If you’re like most pet owners, you’d do anything for your animal when it's sick. But veterinary bills can add up quickly, especially if your pet requires emergency care or treatment for a chronic illness. One way to plan for these costs is to buy pet insurance. It’s not cheap, but it can pay for itself if your animal companion ends up needing expensive care.
Pet insurance is health insurance for your pet. It can help cover vet bills when your animal gets sick or hurt, and more comprehensive plans include preventive care. Pet insurance is geared toward dogs and cats, so coverage is less commonly available for other types of animals.
How Does Pet Insurance Work?
There are two types of coverage offered by pet insurance plans: accident only, or accident and illness. The majority of pet owners go for the latter. This is different from pet liability coverage on home and renters insurance, which pays for legal expenses, bodily injury to others, and property damages caused by your pet.
Like health insurance plans for humans, pet insurance plans have deductibles, copayments, maximum annual and lifetime payouts, and waiting periods. Also typical are coverage exclusions for pets younger than 8 weeks and older than 12 years, as well as those with preexisting conditions.
Exact coverages and limits vary by insurer. For instance, some plans have no annual or lifetime limits in place, while others let you choose lower limits for a more affordable premium. Some insurers also allow you to select veterinarians and clinics of your choice, while others require the use of in-network ones.
You generally pay for vet visits out-of-pocket, then submit a covered claim for reimbursement. Some pet insurers can pay your vet directly, but there may be upfront work involved on your part or the vet’s, and there may be limitations on when the service can be used. It’s best to ask your pet insurance company about its reimbursement options.
What Does Pet Insurance Cover?
Accident-only policies cover mishaps and unexpected injuries such as sprains, toxin ingestion, and lacerations. An accident and illness policy extends coverage to diseases, sicknesses, and diagnostic treatments, and may include:
- Congenital or hereditary conditions
- Cancer treatment
- Dental procedures
- Cost of prescription foods
- Medical advice
- Medical equipment
- Physical therapy
- Prescription drugs
- Surgical procedures
Depending on the insurer, annual deductibles typically range from $0 to $1,000 and annual limits may be as low as $2,500, or unlimited. Deductibles are covered pet health expenses you must pay before insurance coverage kicks in, while annual limits are the maximum yearly reimbursement amounts from your pet insurer.
Some insurers also offer wellness and preventive coverages, usually as add-ons for an additional premium. They may include services such as:
- Blood tests
- Dental cleaning
- Preventive flea and heartworm medications
- Genetic certification
- Heartworm tests
- Spaying or neutering
- Wellness exams
What Is Not Covered by Pet Insurance?
Most pet insurance companies don’t cover preexisting conditions, and some may even exclude certain conditions when you renew your policy if they were treated or diagnosed in a prior coverage period.
Also, typically excluded from basic pet insurance is much of what you would find under optional wellness and preventive coverages, plus:
- Boarding or accommodations
- Conditions or accidents arising within waiting periods
- Non-standard experimental or investigative treatments
- Over-the-counter food and supplies
It’s common for there to be a waiting period after signing up for pet insurance of about two weeks for accidents and illnesses. Issues that come up during this time are often treated as preexisting and excluded from coverage.
Some pet insurance companies don’t completely cover bilateral conditions (medical issues happening on both sides of the body). For instance, if your pet has hip dysplasia on one side as a preexisting condition then develops it on the other side while insured, your pet insurance may not cover the treatment for the side that developed the dysplasia most recently. Even when both sides develop the condition while insured, your insurer may only pay for treatment on one side.
Excluded treatments can also vary by breed. This is especially true for breed-specific hereditary conditions. Be sure to read the policy’s fine print and ask questions before you sign up, so you know you have the coverage you expect.
Is Pet Insurance Worth It?
Based on average expenses, a pet emergency room visit that includes an initial consultation, general bloodwork, X-rays, and surgery, could cost up to $3,600 for cats and $5,600 for dogs. Cancer treatments can cost upwards of $10,000. But an accident and illness policy may be able to cover some or all of these costs for a fraction of the price. Here’s an idea of what insurance can cost with popular pet insurance companies:
|Pet Insurance Premium (Monthly)|
|Company||2-Year-Old Dog||8-Year-Old Dog||2-Year-Old Cat||8-Year-Old Cat|
|ASPCA Pet Health Insurance||$45.82||$91.64||$19.74||$32.90|
|Pets Best Insurance||$27.61||$65.80||$11.52||$27.47|
|Figo Pet Insurance||$30.63||$78.37||$16.73||$33.19|
Your pricing may vary based on factors such as your pet’s:
- Coverages, deductibles, and limits
- Geographic location
You may be able to save on policies with discounts such as multi-pet, military, employee benefits, spay/neuter, predictive testing, and pay-in-full.
Should I Get Pet Insurance?
Pet insurance is a great fit for pet parents who prefer a monthly premium to large out-of-pocket expenses, for those with multiple pets, and for owners who aren’t prepared to pay unexpected vet bills.
But the premiums can add up. For an older dog, our research shows you could pay more than $1,600 a year. For those who don’t want or can’t afford pet insurance, alternatives like credit financing, setting up a pet savings fund, financial assistance programs, and discount programs (such as Pet Assure) can make veterinary expenses more palatable.
We used Labrador retrievers and Ragdolls as our fictional pets when comparing. The basic accident and illness policies we compared were from Illinois and had annual deductibles of $500, yearly limits of $5,000, and reimbursement levels of 80%.