Pet Health Insurance – Friend or Foe?

Pet Health Insurance – friend or foe?

Pet Health Insurance – here we have another topic where opinions vary widely and debates over pros and cons are in no short supply. You may ask, “Do they really have such a thing?” The answer of course is “Yes.” They actually even have pet life insurance. But for this week, we’ll concentrate on the health insurance topic.

Insurance of any kind is one of those things that you buy and hope you never have to use. Having said that, given our pet’s relatively short life spans in comparison to our own, I think it’s common sense to realize that it’s highly likely our pet’s are going to get ill or have accidents and at some point in their lives require significant medical care. And that care can be expensive.

I suppose I could summarize the entire blog at this point with a statement like “Pet Insurance – Get It”. There you have it – my opinion is out of the ‘proverbial’ bag. But I think we can certainly expand on the “why?” of it all and look at some of the pros and cons.

First let’s talk about what it is. Pet health insurance, much like human health insurance, helps cover the cost of medical expenses for illness or accidents. Some pet insurance plans even offer options to cover routine health and wellness visits to include things like vaccinations, annual exams, spaying/neutering, heartworm testing and medications for an additional cost. However, I think the best use of pet insurance is for the unexpected, catastrophic accident or medical events that are difficult to budget for.

Oh come on Dr. V, what are the odds of something really bad happening? Can’t I wait to purchase the insurance until my pet achieves middle age and then purchase it?” I suppose the answer to that is “Yes you can.” But is that the best choice you can make for your pet? That answer is no. To elaborate, let’s look at who is in the hospital right now. Or more specifically, let’s look at a typical day in the life of WBAH.

.. 4 year old dog, whose owners woke up and thought ”let’s go for a walk on the beach with our dog”. It’s a beautiful Saturday morning in January” They were walking on the beach with their dog on a leash, when a much larger dog, broke away from his handler and attacked….. severe lacerations requiring surgery

.. there’s the cat that swallowed a small cork from a bottle….fit perfectly into the diameter of his small bowel….plugging it up completely… requiring surgery

.. the little dog, who lived happily with a big dog, until there was a disagreement…. again lacerations and muscle damage

. middle age dog, runs out in back yard…. comes back holding up rear leg… ruptured cruciate ligament. Requires surgery

…….Senior dog’s entire back right leg is completely swollen from hip to toes within a period of 24 hours and dog can hardly walk. Dog needs surgery to relieve massive swelling. Leg is shaved to begin surgery and puncture wounds are found with skin already dying. Leg is opened up and it looks like a hand grenade had gone off inside the muscle. This dog was bit by a nasty spider…black widow? In its own back yard!

Each of these clients was faced with unexpected veterinary medical bills. These situations are ideal examples of cases that could benefit from the owners having pet health insurance. The sad part is only one of these clients actually has pet health insurance.

Your next question might be “how does it work?” Pet insurance is similar to human health insurance in that it has premiums, deductibles, co-pays and maximum payouts. Covered California doesn’t exist for our pets, so it does not cover pre-existing conditions. Pet health insurance does have waiting periods that define when coverage starts, usually 30 days for the most part but this can be longer for more serious conditions. It differs from human health insurance in that it is a reimbursement program. This means you pay the vet bill and then you file the claim with the pet insurance company for reimbursement. Most insurance companies do have a fairly quick turn-around time for reimbursement and payments are usually in your hands by the time your credit card bill is due. A great benefit with this type of insurance is that pet insurance companies do not use networks so you are able to visit any licensed veterinarian in the United States.

Selecting an insurance company is an individual choice because each person has different needs based on the pet’s breed, the owner’s geographical location and the owner’s budget. Here are my personal suggestions to consider when shopping for your pet insurance:

  • Make sure the plan has good medical coverage. The most comprehensive plans cover accidents/injuries and illness.
  • Make sure the plan has coverage for cancer and coverage for chronic illness and make sure the coverage for chronic illness/disease has a continual coverage option. Some companies will only cover the chronic illness/disease in the policy year it was diagnosed in, after that you will have to pay for continuing coverage.
  • Check to see if it has coverage for hereditary and congenital diseases? Does it cover diseases that are common to your pet’s breed?
  • Pay close attention to “per incident limits” as well as “annual maximums”. Always buy the policy with the highest “per incident” limit that you can afford.

Accident Only policies are cheaper and as the name implies, only cover accidents. They do not cover medical costs caused by illness. Remember that as a pet ages, the number of accident related injuries decreases in comparison to the number of illness related conditions. I would recommend asking many questions of the insurance company. In particular for the middle aged dog who will be running in the backyard and come in limping with a torn cruciate ligament in his knee. You might think this an accident while your insurance company might consider it a chronic disease due to the breed of your dog.

The pros seem fairly obvious. Pet gets sick or pet gets injured and pet insurance helps you pay for that unexpected expense. One of the hardest things I see on a regular basis is an owner that loves their pet and has to make the decision to euthanize because they don’t have insurance and simply cannot afford to treat the animal. And I will say it again – “Pet Insurance – Get It”. I have no reason to promote one brand of insurance over another and it simply does not matter to me or any of us at WBAH which insurance you choose. We just don’t want to see our clients forced into a decision of euthanasia due to lack of funding. That’s just heartbreaking for everyone involved. We do offer Care Credit, but in this day and age, not everyone will qualify for that financing option. Pet insurance on the other hand is available to everyone, regardless of your credit score.

Are there any cons to consider? Pet health insurance has been available in one form or another for more than 20 years. However it still seems to be a subject that confuses people and even makes some wonder if it’s really worth the cost. How do you compare companies and policies without spending hours on end trolling through every available website? I have an answer! There is a website called Pet Insurance Review that can help you. There is a lot of great information on this site, including a way to compare rates and coverage.

Another resource is a website called Pet Insurance University. It’s written by a veterinarian by the name of Dr. Wilkerson and offers lots of great information as well. Dr. Wilkerson goes into far more detail on his site, in explaining the details of pet health insurance than I can go into here.  It’s well worth a look and a read.

In questioning clients who have pet health insurance for their pets, and who have had to use it, the general satisfaction with it seems fairly high. Like any insurance, I don’t think it is always easy to use and I think policies need to be carefully looked at when purchasing. I’ve heard so many stories from clients about how pet health insurance has saved the day for them. One client, we’ll call her JH, was kind enough to share her story with me as to the value of pet insurance in her situation.

I got insurance for Canela when she was about 9 years old. I had debated if it was worth it and finally decided to get it in case of cancer or other huge illness or injury. I researched the companies and realized some gave 80 or 90% return while others gave very little return.   I was still unsure if it was worth it.  However about six months after I got the insurance a mass was found in Canela’s lungs. Diagnostics alone were over $4,000. I paid a little over $400 of that.  She was diagnosed with cancer and given only a few months to live without treatment. Canela lived another year with cancer.  She actually became a little miracle dog.  The cancer never grew.  In the end it was something else that took her.  I never would have had that last year with her without insurance.  Her medical bills were probably close to $15,000 and I paid probably around $2,000 including premiums, etc.  She was my girl and, like so many pet owners, I loved her dearly.”


With the high cost of medicine, we have long reached the point where medical insurance for our pets should be a strong consideration. It’s food for thought in any case.

Dr. Voorheis

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