I am asked this question often. Unfortunately, it’s typically after I’ve diagnosed some condition requiring $2,000 surgery, or extensive hospitalization. These are the times it’s too late. But pet insurance does have a place. I’m not going to tell you which company, or what policy, but tell you generally how pet insurance works, and you can then be an informed shopper. I have many clients who have pet insurance that has saved them thousands of dollars, so depending on your situation, it’s worth looking into!
Here are the 4 things you need to know when shopping for health insurance for your dog or cat.
1 – Buy it when your pet is young
Pre-existing condition. There, I said it. This is the key factor with pet insurance. Your 5 year old dog blows his ACL and needs knee surgery? Pet insurance won’t cover it once it’s been diagnosed. Or your cat seems healthy now, but he had a bladder (cystitis) issue a couple years ago. If he has a urinary obstruction (can be over $1,000!) in a year, insurance likely won’t cover it, as his bladder condition is pre-existing. So it’s best to start with a clean slate. Your best bet is to buy it when you first acquire your pet, before any diseases are identified.
2 – It doesn’t pay your veterinarian directly
This one surprises many people. When clients ask if we accept xxxx brand of pet insurance, we don’t care what company it is – none of them pay us directly. The way it works is you, the owner, pays the bill, submits the claim, and gets reimbursed. Thankfully, many companies will pre-approve (or deny) a certain procedure before you pay it and – surprise! — are on the hook for thousands of dollars. Some companies reimburse super fast, others take weeks. It’s something to ask about. Also, this means that you have to have access (via the actual funds, or room on a credit card) to the funds to pay the vet bill initially. If your dog bloats on Christmas eve to the tune of $4,000, YOU are the one paying it that night, no matter what insurance you have!
3 – Read the fine print… for reals
We all know certain breeds are prone to specific diseases. Some policies will exclude coverage of ear infections in a cocker spaniel, or hemangiosarcoma in a golden retriever. So if you have a purebred, be aware of this. Also, there can be a waiting period for certain injuries. This makes sense if you think about it. Say your dog is limping, you think he’ll need expensive surgery, so you get pet insurance the day before your vet visit. Sure enough, the veterinarian says your dog needs $2500 ACL surgery. But you got the insurance BEFORE the diagnosis, so you’re OK, right? Often that’s a no. Pet insurance companies are smart, and they know people could do that. So there’s often a several month waiting period from when you initiate coverage to when specific diseases are covered, depending on the plan and the condition.
4 – Wellness plans through your vet are NOT insurance
Many national corporate veterinary chains offer wellness plans. These can be a great way to break up the cost of annual bloodwork, vaccines, even dental cleaning, into monthly payments. Many people misunderstand this as insurance, which it is so not! These plans do not cover illness or injury. You may get a small discount if treated at the clinic, but that’s it. Also, the plan only works at THAT veterinary hospital. What if your pet ends up at the local emergency clinic, or needing a specialist? That wellness plan is worthless in that case. I’m not saying they are bad – many people love them! Just understand it is not insurance. And can you have both a wellness plan at a corporate chain AND buy pet insurance? Of course! Just make sure to find out what all is covered in your policy. For instance, it might not be worth it to get pet insurance that covers preventative care, like vaccinations, but consider a police that covers emergency care, which the wellness plan does not.
Now that you know how it works, you know the questions to ask. I have one client whose dog had $12,000 worth of surgeries at a specialist, and pet insurance covered 90% of it! I have other clients who pay for pet insurance every month and say they might stop because they’ve never really used it. Of course, if your pet stays healthy and doesn’t need it, that’s a good problem to have!
And then there’s always the old adage of if you buy it, you’ll hardly use it, but if you don’t buy it, you’ll wish you had.