Every six seconds, a pet owner is faced with a veterinary bill of more than $1,000.
So says Petplan, a veterinary pet insurance company that offers health-care coverage for cats and dogs. It’s one of many providers making inroads in the U.S. pet health market.
Insurance for pets, long established in Great Britain, is relatively under-utilized here, says Michael Hemstreet, a Colorado Web developer and pet owner who runs Pet Insurance Review, an online forum for provider reviews and comparisons.
“It’s kind of a new concept in the U.S., at least in pet owners’ minds,” says Hemstreet. “Five or 10 years ago, I don’t think anyone would have cared about it. But I spend about an hour a day answering e-mails and phone calls from people who are interested in it.”
Sixty-three percent of U.S. households own a pet, according to the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association. But just 3 percent of dog owners and 1 percent of cat owners carry insurance on their pets, the association estimates.
Pet insurance typically covers accidents, injuries and illnesses. Routine treatments such as vaccinations, flea control and teeth cleaning can often be added onto a plan for additional cost. It’s primarily for cats and dogs, but at least one company, VPI, the nation’s oldest pet insurance provider, covers pets from chameleons, goats and hedgehogs to pot belly pigs, rabbits and tortoises.
Hemstreet says pet insurance is something more pet owners are considering as veterinary care becomes more advanced — and more expensive.
“What’s happened in the last few years is that the type of help a vet can provide has really expanded,” he says. “They’re able to do things that you wouldn’t have dreamed of 20 years ago.”
Take a drive by Gilbert’s Arizona Veterinary Specialists, a 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year animal hospital, and you’ll see what Hemstreet’s talking about. A parking lot directory points pet owners to dentistry, dermatology, ophthalmology, surgery, oncology, radiology and internal medicine departments.
In a world where man’s best friend can undergo CT scans, MRIs, chemotherapy and pacemaker surgery — rather than simply go home to live out whatever is left of his life — pet owners must decide where to draw the financial line.
“With pet health insurance, you don’t have to sit there thinking about ‘Oh my God, how am I going to afford it?’ while the veterinarian is telling you your pet is in grave condition. You just say, ‘Let’s do it,’” says Alex Krooglik with Cleveland-based Embrace Pet Insurance.
The insurance, which is a type of property insurance, works differently from human health insurance. Most plans require pet owners to pay their vet bills upfront, then submit a claim for reimbursement. Typically, you can go to any veterinarian or animal hospital you wish.
Policies have deductibles, maximum limits and co-pays. Monthly premiums can vary widely depending on the level of coverage you choose and the age, breed and physical condition of your pet. Pre-existing conditions are usually not covered. Premiums range from about $15 to $60 per month.
Mesa veterinarian Wendy Holst doesn’t see a lot of patients with insurance at her 10-year-old practice, and she says it’s not worthwhile for every client.
“It helps some people out,” she says. “Think of it this way: If you only want a rabies shot every three years because that’s what’s required by the county, it’s probably not a good investment for you. But if you’re a pet owner who never misses a routine appointment, if you think of your pets as family members, then, yes, it will probably save you some money.”