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Is Pet Insurance "Worth It"? A Veterinarian's Perspective.

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Jason Nicholas - Thursday, January 24, 2013

pet insurance; choosing a pet insurance company; best pet insurance; paying for my pet's surgery; vet costsIs Pet Insurance "Worth It"?

This is a very important question, and one which pet owners are starting to ask and explore more frequently. And from the standpoint of both financial health for the owner and overall health for their pets, this increased interest in pet insurance is indeed a very good thing. I've written briefly on the topic before (see here), but to explore the "pet insurance question" a bit more deeply, I've asked my friend, fellow veterinarian, and widely-respected pet insurance expert, Dr. Doug Kenney to share his insights with you. There's a bit more of a bio for Dr. Kenney at the end of the post - I highly suggest you give it a read and then visit his blog to download his (free) Pet Insurance Toolkit. And now, without further ado, I'm turing this blog post over to Doug (with an occasional comment from me thrown in, just because I sometimes can't help myself)...

The 2 most frequently asked questions about pet insurance by pet owners are:

1) "Is pet insurance worth it?"

2) "Which company/policy is the best?

I'm going to give my opinion as a veterinarian and as someone who's spent several years researching and writing about pet insurance. I'll address the first question in this article, and in a followup article, I'll give you some tips to help you choose the best company and policy for your pet.

I think that people often have a wrong attitude about pet insurance. For example, it's not uncommon for someone to say that they would rather just open up a savings account to pay their veterinary expenses rather than "waste" money on pet insurance premiums. This person doesn't understand the purpose of pet insurance.

People buy insurance of any kind to help them pay for large, unexpected or unplanned expenses for which they would have trouble paying for out-of-pocket.

I'm all for having a so-called "pet health savings account," but not instead of pet insurance. The reason is obvious. What if two months into your savings plan, your pet is seriously sick or injured and requires treatment totaling several thousand dollars. You'd be a little short. That's when a pet insurance policy comes in handy. It's not a matter of either/or but preferably both. If you're saying right now, "That wouldn't happen to me" or "That's not a realistic example," I, as well as Dr. Nicholas, can tell you we've seen it happen plenty of times. (More often than I can say! Remember the adage... "there's a first time for everything"? - TPV)

Another attitude toward pet insurance I hear a lot is "There are too many exclusions e.g. hereditary problems, chronic diseases, etc. so that it's just not worth it." Perhaps you haven't looked into pet insurance lately. There are a dozen companies offering policies in the United States and coverages have vastly improved. Most companies now allow you to customize your policy by selecting from several deductible and copay options to find a premium that fits your budget.

my cat won't eat; feeding tube for a cat; hepatic lipidosis; cat vomiting

If you've ever had a pet that was seriously injured or ill where you spent hundreds to perhaps thousands of dollars for your pet to be treated, you are likely more receptive to the idea of buying pet insurance. In fact, in hindsight, you've probably thought or actually said, "Pet insurance sure would have come in handy." You may have even purchased pet insurance just because of such an event.

On the other hand, if your pets have always been relatively healthy and you've never been faced with a large, unexpected vet bill, you might be thinking, "Something like that has never happened to me and probably won't, so buying pet insurance would just be a waste of money." Unfortunately, you can't tell the future, and while they say "hindsight is 20/20," it's too late to do you much good.

Perhaps you know some pet owners who scoff at the notion of spending much money at all on their pets. They have the attitude that if anything cost more than say $500, they'll just have the pet euthanized and go out and get a replacement pet. Pet insurance would indeed be a waste of money for these pet owners. (But then... oxygen is also wasted on such people! Just my humble opinion. - TPV)

Surveys have been done asking pet owners how much they would spend to save their ill or injured pet. A large percentage of pet owners responded that they would be willing to spend "any amount" to save their pet. It has been my experience as a veterinarian, however, that when I present the cost of a diagnostic and treatment plan to pet owners, it's no longer a theoretical question on a survey - but reality, and some aren't so sure of the answer anymore.

Not too many years ago, your veterinarian probably handled his own emergencies. Now there are one or more emergency centers in most cities. These hospitals often deal with life-threatening problems that need intensive care or even emergency surgery - usually at hours when your regular veterinarian isn't available. There are veterinarians and technicians who actually specialize in emergency and critical care.

Also, not long ago, if your pet needed to see a specialist, you had to trek to a veterinary school's teaching hospital - sometimes hundreds of miles away. Today most metropolitan areas have one or more specialty hospitals. In fact, it's common to see Specialty/Emergency hospitals all under the same roof. Specialist are more highly trained to solve and treat more difficult cases and have access to and use more advanced technology or procedures e.g. MRI, total hip replacement, etc.

For these reasons, the fees at specialty and emergency hospitals are usually higher than what you would pay at your regular veterinarian's hospital. Specialty and emergency hospitals (when needed) play an important role, along with your regular veterinarian, in providing quality healthcare for your pet and can often be the difference between the successful or unsuccessful treatment of your pet.

In my opinion, specialization in veterinary medicine will only increase in the future. Therefore, odds are that your veterinarian will refer your pet to an emergency or specialty hospital one or more times during his or her lifetime. This will usually involve a large and often unexpected veterinary bill.

So, if your pet were seriously sick or injured and required major surgery and/or an extended hospital stay, would you be willing to spend $5,000 or $10,000 if required, and could you afford to pay for it? If not, then you should at least look into purchasing pet insurance.

costs of vet care; paying for vet care; saving money on pet care costs

Another factor to consider when deciding if you could potentially benefit from buying a pet insurance policy for your pet is the current reimbursement model of how pet insurance works. Right now, you pay your veterinarian, file a claim and receive a reimbursement of all eligible expenses minus the deductible and copay up to the limits of the policy. This differs from what we are accustomed to with our own health insurance. The pet insurance policy is a contract between you and the pet insurance company. Although some pet insurance companies will pay your veterinarian directly in the case of a very large bill, not all (probably not many) veterinarians are willing to accept this type of arrangement. I think there are some things in the works that might make veterinarians more likely to accept direct payment from pet insurance companies and yet avoid the major drawbacks of "managed care" that human health care has evolved into.

Therefore, you must ask, "Do I have sufficient money in the bank or available credit to pay the veterinarian and then wait for reimbursement from the insurance company?" If not, then unfortunately pet insurance may not be an option for you at this time. (This is where a "pet health savings account" can come in handy. Or, even better, using something like CareCredit to cover the costs - often interest-free - until the reimbursement comes in from your insurance company. - TPV)

I believe that more and more pet owners will purchase pet insurance in the future because technology and the costs of delivering quality healthcare to pets have outpaced the ability of many pet owners to pay for it. While pet owners and veterinarians can potentially benefit from third party payment to help pay for the healthcare of pets, I'm convinced the real winners will be the pets.

Many thanks to Dr. Kenney for sharing his insights and opinions with us. As I mentioned in the introduction, Dr. Kenny has a great blog (and podcast) that's all about pet insurance! He, and his website, are a wealth of information for pet owners, and I truly appreciate him sharing his expertise here. Don't forget to download his free Pet Insurance Toolkit - it will prove truly invaluable as you figure out and negotiate all of the pet insurance options available to you.


*Please note: My additional comments (italics and in brackets throughout the post) are my own opinions, and may not necessarily reflect those of Dr. Kenney. So please don't hold him accountable for any of those that you may take offense to, or not agree with.

Do you have insurance for your pets? If so, what are your thoughts on it? How did you choose your company and policy? Have you ever had need to use it? Please share your stories and thoughts in the comments section below.

Be aware. Be prepared. Be Preventive

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Information and advice on pet safety and emergency prevention from an experienced emergency room veterinarian. I may not always tell you what you want to hear, but I will always tell you what you need to know. Browse the website for more information and advice, and don't forget to follow along on Facebook and Twitter too.


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    Jason Nicholas

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