Pet Insurance: What To Know Before You Buy

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Insurance offers peace of mind for people, but what about your pets? Here are the top pet insurance options, and the pros and cons to consider.

As pet owners, we welcome cats and dogs into our homes, and we hurt when they become ill or suffer an injury. Even worse, our hearts break if we can’t afford proper care.

Through my work as an animal behavior consultant and author of 35+ pet care books, I advise pet owners how to prepare for the “what-ifs” we don’t want to think about. We’d rather spoil them by showing how much we love them. But pet insurance can make the difference between providing life-saving and quality-of-life care, or losing a beloved cat or dog too early.

Here’s what you need to know.

What is Pet Insurance?

Veterinarian Jack Stephens founded Veterinary Pet Insurance, the first pet insurance company, in 1981. He wanted to eliminate economic euthanasia that results when pet owners can’t afford treatment.

The concept grew slowly. But according to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association, the industry has enjoyed double-digit growth for the past six years. Pet insurance purchases surpassed $2.17 billion in 2020 despite the pandemic. Today, pet owners can choose from 20 pet insurance options in the United States and Canada.

Pet insurance is similar to health insurance for people but rarely covers pre-existing conditions. Policies usually have a deductible and may cover different things depending on the age, breed and location of the pet.

While human health care providers file insurance claims for payment, pet owners more typically pay for veterinary care first. Then they’ll receive reimbursement from the insurance company for a predetermined amount allotted for a particular service.

Investing in pet insurance works best when you enroll puppies and kittens, before they develop any chronic health conditions as they mature. The age of the pet can influence the cost, since old pets (like people) suffer from age-related disorders. Also, because some dog and cat breeds are at higher risk for specific health challenges, premiums for them may be higher.

Is Pet Insurance Worth It?

Pet insurance may not seem worth it for healthy pets. My Karma-Kat has never been sick or injured in his eight years of life. And my two-year-old dog named Shadow-Pup also seems exceptionally healthy. But a devastating injury or illness never comes when expected. Can you afford the unthinkable?

Our Bullmastiff mix Bravo-Dawg needed eye surgery at about nine months to relieve irritation from entropion (inward-rolling eyelids). Then at age two-and-a-half, just as the pandemic started, the veterinarian diagnosed his limping as bone cancer — a disease all too common in giant-breed dogs.

Bravo’s treatment included expensive leg amputation, pain medication and six rounds of chemotherapy, along with follow-up X-rays to monitor his progress. We lost him before his third birthday, but gave our beloved Bravo an additional nine happy months because we could afford his treatment.

It’s much more difficult to predict potential risk with pets of unknown heritage. If you know your pet’s heritage or athleticism increases the risk for illness or injury, consider pet insurance.

When the unthinkable happens — a torn ACL in a canine athlete or breed-specific kidney issues in a feline friend — pet insurance saves money, provides necessary care and offers peace of mind (and fewer tears) for you. It can even make a great gift for dog lovers.

What Does Pet Insurance Cover?

Many folks assume pet insurance covers everything. But basic plans only cover illness and accident.

To reduce accident risks in pets, practice some pet safety tips. Vaccinations, spay or neuter surgeries, teeth cleaning and flea treatments require additional coverage, often called wellness pet insurance plans. Exotic pet insurance covers animals other than cats and dogs, though there are few policies of this type available.

Pet insurance may not cover experimental treatments for cancer, kidney transplants, or alternative care like chiropractic or acupuncture. But if your dog’s collar catches on something and causes an injury, insurance should cover the treatment. To avoid collar issues, here’s a list of some of the best dog collars for 2021.

Pros of Pet Insurance

Pet insurance covers pets no matter their age, except for pre-existing conditions like cancer or kidney disease. Premiums increase with age, and different companies define “senior pet” at different ages.

Not every preexisting condition disqualifies pets. A cat fully recovered from being hit by a car, or a dog recovered from electrical shock after chewing holiday lights, can still get coverage. Of course, you’ll want to prevent accidents as much as possible, especially the ones not only hurt your pet but damage your home.

Policies may set a monetary cap on claims. Limits can be annual, per condition or incident, or over a lifetime. Some policies place limits on hereditary or congenital conditions, yet offer no limits on accidents or illness coverage.

Deductibles also may be annual (good), per incident (not so good), or lifetime (fantastic!), so read the fine print to know what you’re getting.

Cons of Pet Insurance

Pets prone to hip dysplasia, bloat, kidney disease, cataracts or knee injury may have these conditions excluded from the basic policy. Be sure coverage includes issues that may affect your particular pet. Dachshunds and similar long-bodied, short-legged canines prone to back injury might require additional coverage just in case. The premium may cost more, or an additional rider may be necessary.

Certain plans take part only with listed network veterinarians (similar to some human healthcare plans). Others allow the choice of any veterinary practitioner. Additional differences may include variations in the cost of the deductible or higher premiums for certain metropolitan areas that have higher typical veterinary fees.

Where Do I Get Pet Insurance?

Many pet insurance companies offer basic coverage for your cats and dogs. The plan you need depends on individual circumstance, including the age of your pet, activity level, breed and where you live — not all companies cover pets in every location.

We’ve rounded up some of the most popular pet insurance companies, but be sure to do your research before purchasing a policy.

Petplan

  • Monthly fees vary: average $25/cat, or $35/dog.
  • The co-pay is 10 percent, 20 percent or 30 percent after the deductible, which ranges from $250-$1000.
  • You also can choose per-condition deductibles of $250-$2500.
  • Pets must be at least six weeks old to enroll, but there’s no upper age limit.
  • Petplan also covers sick visit fees, with the payout based on the actual veterinary bill.
  • You can use any veterinarian in the U.S. or Canada, including emergency room and specialty hospitals.
  • Non-routine dental coverage (injuries, extractions, root canals, periodontal disease) are standard coverage, as well as alternative, holistic, and homeopathic therapies including acupuncture, physical therapy and hydrotherapy.
  • During this time of COVID-19, Petplan also covers virtual vet visits and covers up to $1,000 in hospitalization boarding costs.

Trupanion

  • Monthly cost varies.
  • You can enroll pets from birth until 14 years old, after which coverage won’t change, no matter the age.
  • Unlike other pet insurance companies, Trupanion pays veterinary expenses directly if you use a participating vet, so you don’t need to file a claim.
  • Offers only one plan with no payout limits, but has several options within the plan.
  • The flexible deductible ranges from $0-$1,000 to fit every budget. It even offers liability coverage should a pet damage your or another person’s property.
  • Offers a lifetime per-condition deductible and covers 90 percent of eligible expenses after the deductible.
  • All plans cover hereditary conditions like hip dysplasia, congenital conditions like heart disease, and unidentified conditions including vomiting/diarrhea, change in weight, and more.
  • It’s also available in Canada.

Embrace Pet Insurance

  • Costs $13-$100/month depending on your plan
  • Deductible ranges from $100-$1,000.
  • A “diminishing deductible” decreases the cost each year that your pet stays healthy without a claim.
  • The co-pay varies from 10 percent, 20 percent or 30 percent after your deductible, depending on the plan, with payout amount based on the veterinary bill.
  • Embrace covers veterinary exam costs, unlike many other kinds of pet insurance.
  • Pets must be at least six weeks old, and new pets over age 14 are eligible only for accident coverage (not illness). But once enrolled, coverage continues for the life of the pet.

Lemonade

  • Policies start at $10/month but vary depending on location, pet and deductible amount.
  • You can choose from 70 percent, 80 percent or 90 percent accident and illness coverage with an annual deductible of $100, $250 or $500, and an annual limit from $5,000-$100,000.
  • Coverage options are customizable, including optional wellness packages.
  • Waiting periods after the start date are relatively short — two days for accidents, fourteen days for illness.
  • Pets must be at least eight weeks old but are covered in full as they age.
  • Elective surgery, dental treatments, behavioral conditions and alternative and experimental treatments aren’t covered.
  • Lemonade offers an app to file claims, making reimbursement painless and quick.

Pets Best Pet Health Insurance (originally VPI)

  • The flat rate accident coverage premiums start at $6/cats and $9/dogs per month, and go up depending on the plan.
  • Pets must be at least seven weeks old to enroll, but Pets Best does not restrict coverage for older pets.
  • The annual deductible varies from $50-$1,000, and annual payout limits range from $5,000 to unlimited, depending on the policy.
  • The accident and illness standard plan offers three tiers: Essential, Plus, and Elite, with each offering additional coverage benefits.
  • Pets Best has only a three-day waiting period from the effective date to filing an accident claim.

ASPCA Pet Health Insurance

  • Monthly rates start at $10 (for accident only) or $16 (complete coverage). Rates vary based on species, age, breed, and location.
  • The actual cost of the veterinary bill determines the payout amount at the customer’s rate choice of 90 percent, 80 percent or 70 percent.
  • You choose your annual deductible of $100, $250 or $500.
  • Pets must be at least eight weeks old but there’s no upper age limit to enroll.
  • ASPCA is one of the few pet insurance policies that covers diagnosis and treatment for behavior problems.
  • This company also offers policies that cover horses.
  • The company licenses its name from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals but is not part of that organization.

AKC Pet Insurance

  • Costs from $9 to $135 per month depending on chosen plan.
  • Policy owners choose a reimbursement level of 70 percent, 80 percent, 90 percent or 100 percent after your deductible.
  • The annual deductible, which varies depending on the pet’s age and location, ranges from $100, $250, $500, $750, $1,000, or $1,500.
  • Payout amounts are based on the actual veterinary bill of the service provided.
  • Pets must be at least eight weeks to enroll and there are no upper age limits.
  • Puppies registered through the AKC receive a 30-day pet insurance coverage for free.
  • Unlike some other pet insurance policies, AKC Pet Insurance has no breed exclusions.
  • It also offers coverage for hereditary and congenital conditions, and for alternative, holistic and behavioral coverage.
  • This insurance comes from the American Kennel Club (AKC).

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Amy Shojai, CABC
Amy Shojai, CABC is an award-winning pet journalist and the author of 35+ pet titles. She created the PUPPIES.ABOUT.COM site and cat behavior content for CATS.ABOUT.COM (now TheSpruce.com). Quoted as an expert by the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reader's Digest and many other publications, Amy has appeared on Animal Planet, Good Morning America, CNN and many others. She specializes in translating "medicalese" into information pet parents easily understand. Amy shares behavior and care information on her BLING, BITCHES & BLOOD blog, and lives in North TX with her furry muses.