or cat. There are more than 72 million pet dogs in the country, and more than 82 million cats.

Though no definitive statistics are kept, most researchers estimate that between one and five percent of pet owners have pet insurance, a number that has increased greatly over the last 20 years. Considering the number of pets in the country, that likely equates to millions and millions of policies.

Veterinary Pet Insurance, one of the oldest and largest pet insurance companies in America, has more than 350,000 active policies and insures not only cats and dogs but also less common pets such as snakes, rabbits, birds, turtles and ferrets. A spokesman for the company, which sold its fist policy in 1982, said that pet insurance is more common in Europe than it is in the United States, but it is gaining in popularity here as the cost of vet care rises.

The increasing price tag on pet care has been driven not only by advances in treatment techniques, but also by the sheer numbers of people willing to go to great lengths to help Fluffy or Fido combat what's ailing him or her.

Over the last 30 years, there has been a sea-change in the mentality of pet owners. Whereas in the past pets were more or less regarded as cute adornments for a yard or for a child's amusement, people are now putting them front and center in their lives, where they have near-parity with human members of the family.

This translates into owners who will go to great lengths to care for their pet. In the old days, if a dog developed cancer or a cat got hit by a car, it would be mercifully euthanized, and that would be the end of it. Now people willingly spend thousands of dollars and countless hours trying to diagnose and cure their pets' illnesses.

At the same time, advances in veterinary care and diagnosis have grown exponentially, with procedures existing now that were unheard of only a few years ago. Research and innovation have allowed veterinarians to perform everything from complicated joint surgeries to organ transplants on all types of animals. And people are taking advantage of these innovations by giving their dogs MRIs, chemotherapy, and prosthetic limbs - whatever it takes to make them well again.

How does it work?
Like "human" health insurance, pet insurance involves enrolling your animal in a plan, paying a monthly premium, then submitting a claim for reimbursement after services are rendered.

Sounds great, right? Just take your cat to the vet, then send in a claim and get paid back.

Well, not quite.

The flip side is that pet insurance, like human health insurance, involves exclusions, deductibles, surcharges, networks, tiers and myriad other rules and details that can make you want to tuck your tail between your legs and crawl into a corner.

There are dozens of different pet insurance companies, each one with different rules regarding how much they will pay, to whom and under what circumstances. Some general principles apply, though:
* Policies typically cost between $100 and $500 per year, depending on the age, size and breed of the animal.
* There is usually an annual or per-incident deductible, plus an annual or lifetime cap.
* Pre-existing or congenital conditions (such as hip dysplasia in dogs) are typically not covered.
* Only a percentage of each claim is paid, which, depending on the company and the procedure, can be anywhere from 30 percent to 90 percent.
* Different levels of coverage can be purchased, ranging from limited routine preventative care programs, to expensive "premium" plans that include unlimited high-end diagnostics and treatments and long-term
hospitalizations.
* Most companies let you go to any vet, but a few offer discounts if you choose "preferred" providers.
If your pet is over the age of nine or under six weeks old, most companies won't provide coverage, so make sure that your animal is within your chosen company's age range before buying.

Also, there is usually a waiting period from the time you buy a policy to the time you can start using it, which is the company's way of ensuring that pets with recently-developed illnesses are screened out.

The key is to research and read. Do your research into the different companies and policies offered by talking to your vet, or better yet, go online to comparison-shop. Make sure to read the fine print of every policy you are considering so that you know exactly what is and is not covered - Vaccines? Teeth cleaning? Cancer treatment? - and what your options are in terms of rates and levels of care.

Is it right for you?
If you cherish your pet and would go to any length to make it well when illness or accidents happen, then you are probably a good candidate for pet insurance. On the other hand, if you are hyper-vigilant about preventative care and never let your dog out of your sight - or would rather just stash your money in a savings account for a rainy day rather than put it toward premiums - you may not need it.

"It's like a person getting into a car accident," said Carrie Silva, an employee of the Animal Medical Center in Valencia. "You may never have one, but if you do, you're glad you had insurance to pay your bills.
"It's the same with pet insurance. It can be a lot of money, but should you ever need it, it's helpful."

Of course, as with any type of insurance, there is no absolute guarantee that if you buy it, you will use it, or that if you don't buy it, you won't wish you did.

Bear in mind that some breeds and types of animals make more sense to insure than others. For example, if you have an indoor cat which is regularly vaccinated and eats a healthy diet, you probably don't need insurance because its chances of contracting a communicable disease or having an accident are slim.

However, if you have an active, curious outdoor dog that you regularly take camping and to the dog park, having an "accident only" policy could be a good protector against the many things that could happen: It could get bitten by a snake, get poison ivy or contract "kennel cough" from contact with other dogs.

Consider the cost of the premium over the life of your pet, versus the cost to treat a serious problem. If you were to pay $27 a month for 12 years to insure your dog (the average lifespan of a medium-sized breed), the total cost works out to almost $3,800. If your dog never gets sick, that's almost $4,000 down the drain.

But imagine that your dog tears its cruciate ligament and requires a $2,500 surgical procedure to correct it. Then a few years later he swallows a sock and needs $1,000 operation to remove it. Along they way he develops a few ear infections ($500), the odd abscess ($300), a broken a tooth or two after trying to chew on a rock ($500), or even gets attacked and injured by a coyote ($1,000-$2,000). Total cost of vet care over the dog's lifespan: more than $7,800. The insurance would more than pay for itself in this scenario.

Ultimately, the decision to get pet insurance or not has to be made by each individual family or pet owner based on their unique needs and circumstances.

But the bottom line is that you may appreciate the peace of mind that comes from knowing that treatment for your poodle's or Persian's wounds won't break the bank - or your heart.

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