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Polly Wanna Policy?

Pet health insurance carries a price but can head off financial shock at the vet.

As with your own health insurance, a policy you purchase for your pet will often include strict limits on how much will be paid for particular procedures.

With most policies, says Hickton, pet owners have to pay veterinarians up front and be reimbursed, typically within two weeks.

To insure or not to insure

Dennis Drent, president and CEO of Veterinary Pet Insurance, the oldest and largest pet insurer in the United States, says three questions can help people decide whether insurance makes financial sense for them:

1. Are you able to pay your pet's vet bills yourself? Removing a cataract from a dog's eye, for instance, can cost more than $1,200.

2. What is your risk tolerance? "Do you want to roll the dice and hope your pet never has a $10,000 incident?" asks Drent.

3. What is your "stop-treatment" cost—the amount you are willing to spend before you choose to put down a suffering pet? For the typical pet owner, he says, it's $1,500.

Regan Blackwood, a veterinarian at the Clifton Centreville Animal Clinic just outside Washington, D.C., says "a couple of times a year" she sees clients who spend as much as $4,000 on a pet, usually because it requires emergency surgery.

Weighing insurance policies

Consumer advocates add some specific pointers if you are considering a policy for your pet:

  • Look beyond the monthly premium. Compare differences in copays, deductibles and caps, and how they are determined—by incident, annually or over the pet's lifetime?

The website of the North American Pet Health Insurance Association offers information from the industry. For independent sources, you can visit Pet Insurance Review, Your Pet Insurance Guide and DogTime.

  • Find out which company would be underwriting the policy you're considering and check its rating with A.M. Best. Look for ratings of B+ or better.

Sid Kirchheimer writes about health and consumer issues.

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