Pet Insurance: Where Do You Draw The Line?

By: DogTrekker Staff

Puppy at vet

For DogTrekking friends of ours, a weekend hike ended up costing much more than the tank of gas it took to get to the trailhead. Unbeknownst to them, Smooch, their shaggy shepherd mix, was penetrated by a grass awn (also known as foxtail) that entered her ear canal.  Antibiotics couldn’t kick the abscess that resulted, and surgery was required. The overall price tag: $6,000.

No matter how much we love our pets and consider them family members, few of us have unlimited financial resources to call upon when it comes to medical care for our four-legged friends. Where do most pet owners draw the line? An AP-Petside poll found that just over 50 percent balk at spending more than $500 for canine medical treatment. Sixty-eight percent, regardless of income, would discontinue treatment for a sick or injured pet if the bill topped $1,000. Only 22 percent would foot the bill for costs topping $5,000.

No one wants to be in the position of having to euthanize their pet, watch it suffer or go into debt because they can’t afford treatment. That’s why it’s wise to consider pet health insurance—but not necessarily wise to buy it. Before taking the plunge, it pays to analyze the pros, cons and alternatives.

The Case For . . .

Pet insurers and many veterinarians beat the drum for canine health insurance. So do experts like Gina Spadafori, syndicated pet columnist (“The Pet Connection”), writer at and author of “Dogs for Dummies,” “Your Dog: The Owner’s Manual” and 12 other pet-related books.

"I simply could not be a bigger fan of pet health insurance,” says Spadafori, who lives in the Sacramento area with a menagerie that includes dogs, horses, chickens and ducks. “I don't use it to cover routine expenses, and I don't expect it to be an HMO. I can budget for preventive care. What I cannot budget for is major accidents or serious illness that can easily cost thousands of dollars to treat.

“More than once,” she adds, “having pet health insurance has been the difference between saving my pet's life and losing a pet because I couldn't afford care."

Pro-insurance points to consider:

  • Insurance helps offset the cost of treatments and procedures that carry astronomical price tags.
  • Most policies cover treatment from any licensed vet, meaning you can visit the nearest clinic if your pet meets with an emergency while traveling.

The Case Against . . .
Injured dog

In a 2010 article, Consumer Reports, the watchdog organization, concluded that health insurance for pets is seldom worth the price except in cases where very expensive procedures are involved. It analyzed policies and coverage from four major pet-insurance carriers under a variety of scenarios and found that, for normally healthy animals, the cost of premiums far exceeded the potential payout over a 10-year life span.

Two things to know:

  • Pre-existing and hereditary conditions such as hip dysplasia are not covered. Some policies will not cover older dogs.
  • Most policies require you to pay first and file for reimbursement later, leaving you sitting on pins and needles wondering if your claim will be accepted or denied.

Cost, Coverage, Fine Print

Just as with medical insurance for humans, pet insurance comes in many forms, from fairly inexpensive policies for traumatic coverage to pricey premiums that cover extras such as wellness visits and dental care. Typical coverage pays 80 percent of covered treatments after a deductible is met. Premiums run in the neighborhood of $25 to $60 a month, depending on a complex matrix of factors. Exclusions and limitations are many, so read the fine print and weigh your dog’s health risks in relation to your lifestyle before signing up. PetInsuranceReview is an excellent resource for comparing policies, coverage, rates and consumer reviews for dozens of pet-insurance products.

  • One often overlooked requirement: An annual physical exam, with exam notes sent to the insurance company. No physical, no coverage, even if your premiums are up to date.