The Pet Insurance Question

Does buying pet insurance pay off?

If you don't have pet insurance, you'll have to pay all of your cat's veterinary bills, no matter the amount, over the life of your pet. As a cat owner, I've had my share of surprise vet bills, and I know it's not fun.

Since pet owners are a captured audience, veterinary practices, not unlike dentists, can charge high fees for emergency services. Since your cat can't tell you what's wrong or how she feels, often symptoms of a simple illness need to be treated like an emergency as well. Better safe than sorry, but this can cost you.

One way to get around that situation, is to purchase pet insurance. For many pet owners, pet insurance is a product worth considering. This may be especially true if money is tight each month. Unexpected vet bills can be devastating, and that's where an insurance policy can help.

When many people talk about what it costs to keep an animal, they often forget about veterinary expenses. The overall cost of pet ownership is often not fully understood by the novice pet owner. While the yearly fees for shots and checkups are not all that much, an illness or accident can be very costly.

If you've been keeping your cat indoors, she is definitely safer, but not immune to problems. Indoor cats have been known to get out (that happened to me once), and there are dangers around the home as well. In addition, a cat that is used to being indoors may become disoriented and afraid when outside. This can lead to unpredictable reactions and even more dangerous situations.

Even if you're the most careful pet owner, your cat may still become ill. Cats are prone to a number of health conditions, including feline diabetes, heart conditions, and worms and other cat parasites.

So, what exactly is pet insurance? What can it do for you?

The idea behind of pet insurance is similar to that of human health insurance policies that you'd carry on yourself or your family. In order to help you, the pet owner, lessen the impact of sudden health care costs for your animals, you pay a small monthly premium for a policy.

Is an insurance policy for your pet a good idea? It might be

One of my cats was diagnosed with a heart condition, and I did not carry insurance for her. The day Priscilla was supposed to go to the vet for a teeth cleaning, she fell off the couch. The diagnosis? It turns out that she had developed a heart murmur, and could not undergo the cleaning procedure. Later, after a specialist consultation and some expensive testing, she was diagnosed with a serious degenerative heart condition known as feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

I learned there was no cure for her condition, and the medication she needed was not made for cats. It had to be prepared specially and come from a pharmacy that was willing to make it up for me. All of these costs came out of my pocket, and were obviously unexpected. Having pet insurance coverage would have been a big burden off of me.

Through each step of the process, my vet kept saying that we could stop if the costs were too high. I told him that I didn't care about the cost, only about the cat! He explained to me that many people can't afford to pay for these types of costs for their animals, and so never pursue diagnosis and treatment.

Benefits of a Pet Insurance Policy

Pet insurance gives you peace of mind and prevents unexpected costs from eating up your savings. The opportunity to budget your pet’s health care costs over the life of your pet can give you a sense of freedom both financially and emotionally.

Figuring your pet insurance premiums into your monthly budget helps you avoid sudden and unexpected expenses. You won't have any unplanned for out-of-pocket expenses if your pet becomes ill or is involved in an accident.

There are several companies offering such plans, including VPI, PetCare, and Embrace.

You can choose from different plans from each company, some of which pay up to 100%, and require no physical exam. On some plans, there are no annual maximum benefit restrictions. You can also get a plan that covers routine care, such as vaccinations and flea medication. Some plans will even cover spay and neuter procedures. For example, see the details of the VPI Superior Plan plus Routine Care Coverage at VPI's web site for details.

Another plus is guaranteed acceptance. For example, as long as she is not subject to one of the exclusions, your pet is guaranteed to be accepted by PetCare Pet Insurance. As with all insurance, you may cancel your policy if you feel it is no longer in the best interest of you and your pet to carry it.

Do other people like it? It's been reported that many pet lovers are happy with their pet insurance policies. There are personal stories about how this type of coverage saved the life of a pet, since the pet would not have had needed treatment otherwise.

The Drawbacks

Is it cost effective? It can be, depending upon the circumstances. Such is the case with insurance. It's probably more cost effective if you have an older or outdoor cat. If you have a very young cat, and/or your cat is always indoors, it may be better instead to keep a no annual fee credit card around for unexpected vet bills.

In many cases, it may not make sense to purchase a plan that covers routine care. Instead, a more cost effective method would be to buy a policy that covers only the unexpected costs that may arise. Remember, there is high overhead involved in processing any insurance claim. This may make the cost of premiums prohibitive for routine care.

There are some age and breed restrictions, so check with the particular insurance company you've chosen to see if your pet is eligible. As with most insurance policies, there may be a grace period where you can't collect on the policy, as well as some exclusions you should know about.

For example, PetCare Insurance requires that you keep up with annual vet visits and vaccinations. Check with the company providing your coverage to ensure you comply with whatever their policies might be.

What You Should Do

If your cat is a little older, or an outdoor or indoor/outdoor cat, pet insurance can be a great value. If you have very young cats and/or they are always inside, the cost of the insurance may be greater than the value of the protection it provides.

No matter what the situation with your cat, you may want to explore some of the alternatives before purchasing a cat health insurance plan. This includes some of the alternatives described here. This includes your own "self insurance" plan, as well as alternatives like Embrace and Pet Assure.

An Alternative to Typical Pet Insurance

A slightly different concept is that adopted by Embrace Pet Insurance. Embrace has what they call a customizable policy. By allowing you the flexibility to choose the details of your plan, you can lower your premium costs and not pay for coverage you never plan to use. You can even choose different options for each pet in the house.

Among other things, for each pet you can choose different maximums, deductibles, and optional coverages. You can even choose your copay percentage, and whether or not you want prescription drug or dental illness coverage, and continuing care for chronic illnesses.

PetCare insurance also allows you to choose the coverage you want and therefore set your premiums lower than a less flexible plan. In addition, there are no maximum annual benefit restrictions like some plans may have. Their plans also offer unlimited lifetime accident coverage, $60,000 of lifetime illness coverage for cats, and your premiums and deductibles don't increase as your pet ages.

More options for cat health insurance and alternatives are discussed here, including companies serving the US and the UK, and ways to cover your veterinary costs yourself.

Other Topics Related to Pet Insurance

Some top companies offering cat insurance plans to US customers

The Cat Illness Symptoms Guide

Some common cat symptoms that may require a visit to the veterinarian

More than 70 cat illness warning signs and symptoms

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