Should I buy health insurance for my pet?

dog

The best way to think about health insurance for your animal is that it is another budgeting tool. For most pet owners, health insurance won’t save them money in the long term. In fact, if you had the discipline to put money aside every month for your pet in an account that you didn’t touch except for pet medical expenses, you would, on average, end up ahead. Insurance companies depend on many people buying in and the general pool of patients being healthy. It is the rare pet owner who pays a small amount of money into the system and gets a lot of money out.

Owning a pet is very expensive. A 2017 CNBC report showed that the average cost of owning a dog over its lifetime is $27,000–$42,000; for a cat, it’s $21,000–$30,000. This includes food, litter, health care, grooming and all of the other necessary costs of taking an animal into your home. For the average person, this cost is manageable spread out over time, but if a medical problem occurs, you could be facing several thousands of dollars in medical expenses that are due immediately, and that’s where people find themselves in trouble.

An acquaintance of mine recently got into a situation where her dog ate a toy, and it appeared the dog needed surgery. Since it was the weekend, she had to go to the emergency clinic. They quoted her $4,000–$5,000 for the surgery. Her budget couldn’t cover the cost, so she was forced to consider euthanasia if the dog got worse. Luckily, with IV fluids and pain medication, the dog passed the toy and avoided surgery. But a situation like this is the perfect example of why having health insurance for your pet can literally be a lifesaver.

There are many pet health insurance companies to choose from now. Each one structures its policies slightly differently, so it is important to understand how the insurance works when you buy it. For example, some insurance companies have a per-incident deductible that must be met before they will reimburse for care. Other companies set their deductibles per pet or per year. Most insurance companies don’t cover the office call charge, and there are sometimes restrictions on what the company will or will not pay for. For example, if a pet is getting its teeth cleaned and needs a tooth pulled, sometimes the insurance company will only pay for the extraction itself, not for the other things, like anesthesia, that are necessary to do the extraction.

Also, it is very important to know that most insurance companies do not cover preexisting conditions. It is best to purchase insurance for your animal when they are young and healthy. Getting insurance for your pet if it already has multiple diseases will likely cause you frustration because many of your pet’s ailments will not qualify for reimbursement.

Here are some budgeting tools to consider:

  • A good resource for exploring pet insurance companies is petinsurancereview.com.
  • CareCredit is a credit card for your pet that allows for no-interest financing for a period of time. Clinics that accept CareCredit set the terms for how long you have to pay off the bill without interest. Typically it is 6–12 months.
  • Some hospitals offer wellness plans that allow you to spread the cost of preventative and other health care over time.
  • Some hospitals offer in-house payment plans to help with budgeting.

It is always important to talk to your veterinarian about your financial situation before treatment. Your veterinarian wants to help find solutions that fit within your budget. 

Dr. Teresa Hershey is a veterinarian at Westgate Pet Clinic in Linden Hills. Email pet questions to drhershey@westgatepetclinicmn.com.