The cost of medical care for pets is rising as fast as it is for humans, and that's helping to spur sales of pet insurance.
Pet owners are able to choose from a rapidly growing array of policies, featuring everything from high-deductible designs to coverage of alternative-medicine treatments like acupuncture. Some pet policies focus on accidents and illness, while others include wellness checkups and shots. And some things that traditionally weren't included in pet insurance, such as hereditary conditions, are now paid for under many plans.
Consumers need to be careful, since many pet policies can be as confusing as coverage you buy for yourself. Pet insurance often places strict limits on how much it will pay for particular procedures. And policies can have tricky designs that can leave consumers with big out-of-pocket bills for their animals. Premiums vary from around $10 a month to $75 a month, depending on factors including the richness of the plan, your location and your animal's breed and age.
This year, pet owners are expected to spend around $12.2 billion for veterinary care, up from $11.1 billion last year and $8.2 billion five years ago, according to the American Pet Products Association. Complex procedures widely used for people, including chemotherapy and dialysis, are now available for pets, and the potential cost of treating certain illnesses has spiked as a result.
Donna Oliver, in Austin, Texas, has shelled out about $32,600 since 2007 to care for two dogs who passed away earlier this year. Marley, a Labrador, got stem-cell therapy for his arthritis, surgery on his windpipe to deal with a condition that was choking off his breathing, and, at the end, medication to ease the pain of advanced cancer. Maddie, a corgi mix, suffered from Cushing's disease, a hormonal disorder, and got treatment including surgery to heal ulcers on her corneas.
"It does cost a lot if you want to do the right thing by them," says Ms. Oliver, a 38-year-old customer-service manager, who says she is still paying off the credit-card bills. To avoid a similar situation with her three remaining dogs, Chelsea, Jasmine and Runner, she recently bought insurance for them.One Million Insured
Currently, around a million U.S. pets are insured, according to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association. The number is growing about 10% a year, the group estimates, though that still represents just a tiny fraction of all pets.
Around 90% of the insured are dogs, with about 10% cats and a small number of other animals. The biggest U.S. pet-insurance company, Veterinary Pet Insurance, or VPI, a unit of Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., says it has written policies for hedgehogs, snakes, turtles and geckos, among other creatures.
Karen Becker, an art-school program director in Baileys Harbor, Wis., has insured her African grey parrot, Darwin, and blue and gold macaw, Big Bird, since she got them in 2001 and 2008, respectively. Treatments for birds can be at least as pricey as those for larger animals, she says, and the parrots may live for decades. Ms. Becker, 52, says she doesn't want financial concerns to guide decisions about her pets' care: "I want it to be because of quality-of-life issues."
If you're considering pet insurance, start by shopping around. It's best to start when the animal is still young and healthy, since new policies won't cover pre-existing health conditions and some insurers won't take on pets over a certain age.
The industry has grown in recent years, with new competitors such as Pets Best LLC, Petplan Inc., Embrace Pet Insurance Agency LLC and Trupanion, a unit of Vetinsurance International Inc., entering the market. In the past, a number of startup pet-insurance firms have gone out of business, so it is worth checking with your state regulator about companies' age and record.Workplace Benefit
Consumers may also be able to buy pet insurance through their workplace, which can often be cheaper than buying on your own. Around 19% of employers offer the policies as a voluntary benefit, according to a survey conducted this year by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans. That includes firms such as Colgate-Palmolive Co. and Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc.
To learn about policies, you can start with overview Web sites such as petinsurancereview.com, dogtime.com and petinsuranceguideus.com. For definitive information, though, you should click through to the sites of the individual pet insurance firms, which can offer premium quotes.
Once you've narrowed down the list, get full policy documents, which are often posted online or available through a phoned request. Use those, in combination with phone calls or emailed inquiries to the companies, to delve into the details of the plans.
If you're considering pet insurance, here are some resources to get you started
Here are some sites that include overviews:
Here are industry and veterinary group sites that have background:
- American Animal Hospital Association
- North American Pet Health Insurance Association
- American Veterinary Medical Association
Here are sites for pet insurance companies:
You will want to check how the company will raise premiums as you renew the policy. Often, they go up with age and veterinary inflation. They may also be linked to your animal's claims history—so a pet with a lot of health issues in a given year could see a heftier increase the following year.
You also want to take a close look at what you would have to spend out of your own pocket if your pet got injured or ill. Pet-insurance firms tend to limit what they reimburse for various treatments. And you'll generally have to pay the bills up front, then seek reimbursement from the insurer.Crystal's Surgery
When Elizabeth Pannill's Labrador, Crystal, needed back surgery a few years ago, the insurance covered less than half of the nearly $4,000 total bill. Then, when Crystal got a tumor removed from her rib earlier this year, spending 10 days in an animal-hospital intensive-care unit, the plan paid about $1,700 of the nearly $5,500 total, which already included a professional discount for Dr. Pannill, a veterinarian who isn't currently in clinical practice.
Dr. Pannill says that despite the limited payouts, she also has purchased insurance for two other dogs and a pair of cats. "It just gives you a little peace of mind that you would have some financial help when an illness came along," says the 56-year-old, who lives in Staples, Texas.
VPI pays flat amounts for various treatments. Other pet insurers pay a percentage of vet bills, although some limit payouts to a percentage of what they consider "usual and customary" fees, which may be lower than what vets actually charge.
As with insurance for people, consumers need to look closely at how the out-of-pocket charges on pet insurance are structured. Pet plans offer a range of deductibles, some as high as $1,000 a year. These may be levied on an annual basis, or charged anew for each illness or incident.
Congenital conditions, behavior modification and pregnancy-related costs are often not included, in addition to pre-existing health issues. VPI is beginning to introduce a cat-focused plan that offers limited payouts for certain common feline issues, like chronic kidney failure.
At least two companies, Embrace and Petplan, offer coverage of alternative treatments such as acupuncture and chiropractic.
Many policies now include coverage for hereditary conditions. It's often worth paying for this, particularly for pure-bred dogs. Each insurer has its own lists of genetic illnesses, and they vary somewhat, says John Albers, executive director of the American Animal Hospital Association.
Some things to consider when shopping for pet insurance:QUESTIONWHAT TO CHECK FOROn what basis does the policy pay claims?Insurance plans may pay flat amounts according to a benefits schedule. Or they may pay a percentage of what the insurer considers "usual and customary" fees, or a percentage of the vet's actual bill. "Usual and customary" may fall short of vets' actual charges. If the payments are based on the actual bills, check for any exceptions in the fine print.What does the policy cover?Typically, policies start with "blackout" periods during which nothing is covered. They also don't include pre-existing health issues. Many don't cover congenital, or inborn, conditions, behavioral issues or pregnancy costs. Some include hereditary conditions, while others don't.What's your out-of-pocket cost going to be?Deductibles may be paid on an annual basis, or levied anew each time your pet gets sick or injured. Total benefit payouts may be capped on a per-year basis or a per-incident basis.What happens when you renew the policy?Your premiums might rise based on the age of your pet, veterinary inflation, or possibly the claims filed for your pet. You'll also want to know if chronic illnesses the pet develops while it is insured will be covered after you renew the policy, or if they will be considered pre-existing conditions and thus not included going forward.
Write to Anna Wilde Mathews at firstname.lastname@example.org