When Karen Hopper, 57, of Cooper City, Florida, looked into pet insurance for Rusty, her five-year-old Staffordshire terrier, it didn’t seem worth the cost.
Rusty had a knee injury from jumping off the bed when he was two years old, and the plan Hopper was offered through her job wouldn’t cover preexisting conditions. Since she’d probably be dealing with the repercussions of Rusty's torn ACL for years, why pay a monthly fee when those expenses wouldn’t be covered?
But less than a year later, Hopper had to charge a $4,000 surgery to remove a piece of rubber lodged in Rusty’s abdomen on her credit card. “I was like, ‘Maybe I should’ve gotten the insurance,' ” she says.
Many dog and cat owners struggle with whether to buy pet insurance. Between coverage limitations, high deductibles, network constraints and wellness options, navigating the pet insurance industry can be as challenging as making sense of human health insurance. So is it worth it?
While Hopper and others address health issues as they arise and hope for the best, some pet owners say the monthly premiums for pet insurance actually relieve stress.
A growing pet insurance industry
Researching Pet Insurance Policies and Plans?
If you're thinking of investing in pet insurance, here are seven things to consider.
1. Ask your breeder, rescue organization or vet if they can recommend an insurer — or consider bundling your policy with your car, homeowners or another existing policy.
2. Generally, the higher the deductible, the lower the premium. Your deductible decision should be based on how much money you could comfortably come up with in case of emergency.
3. If you’re thinking of purchasing pet insurance, it’s better to do so before your pet is diagnosed with something serious. Pre-existing conditions may not be covered.
4. Be mindful of lifetime or annual cap limits. “A cap can really get you in trouble,” says Colleen Stratton, who spent thousands on medical treatments for her cat.
5. While most plans cover dogs and cats, some plans will cover exotic pets like lizards, birds, rabbits and other creatures. Be sure to do additional research if you’re looking for coverage for those animals.
6. Wellness plans that cover vaccines, grooming and other routine services will cost more per month, but they can help owners budget month-to-month pet expenses.
7. Be sure to read the fine print so you know what a plan does and does not cover.
According to the “2021 State of the Industry Report” from the North American Pet Health Insurance Association (NAPHIA), the industry is growing annually by an average of 23.4 percent. Around 3.45 million pets were insured across the United States and Canada by the end of 2020.
After Colleen Stratton’s cat Pyewackett cost her thousands of dollars — which she borrowed from her father — for a hyperthyroid treatment, she took out an insurance policy on Pyewackett as well as her second cat, Sho-Zen. “It was a godsend,” says the resident of Glendale, California, “because [Sho-Zen] started having health problems and slowly deteriorated over a period of three years.”
Her Pets Best Insurance plan, which cost $60 a month for two cats a decade ago, paid 80 percent of the bills after a $500 deductible. Now those cats are gone, and Stratton has two young healthy felines— and a premium that jumped from $87.32 to $127.68 per month this year for reasons she still does not understand. Stratton is weighing whether or not to keep the plan, increase the deductible, shop around or put that money into an emergency savings account. “I keep researching,” she says. “But there is something comforting about knowing I have pet insurance, and I’m afraid to cancel it.”
That sense of comfort is the reason many pet owners opt in.
“Pet insurance is a financial product, but it's also an emotional product,” says Kristin Lynch, executive director of the NAPHIA. “You care a lot about your pet and you want to be sure if something happens, you want to have the means to take care of them.”
What to watch out for
In the U.S., the average premium for accident and illness coverage is $49.51 per month for dogs and $28.48 for cats, according to the NAPHIA. For accident coverage only, it’s $18.17 and $11.13, respectively. Premiums fluctuate based on age, breed and where you live.
Plans from companies and organizations including Fetch by The Dodo, Embrace, Spot, Pumpkin, Lemonade, Pets Best and more can range from just injury coverage to comprehensive packages that offer perks like spay and neuter, immunization, dental and grooming coverage. Deductibles can start at $0 and go up to over $1,000. Many policies have copays; the most common is an 80/20 plan, meaning that after the deductible has been reached each year, you pay 20 percent of the remaining bills. Some plans have lifetime or annual per-condition limits on reimbursements, often capped at $5,000.
Most plans do not cover preexisting conditions and many require users to pay up front for veterinary services, then submit paperwork to get reimbursed. Sometimes companies will reimburse for a lower amount than the actual bill for a particular procedure or treatment — and, in some cases, depending on the plan, those procedures or treatments may not be covered at all.
Lynch suggests talking to your vet before researching plans to understand what accidents or illnesses your pets are likely to face in their lifetimes and what treatment will cost. Rattlesnake bites may be common in your area, for example. Or your miniature poodle may be prone to Cushing’s disease, and the vet can tell you what treating that is likely to cost at the time of diagnosis and on an ongoing basis.
While some insurance plans have provider networks that may or may not include your vet, most plans don’t require that a vet accept the plan. The vet just needs to sign the form and provide medical records to the insurance company.
“I think most practices and veterinarians like it for clients because it removes finances as an obstacle for doing the right thing for a pet in critical or complicated situations,” says South Carolina-based veterinarian Julie Buzby. “And as vets, many of us have it, too, for our own pets for these same reasons," including specialty care.
Stratton is motivated to keep paying premiums by a friend whose uninsured cat jumped out a window. “We’re doing a GoFundMe now. The vet bills will total more than $10,000,” she says. “It’s a lot for people who are retired.”
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Sara Ventiera is a contributing writer who covers pets, health and home design. Her work has appeared in a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, Food & Wine, NPR, Eating and BBC Travel.