I have talked about pet insurance before, in Pet Insurance – Good Deal or Waste of Money? and this week, I want to go into more detail on this very important topic. You could consider this a companion piece to 11 Ways to Help Your Dog Make the Most of His Senior Years.
Aging dogs and their medical issues have been very much on my mind over the last little while, since my friend Al has been easing his Saint Bernard, Hannah, through her senior years. The other day, while assembling Hannah’s portable ramp so she could safely climb into the van after their visit to the dog park, Al mentioned that he wishes he had known about pet insurance when Hannah was younger. He told me that given Hannah’s age and condition, he is no longer able to get insurance for her, and her medical bills are costing him quite a bit. He doesn’t care, though – he says he’d take out a second mortgage for Hannah.
Al would be a man after my own heart if I weren’t so determinedly single.
So, I want to take a little more time to talk about pet insurance than I did in the earlier article. Much of the time, pet insurance can be a great deal, but you do have to be careful when choosing a policy. They’re all different, and if you don’t know exactly what you’re buying, you can find yourself still on the hook for a lot of money depending on type of care and medication your dog needs. And there’s no doubt that medical care for a dog can be extremely costly – so much so that sometimes dog owners actually have to forego life-saving treatments because they simply can’t afford them. This is where pet insurance comes in. And honestly, even the worst pet insurance policy is better than no policy whatsoever when it comes to reducing the impact of astronomical veterinary bills.
That said, though, of course you don’t want the worst policy. So keep reading to learn about the 11 things you need to think about if you are weighing the pros and cons of purchasing pet insurance for your dog.
1. You Don’t Have to Decline Treatment
Al isn’t by any means the only person I’ve ever heard say “I wish I’d gotten pet insurance.” Now, as I’ve said, Al isn’t going to see Hannah go without whatever treatment she needs. But today, many of us are living close to the edge. We manage to handle the expense of routine veterinary examinations, shots, spaying and neutering and so on, but we are utterly unprepared financially when an emergency occurs. Perhaps your dog is hit by a car and needs extensive surgery, or develops cancer that requires radiation and chemotherapy in addition to surgery. You can easily end up in the thousands of dollars, and not the low thousands either.
You need to think of pet insurance for your dog as a way of managing risk. Obviously, you hope that your pet will not become ill or injured. Your insurer is hoping the same thing – if your dog lives out his life in perfect health and with no injuries, then all the pet insurance premiums that you have paid are pure profit for the insurance company. You and your insurer are both hoping that your dog lives a long, happy, healthy life, and that you will never have to tell your vet “Put him to sleep” because you can’t afford the cost of treatment. So, think of pet insurance in the same way that you do your car insurance and your home insurance – as something you buy, hoping that you will never need it.
2. Make Sure You Get the Right Policy
Most of the time, when considering pet insurance, we are thinking in terms of serious illness or injury. And in fact, some pet insurance policies will only cover catastrophic events. Others, though, will cover common problems like vomiting, allergies, urinary infections and heart issues.
You have to be sure to read the entire policy, though. Most are very specific about what will be covered, and if a specific issue is not clearly listed in the policy as being allowable under a claim, then you should assume that it is not.
Most of the time, drug coverage falls under the categories of accident or illness, but you should still make sure to clarify and confirm. If your dog has a chronic condition, like diabetes for example, you could end up laying out a huge amount of money for the drugs that are needed to manage it. This is one area where you really don’t want to nickel and dime. If your policy does not cover drugs, you could end up in the sad position of needing to have your dog euthanized simply because there is no way you can afford the medication. That is going to break your heart. And if your vet is anything like my beloved Dr. Stephen, it will break his heart as well.
Some policies will even cover prescription diets, and herbal supplements if prescribed by a vet. Again, though, read carefully.
3. Do Not Assume That Alternative Therapies or General Wellness are Covered
You might want to use hydrotherapy or acupuncture as a means of treating your dog, and your vet may even recommend it. Generally speaking, though, do not assume that your policy will cover these treatments. Again, look at the fine print. In fact, look at all the print so you know exactly what is and is not covered.
Some insurance policies will even cover routine procedures like vaccines, dental cleanings, heartworm tests and neutering. Don’t assume this is the case, though – most of the time, they can be added onto a policy as a “rider,” which means that you will pay a higher monthly premium.
This type of rider, of course, can be very beneficial to your dog. If you know that your insurer is going to pay for it, you are more likely to take your dog in for regular examinations, and problems can be identified early on, before they develop into issues that could be costly down the road.
So, why do insurers offer this type of wellness rider? It’s simple. Read the last six words in the above paragraph. Your insurer would far rather pay a small fee now to ensure that your dog remains in good health than to pay a horrendous amount of money later on to treat a condition that would have been far less expensive if dealt with when it first became apparent.
4. Know What is Excluded
I can’t stress this enough – you absolutely must know exactly what is excluded in your pet insurance policy. If you’re reading through the policy, and you’re seeing a huge list of conditions that are covered, you might be tempted to skim over. After all, no one wants to read pages of text. But if you don’t read carefully, you could end up missing a phrase like “excluding cancer,” or “excluding diabetes” or “only in dogs 9 years or younger,” and then there you are. Dead in the water. With a huge veterinary bill, or the decision to euthanize your dog.
Don’t ever put down your money until you are confident that you will have coverage for chronic ailments. Also, keep an eye out for caps on how much the policy will pay out if your dog becomes ill. Your vet can be a good source of information here when it comes to various illnesses. Just as an example, my Boxers, Janice and Leroy, are of a breed that is very prone to cancer. I asked my vet, Stephen, what I could expect to pay if one of them did develop the disease. Depending on the treatment needed, he told me, best case scenario was $2,000. Worst case, closer to $10,000. Per dog. I’m looking over insurance policies while they’re still young.
So, if you have a dog of a breed that is prone to certain health issues, make sure you’re covered. And find out what the cap is.
5. Be Careful of the “Cut Off” Date
Some insurers will be very happy to provide coverage for your dog while he is young, but once he ages, not so much. This is where a lot of people can end up with an awful surprise. If you have dogs like Janice and Leroy, who are prone to cancer, the last thing you want is a policy that is going to cut them off at, say, age 7. You want a policy that covers you for the life of the dog, however short or long that may be. Some policies have minimum and maximum ages during which they will insure your dog, and they may not necessarily let you know when your dog is no longer insured. So again, read. Read everything.
6. Watch for Breed Issues
As I’ve said, some breeds are more prone to certain illnesses than others. But if you just buy a policy without reading, you could miss the part that says “Your dog will be covered for Illness A unless he is of breed B, C, D, E, etc.
Now, having said that, owning a dog of a particular breed does not necessarily mean that you will be denied coverage. You may be charged a higher premium, though, again because the insurer is weighing the odds of your dog becoming ill and determining the profit to be made if your dog does not become ill. It’s all about the numbers. This means that you should ask your insurer very specifically about coverage for certain breeds. The last thing you want is to end up at the vet clinic, being told “Sorry, you’re out of luck because he’s Breed C.”
7. Check for the Bilateral Exclusions
I know, the what? You actually find this in most pet insurance policies. What it relates to is knee injuries. If your dog, for example, hurts his left knee and needs surgery, the insurance company will pay for the operation. If he turns around and injures his left knee later on, they will not pay for that operation. This is because it is considered to be a “bilateral” injury.
I know, it makes no sense. But it is what it is, so check your policy carefully. You should also read carefully about just how much your insurer will do for hip dysplasia – this is also something that they will try to refuse coverage on based on the bilateral exclusion.
8. Find Out if Specialized Treatments are Covered
Sometimes, your pet insurer will add a surcharge to your billing if your dog has to see a specialist. You should never, ever accept this without appealing. Veterinary medicine is no different from human medicine in that it is often necessary to bring in a specialist. So if your dog needs an ophthalmologist, an oncologist, a heart specialist, or anything else, you should expect, and even demand that your insurer cover the cost.
Keep in mind, too, that not all insurers will cover routine examinations, never mind specialists. Again, you are going to have to look very carefully at your policy to make sure what types of treatments will be covered.
9. Be Responsible
If I sound like I’m trying to tell you that pet insurers are trying to rip you off, let me say right now that this is not what I am trying to communicate. They will pay, under the terms of your policy, any expenses that are covered under that policy and there is no reason to expect that they will give you any argument on anything that is covered. They do, though, have a right to expect that you will hold up your end of the bargain when it comes to your dog’s health. That’s why most pet insurance policies will exclude anything that could be prevented.
If, for example, you live in an area where heartworm is a problem, and you do not protect your dog against heartworm, you cannot reasonably expect your insurer to pay for treatment if your dog does develop a heartworm infestation. If you don’t get your dog his parvo shots, then you are negligent, and you should not become upset if your insurer will not pay the thousands of dollars that it could cost to save your dog’s life, if it even can be saved.
Your insurer will probably also not pay for pre-existing conditions. If you take home a puppy that has severe hip dysplasia, for instance, you can expect to be on your own.
10. Look at the Payout
Most (if not all) pet insurance companies operate on a principle of co-insurance. What this means is that you should not assume that if your dog is ill or injured, all your costs will be covered. Think of it the same way as you do your health insurance. You pay a certain amount, depending on the level of coverage you chose. It’s the same with pet insurance. Even though you are covered, you will still pay a certain percentage of your dog’s medical care. You might, for instance, choose a policy where you pay 30% of your dog’s care, and the insurance company picks up 70%. If you pay a higher premium, you might have 90% of the costs covered and only be on the hook for 10%.
You also need to think about the deductible. This is a fixed amount that you will pay toward your dog’s care before the insurance kicks in. A lower deductible could mean a higher monthly premium, and vice versa.
11. Look Closely at Incident Limits
You might find a pet insurance policy that has a very low limit as to what you will pay. Sounds good, doesn’t it? The problem is that sometimes, they will set what is known as an “incident limit,” which means that you can never claim more than the amount they set for any given issue, no matter how much treatment your dog needs. Remember me telling you that cancer treatment for Janice or Leroy could go up to $10,000? If I buy a policy with an “incident limit” of $5,000, I’m going to be very seriously out of pocket. And think about this – my friend Debbie, who has a fat beagle who eats everything he sees, once ingested a light bulb. His surgery and aftercare cost nearly $6,000. But hey, incident limit!! Debbie will probably be living on ramen noodles for the next ten years thanks to Chuck’s lack of self-control and her crappy insurance policy.
12. Ask Yourself the Big Question
Here it is, guys. The big question. And it’s not “Can you live without your dog,” because you can. People manage it all the time. People also manage to live without parents, siblings and children, because bad things happen. But do you want to live without your dog long before natural old age dictates that it has to happen? I know that someday, I will probably have to live without Janice and Leroy, because I am still young and likely to outlive them. But to actually choose to live without them because I wouldn’t spend the money to make sure they live well into old age? No, that’s just unthinkable. I will not be here without my dogs if I can help it.
So, I have chosen catastrophic coverage, with a high deductible, that will cover Janice and Leroy over their entire lives. If they need costly treatment, they will get it, without question. I guess I’m going to have to forego Starbucks every day, which has kind of been my habit. But here’s the thing – for the cost of a designer coffee every day, I am making sure that Janice and Leroy will always have the medical help that they need, when they need it. And from where I’m sitting, that’s a pretty good bargain.
13. Read, Read, Read
I know I keep flogging this, but I really can’t overstate how important it is that you read your pet insurance policy. You have to be so alert to what will be allowed and what will be denied. You can never assume that a particular condition will be covered under your policy, so you have to read carefully. If you have the slightest doubt, ask your insurance agent for clarification, and never, ever buy a policy that is not going to give you everything you need to provide your dog with care when he needs it the most. If you thoroughly examine the policy that your pet insurance agent is offering you, you can be assured of taking care of your dog when he needs it most.
The Final Word
I am never going to tell you that pet insurance isn’t expensive. Depending on the breed of dog you have, and the type of coverage that you want, it can eat a bit of a hole into your monthly budget. If you’re not a high income earner, then you may have to do without a few luxuries. But if you get to the point where your beloved friend has developed a serious illness, or has been injured, then pet insurance really can be your best friend. Sure, the insurance company wants to make money, and it does. But do you really want to end up in the position where your dog is fighting for his life, and you don’t have the money to help him?
You will probably read other articles online that will tell you that pet insurance is a rip off. From my perspective, it is not, especially if you have a breed of dog that is prone to specific health issues. I very much hope that Janice and Leroy never fall victim to the cancer that is so prevalent in dogs of their breed. But if they do, I know that I can take care of them thanks to my pet insurance policy. Which I read. Thoroughly.