Should You Buy Pet Insurance?

Doug Kenney, DVM
Updated: August 08, 2014
Published: May 05, 2011
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If you are the typical person in America today, you probably have several different types of insurance. If you own a home, you likely have homeowners insurance. If you own a car, you likely have auto insurance. You may also have life insurance, disability insurance, or health insurance. But what about pet insurance?

I frequently read discussions about pet insurance on pet forums. One question that is often asked is, "Should I buy pet insurance?"

You would buy pet insurance for the same reason you buy any type of insurance. You buy it to help pay for large, unexpected or unplanned veterinary bills for which you would have trouble paying for out-of-pocket.

The definition of "large" may be $500 to $600 for some pet owners, while for others it may be $5,000 to $6,000. This is why pet insurance policies aren’t one size fits all.

Pet healthcare expenses fall into two categories:

1. Wellness care (some call it routine expenses) - e.g., annual or semi-annual examinations, vaccinations as needed, heartworm and intestinal parasite testing, heartworm preventative medication, monthly flea and tick control products, dental prophylaxis, early disease detection lab tests, spaying or neutering, etc. Because you can approximate the cost for this care and when they will occur every year, you can plan and save for these procedures. They aren’t unexpected.

2. Accidents or illnesses - e.g., accidental poisoning, foreign body ingestion, fractures, lacerations, acute or chronic diseases, etc. These are, by nature, unplanned or unexpected and sometimes expensive, especially if care is administered at an emergency hospital or if you are referred to a specialist. These expenses are why pet owners usually consider purchasing pet insurance.

A pet insurance company recently surveyed claims they had received that were $500 or more. Almost half of the claims were for pets seen at an emergency hospital or specialty hospital. Most major metropolitan areas now have at least one emergency and/or specialty facility.

Specialists are more highly trained, solve and treat more difficult cases, have access to and use more advanced technology (e.g., CT scans or MRIs). Emergency hospitals often deal with life-threatening problems that need intensive care or even emergency surgery — usually at hours when your regular veterinarian’s hospital isn’t open.

For these reasons, the fees at specialty and emergency hospitals are usually higher than what you would pay at your regular veterinarian’s hospital. Specialty and emergency hospitals (when needed) play an important role, along with your regular veterinarian, in providing quality healthcare to your pet, and can often be the difference between successful or unsuccessful treatment of your pet. Therefore, pet owners are starting to look more closely at pet insurance as a way to help bridge the gap between the quality of healthcare they need or want for their pet and what they can afford. 

According to another recent pet insurance survey, a majority of respondents would be willing to spend "anything" to save their pet. It has been my experience, however, that when I present the cost of a diagnostic or treatment plan to pet owners, the reality of the situation sets in — and some aren’t so sure of the answer anymore.

Dr. Barry Kipperman, an internist at a California 24-hour emergency and specialty hospital, stated that he frequently hears pet owners say, "I never imagined that it would cost this much to save my pet’s life."

If your pet was sick or injured and required surgery and an extended hospital stay and the bill was $10,000, $5,000, or $3,000, could you afford to pay for it? If not, then you should at least look into purchasing pet health insurance.

The primary consideration for some pet owners contemplating the purchase of pet insurance may not be "could" I afford such a bill, but "would" I be willing to spend that amount of money on my pet. For some pet owners, the answer is "no." Therefore, pet insurance would be of little benefit.

I believe that more and more clients will purchase pet insurance in the future because technology and the costs of delivering quality healthcare to pets have outpaced the ability of many pet owners to pay for it. Consequently, veterinarians and pet owners will have to become familiar with pet health insurance. While pet owners and veterinarians alike can benefit by third party payment to help pay for the healthcare of pets, I’m convinced the real winners will be the pets.

For more questions to ask yourself when contemplating the purchase of pet insurance, visit petMD’s Pet Insurance Center.

Dr. Doug Kenney

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