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Choosing Pet Health Insurance

In a recent DVM 360 online article, Rising Costs Pose New Barriers to Care, writer Stephanie Skernivitz shares a remark from practicing veterinarian, Peter Weinstein. “Pet owners unfortunately have to decide where discretionary income is going. Today's pet owners are even waiting longer to see if pets will get better on their own."

Today, many price-conscious pet-owning consumers –and you may be one of them–are already shopping prices on vaccinations, and necessary surgical procedures such as spays and neuters. They're forced to strictly look at cost when it comes to these services, which can push them into some hard decisions about basic medical care for their pets.

Sound familiar? Then, pet health insurance may be the right answer for you. Pet insurance is similar to human health insurance in that it has:

  • Deductibles
  • Co-pays
  • Maximum payouts
  • Premiums
  • Waiting periods
  • No coverage for pre-existing conditions

What this means for you is simple: when shopping for pet health insurance, you’ve got to do your homework. Here are a few questions you should ask as you compare pet insurance providers and plans,recommended by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA),  and Dr.Frances Wilkerson, DVM and founder of Pet Insurance University. The first three questions are critical, and very personal:

1. Can you afford the "Worst Case Scenario Costs" for your geographic location out of pocket?

Dr.Wilkerson argues that “pet insurance is used to offset a catastrophic, financial hit”.

She details what those could be,in relation to your pet:

  • Emergencies (e.g. Fractures, Foreign Body Ingestion, Accidental Poisonings, Bloat, Urinary Blockage)
  • Chronic diseases (e.g. Chronic Renal Failure, Heart Disease, Liver Disease, Diabetes Mellitus, Cancer)
  • Sudden, Severe diseases (e.g. Acute Renal Failure, Acute Pancreatitis)

The costs, she tells readers of the online article, Deciding if Pet Insurance is Right for You, “will vary across the country, though they tend to be higher in metropolitan areas. To find out the ‘Worst Case Scenario Costs’ in your area, ask your veterinarian. Make sure you let them know if you will opt for high-end treatments and diagnostics, as these will affect the cost. And she tells readers a simple truth: “If you can afford these costs out of your pocket, then you do not need pet insurance.”

2. Will paying more in premiums than you get back in reimbursement bother you?

“It is very likely,” shares Dr. Wilkerson, “that you could pay $5,400 or more in premiums over the life of your pet and not see any of that money back in reimbursement because your pet stayed relatively healthy. If this scenario is bothersome, then pet insurance is not for you. Some people will not be concerned by this scenario because the peace of mind they are given knowing they are covered is more valuable to them than the money paid.” How do you stand on that issue?

3. Are you willing to do the individual research to find a plan that is the right fit for you?

Obviously, it’s important to find the companies that fit your monetary and medical coverage requirements. And, it’s also important that you read the terms and conditions to find out policy exclusions, limitations, and requirements. “If you rely solely on the marketing of the pet insurance companies when making your decision,” shares Dr. Wilkerson, “you will end up with the wrong plan for your situation. So it’s better to stop now,” she writes “if you are not willing to research pet insurance companies and their plans.”

A Brief List of Pet Insurance Providers

If you’ve decided that pet insurance is something which may be of value to you and your family, and you’re ready to start your search for the most appropriate plan for your pet, these links to today’s top ten pet insurance providers will get you on the right track.

ASPCA/Hartville Pet Plan
Embrace Pets Best
Healthy Paws Trupanion
Pet First VPI
Pet Partners 24 PetWatch

A short list of the questions you should ask when visiting specific websites, or speaking with company representatives includes:

1. How much does the plan cost?

While it’s probably the first question on everyone’s mind, cost is only part of the “big picture”. A pet insurance plan needs to give you the right amount of coverage, yet still be affordable for your budget.

2. Is wellness coverage available?

Preventive veterinary care is an essential part of the ASPCA Criteria for Responsible Care. Since this care is so important to keep pets healthy, you should make sure there’s adequate coverage for  spay/neuter surgery, an annual dental cleaning, an annual exam, flea and heartworm medication and regular vaccines.

3. Are you looking for a pet health discount plan or a comprehensive insurance plan?

With discount fee plans one would pay an annual fee and get discounted veterinarian and related pet services. A pet health insurance plan would look similar to health insurance for people, with deductibles and exclusions.

4. Will you get to choose your veterinarian?

Different plans have different rules. If you are unwilling to change veterinarians, be sure to check to see if your vet is included as a provider for the pet insurance you are interested in.

5. What are the waiting periods?

Like all insurance, there may be a waiting period in order for the policy to take effect and it is important to be aware of exactly when your policy starts and ends.

4. What are the exclusions?

Common exclusions are pre-existing conditions and hereditary defects. Coverage for common exclusions can usually be obtained at an additional cost.

5. Does the policy include prescription coverage?

Prescription coverage is just as important since the probability your pet will need a prescription medication sometime in their life is rather high– and like all prescriptions, they can be really costly.

6. Will I have to pay a deductible?

The deductible, of course, is what you pay before services are rendered so you will want to find a plan that carries a deductible that is affordable to you. Don’t forget the basic rule: the smaller the deductible the higher the premium.

7. Are there any illness and incident caps?

Usually in pet insurance, there will be variety of "caps" or limits on how much the insurance company will pay for a specific incident. A broken leg may have a different cap than a standard spay or neutering procedure, so it’s important to be aware of policy limits.

No one can predict when a pet may have an accident or develop a chronic condition or life-threatening illness. A pet health insurance plan will help you deal with unexpected veterinary costs, and give you the peace-of-mind which comes from knowing you’ve lived up to your responsibilities by providing the best possible protection for your cherished animal companion.