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Pet Insurance Can Be Your Wallet's Best Friend

March 01, 2022

Young woman hugging her small dog

Annie Dinwiddie's dog Rosie is 181 pounds of pure love. But all the love in the world won't cover the nearly $25,000 in vet bills Dinwiddie has racked up since she got her pup. Thankfully, pet insurance will.

On a recommendation, Dinwiddie enrolled Rosie, an English mastiff, in a policy with Healthy Paws. Four years, two surgeries and countless X-rays, prescriptions and physical therapy sessions later, that decision has saved her around $18,000.

"It's been a game changer," says Dinwiddie who, at the time, was in graduate school. "Every dog I have, I'll always have insurance."

Most dog owners don't have thousands of dollars sitting around to cover surgery or cancer treatment. That's where pet insurance comes in. Pet insurance policies typically reimburse 70% to 90% of covered costs related to illness and injury.

Having that coverage allows you to make decisions about your pet's care based on its well-being, not your wallet, says Barry Kipperman, a veterinary specialist in internal medicine.

"In my experience, when pet owners say they're covered by insurance, it takes the emotional angst out of the equation," Kipperman says. "There's no crying. There's no Kleenex. The animal simply gets what it needs."

Here's what you need to know and what you should look for when shopping for a pet policy.

What to know

You still pay out of pocket. Unlike human health insurance, most pet insurance policies reimburse you rather than pay the bill up front. So you pay for the treatment, submit the claim and receive a check for the covered portion.

Routine, preventive care is an add-on. Vaccinations, flea and tick treatments and annual exams are all expected parts of pet ownership. But this type of routine care is not covered by most pet insurance policies. Some providers offer it as an upgrade or add-on. Do the math to make sure it's worth the added cost.

Office visit charges usually aren't included. If your dog is sick or injured, your policy will likely cover diagnostic tests, such as bloodwork and X-rays, and any prescribed medication. But most policies don't cover the visit itself, so you're on the hook for the exam fee. A handful of providers, including Figo and Pets Best, include exam fees in some or all of their policies.

You aren't covered on Day One. Like people insurance policies, pet policies often have a waiting period, so your pup typically isn't covered the day you enroll. And there may be different gaps for different types of coverage or conditions. Some policies, for example, won't cover claims for hip dysplasia (a common condition) within the first year.

What to look for in a pet policy

There are a few things you want to make sure you have coverage for, says Nicole Ellis, a certified professional dog trainer with Rover, a pet-care app.

Continuous coverage for chronic conditions

Cancer. Arthritis. Allergies. Kidney disease. These are not short-term conditions, and treatment can last for the life of your pet. You want to ensure you're covered for the duration of the condition. "Make sure you're covered not only in the year the pet was diagnosed," Ellis says. "If you need medication every month for the rest of its life, you want to make sure it's not just covered for that year."

Hereditary conditions

Some breeds are prone to certain issues - Great Danes and Boxers are prone to heart disease, and pugs, shih tzus and other smushed-faced dogs often have breathing issues. Research your dog's breed-specific ailments and make sure they're covered by your policy before you enroll.

Alternative treatments

The level of medical care available for dogs now rivals that of humans, including services like acupuncture and chiropractic care. If you want the full range of options, make sure these alternative treatments are covered by your plan.

Deductibles and benefit limits

Annual deductibles are standard for human health insurance, but the same isn't true for pet policies. With some companies, the pet insurance deductible is per incident or condition.

So if your dog sprains a knee, you pay one deductible and any subsequent care related to that issue is covered. But if your pup has a different issue - dental, stomach, allergies - you have to pay another deductible.

There are benefits to incident deductibles though, notes Carol Edwards, executive director of Early Alert Canines, which trains medical alert dogs for insulin-dependent diabetics.

Insurance covered 90% of the costs, minus a $1,000 deductible, when Edwards' black Lab went through cancer treatment. "Years later, his cancer came back," Edwards says. "Since the deductible was already paid, his follow-up care was covered."

Of course, be sure to research carefully and read the fine print - some policies also cap the amount they'll pay out annually, per incident and over the life of your pet.