How to Find the Best Pet Insurance Options (and Find the Best Plan for You)

·7 min read

Dogs and cats are cute. The vet bills are not. That's where pet insurance comes in.

When you're planning to welcome a dog or cat into your life, you tend to think about the cost of a collar or a scratching post and pet toys and pet food. But you may forget about pet insurance -- for good reason. It isn't an immediate necessity for a pet's comfort and survival. It might also feel like a frivolous expense.

But you may end up feeling like it's necessary for your wallet's survival to have pet insurance. Depending on the type of policy you buy, generally, the issues that pet insurance can help with include:

-- Accidents. For instance, if your dog or cat eats something that makes them ill -- or gets hit by a car.

-- Illness. For instance, cancer, infections or digestive problems.

-- Wellness. Think: heartworm prevention, vaccinations, cremation and burial, dental care, and flea and tick medications.

-- Dental work. Everything from root canals to gingivitis.

-- Breed-specific and genetic conditions. Like hip dysplasia and allergies.

So if you're thinking of buying pet insurance, here are some questions you likely have.

[See: The True Costs of Owning a Pet -- and How to Spend Less.]

Are All Pet Insurance Policies Pretty Much the Same?

Definitely not. For instance, many policies don't cover breed-specific and genetic conditions. Some do. You'll want to read over the insurer's website and fine print before you sign on, and don't make any assumptions.

In one way, however, pet insurance policies are the same. They don't cover preexisting conditions, which is generally any health issue that a pet has before you buy the policy. That said, the way each insurer defines preexisting conditions may be different, and some insurers may allow coverage later if veterinary records show that a preexisting condition appears to have been cured for, say, six or 12 months.

When Is the Best Time to Get Pet Insurance?

Early in your pet's life. If you're going to do it, "get insurance as soon as you bring your new four-legged family member home or right after their first veterinary checkup," advises Matthew McCarthy, a veterinarian and the owner of Juniper Valley Animal Hospital, in Queens, New York.

He suggests doing it soon after you bring a pet into your home because "at this point in their life, the odds of a young puppy or kitten having a preexisting condition is fairly low. Also for older pets that are adopted, logic dictates that they will only get more issues as they age, so getting insurance soon after adoption will be the most cost effective as well as provide coverage for those issues that do develop down the line."

McCarthy also points out that you could have a healthy puppy who could still, say, break a leg, so if you're going to get insurance, you really don't want to wait.

What Does Pet Insurance Cost?

As you would guess, the more coverage you want, the more you will pay per month. Pet insurance costs can range from $10 to $70 a month and more. If you're spending around $10 a month, you are probably only covered for a serious injury, such as your dog being hit by a car. If you're spending far more, you may be covered for, say, routine vet visits and regular medication that your pet takes.

[See: 25 Ways to Fix Your Finances Fast.]

Does Pet Insurance Work Like a Human's Health Insurance?

Pretty much, and pets can develop health problems that are pretty similar to a human's. Dan Routh is a financial advisor with Old Peak Finance, a financial planning firm in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He has pet insurance and says that he has used it at least five times on his and his wife's dog, Laney, a 5-and-a-half-year-old German shorthaired pointer.

Routh's wife is a veterinarian, and for what it's worth, their pet health insurance is Trupanion.

"We opted to keep our deductible high at $500 to $1,000 so that our monthly premiums were lower, similar to a high-deductible health plan for a human," Routh says. "We wanted this policy to cover big emergencies like trauma or cancer. ... Most of our claims were in the $750 to $1,500 range, with insurance covering 90% above the deductible. Our monthly premium has been $30 to $45 a month depending on how high or low we had the deductible at the time."

He says that the latest claim they filed was just last month for a surgical removal of a cancerous parathyroid nodule.

"This was discovered through normal annual blood work and surprised us with a $5,500 surgery on our dog, while we were also trying to buy a house," Routh says. "With our deductible at $1,000, our total out-of-pocket was around $1,450."

Routh says that if you have the money to pay for surprise pet health emergencies, you probably don't need pet insurance. But if you don't have a couple thousand dollars on hand for surgery, you really should consider it.

He warns that many pet owners have had to have dogs and cats euthanized when they could have been saved.

"If you think you are responsible enough to own a pet, you should be responsible enough to either buy pet insurance or have ample savings to self-insure," he says.

And one thing to keep in mind: Some pet insurance policies raise premiums as the pet ages. So while your pet insurance may start off cheap, it may not end so cheap. In that regard, you might be better off saving money every month for a pet emergency.

[See: 25 Summer Budgeting Tips.]

Pet Insurance Reviews

So what types of pet insurance are available? This isn't all of them, but here's a quick glance at some pet insurers, with costs and some of their pros and cons.

PetFirst Pet Insurance

-- Cost: Dog insurance starts at $15 a month; cat insurance starts at $9 a month.

-- Pros: Claims are processed in less than two weeks; reimburses 80% of coverage; you can buy, any time, a routine care rider to offset wellness expenses.

-- Cons: Elective procedures aren't covered; routine wellness and preventive care is not covered; organ transplants also aren't covered.

Nationwide

-- Cost: Plans start at $35 a month.

-- Pros: Offers wellness coverage. Covers exotic pets, like birds, rabbits, snakes and turtles.

-- Cons: You have to look pretty hard to find any true negatives, but check the website's page of restrictions. What may seem like no big deal to one pet owner may be irksome to another.

ASPCA Pet Health Insurance

-- Cost: Varies, but averages $35 a month.

-- Pros: Offers optional wellness coverage. Genetic and congenital conditions are covered. Reimbursements can be direct deposited into your bank account.

-- Cons: You also have to look hard to find a lot of negatives with this insurer. Check the website's page of restrictions.

Embrace

-- Cost: Dog insurance averages $30 to $40 a month; cat insurance averages $15 to $20 a month.

-- Pros: It has a diminishing deductible feature on every policy. Every year your pet isn't in an accident or doesn't get sick, the deductible is reduced each year by $50; 10% multiple pet discount (5% in New York and Rhode Island); 5% military discount (but not in New York, Florida or Tennessee).

-- Cons: Pregnancy and breeding aren't covered (this is typically covered). Nuclear war isn't covered (this, too, is fairly typical. The pet insurance industry is apparently a pessimistic bunch, though given the recent pandemic, maybe they can't be blamed). Routine veterinary care also isn't covered.

Healthy Paws Pet Insurance

-- Cost: Starts at $15 a month for cats; starts at $25 a month for dogs.

-- Pros: No maximum limits on payouts; no per incident caps; no lifetime caps. Premiums don't rise with the pet's age.

-- Cons: Preventive health care is not covered. Most dental care isn't covered.

Petplan Pet Insurance

-- Cost: Average is around $40 a month.

-- Pros: Alternative and homeopathic therapies are covered; online vet visits are also covered.

-- Cons: Does not cover routine care. As the website explains, "Our policy is designed to give you comprehensive protection against unexpected vet bills for injuries and illnesses."

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