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Is pet insurance worth it? A vet’s view

Is pet insurance worth it? A French Bulldog having his teeth examined by a vet
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you have recently added a new pet to your home or been faced with increasing veterinary bills, you may find yourself asking, “is pet insurance worth it?” After all, pet insurance is yet another monthly payment that has to be drafted from your bank account and worked into your budget. 

Additionally, many pet owners find that their premiums increase yearly, meaning you have to re-evaluate the value of pet insurance every single year. If you’re going to take on or continue with this expense, you probably want to know if it will pay off in the long run. 

 Unfortunately, even with the best pet insurance, there’s no easy way to predict whether it will benefit you financially. The benefits of pet insurance will be based on the plan you select, your expectations of that plan, your pet’s overall health, and luck. 

There will be some pet owners whose puppy requires multiple surgeries in their first year of life and all of these surgeries will be covered by insurance. For those clients, pet insurance will almost certainly pay off! Other pet owners may have a generally healthy and accident-free pet, and therefore they may rarely take advantage of their pet insurance coverage. Insurance is one of those things that you hopefully will never need to use… and you may or may not ever receive significant benefits from it. Despite this uncertainty, however, the peace of mind that pet insurance provides can be priceless.    

Benefits of pet insurance 

Despite our best efforts to keep our pets safe, many pets need emergency care at some time in their lives. Unfortunately, emergency veterinary care can be expensive. 

According to Petplan, the average cost of an emergency veterinary visit for dogs and cats ranges from $800-1,500. Some emergencies far exceed that amount, depending on the condition and required treatment. 

When an uninsured pet experiences an emergency, you will be dependent on your savings accounts or credit cards to cover the cost of your pet’s care. If you don’t have enough available funds in savings or on credit, you may ask friends or family for help, or apply for CareCredit.

 If none of these options work out for you, though, you may be unable to authorize the care your pet needs. This means that the veterinarian will be unable to treat your pet appropriately. You may need to have a difficult conversation with your veterinarian, to determine whether there is a reasonable “Plan B” or whether your pet should be humanely euthanized to prevent suffering. 

No veterinarian wants to euthanize a pet for financial reasons. In fact, financial euthanasia is a leading source of moral distress among veterinarians and veterinary team members. Unfortunately, however, most veterinary practices are businesses and rely on client payments to keep their doors open. 

If clients do not pay for services, the veterinary hospital can’t pay its staff, keep its equipment maintained, pay the facility’s operating costs, or remain open and available to help other pets. Your veterinarian is unable to treat your pet for free, which is why he or she would prefer that your pet have pet insurance. Pet insurance ensures that you can authorize the best possible care in an emergency situation. 

How does pet insurance work? 

On the surface, pet insurance might sound similar to human health insurance. While there are certainly some similarities, there are also key differences between human health insurance and pet insurance. 

The first difference, and one that is important to be aware of, is that most pet insurance providers do not pay your veterinarian directly. Instead, you will probably be obligated to pay for your pet’s care at the time of service. You will then submit the bill to your pet insurance provider and they will reimburse a predetermined portion of your expenses. (There are some exceptions to this rule, but they are relatively uncommon.)

Additionally, pet insurance policies often contain a lot of “fine print.” In addition to deductibles and pre-existing condition exclusions, like you might be familiar with from human health insurance policies, there may be lists of excluded conditions, waiting periods of variable lengths, and annual reimbursement maximums. Also, unlike current human health insurance, most pet insurance policies are only intended to address illnesses and injuries. Wellness coverage is relatively uncommon in the world of pet insurance and, when available, it can be expensive. Pet insurance is primarily intended to cover those emergencies that would be difficult for you to pay for yourself, instead of covering all of your pet’s veterinary care.

It is important to be familiar with how pet insurance works prior to enrolling in coverage, so that you truly understand what you are purchasing. 

Disadvantages of pet insurance 

Is pet insurance worth it? Dog getting checked over by a vet as young boy watches

(Image credit: Gettyimages)

As you review pet insurance policies, there are several features that you need to watch out for. None of these issues are deal-breakers, but you will want to be aware of these limitations and determine which of these policies you can and cannot live with: 

  •  Pre-existing Condition Exclusions: Although most pet insurance policies have pre-existing condition exclusions, providers differ in how they define “pre-existing condition.” Some providers only exclude conditions that are under active treatment, while others may exclude any future recurrence of any condition your pet has experienced in the past. (For example, a prior history of skin infections may mean that no future skin infection is ever covered under the policy.) Review policies carefully to determine which of your pet’s conditions may be excluded from care.   
  •  Annual Maximum: Most pet insurance policies have a set annual maximum. This is the upper limit of what they will pay out in a given year. In general, less expensive policies have lower annual maximums and more expensive policies have higher annual maximums. If you’re an owner who would want to go to every possible effort to treat your pet, be sure to select a policy with a high annual maximum.  
  •  Genetic/Hereditary Conditions: Some providers (not all) maintain lists of conditions that they consider hereditary in all pets, or in pets of a certain breed. These conditions are often excluded from coverage, whether or not your pet has shown any signs of the condition prior to you purchasing the policy. While this isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker, you will want to review these lists carefully when choosing a pet insurance provider and policy. The conditions on those lists are the conditions that your pet is most likely to develop during their lifetime, so you need to be okay with the fact that your insurance policy may not help you treat those conditions.  

Pet insurance alternatives  

There are a number of other products available to help pet owners manage the cost of veterinary care. In many cases, it can be easy to confuse these products with insurance. Although these products can be beneficial, it’s important to understand how they differ from pet insurance. 

Many veterinary hospitals offer “wellness plans.” You may also hear these plans referred to as “preventative care plans.” These plans allow you to pay a set monthly fee in exchange for a predetermined package of wellness care services.

A canine wellness plan, for example, might include all of the services your dog is expected to need in a year, such as vaccines, one or two physical exams, heartworm testing, fecal parasite testing, and a complete blood testing panel. These plans allow you to spread out the cost of your pet’s wellness care over a year, and may offer you a small discount on services. 

It’s important to remember, however, that a wellness plan is not pet insurance. If your pet is hit by a car, a wellness plan will offer few (if any) benefits. Wellness plans can be a helpful adjunct to pet insurance, but they do not replace pet insurance.

New companies like PetAssure are developing additional pet insurance alternatives, in the form of a discount plan. PetAssure allows members to receive a 25% discount off the price of veterinary care when they visit any participating veterinarian in the PetAssure network. At this time, PetAssure is available solely as an employer-provided benefit. However, they may make their product available for purchase by pet owners in the future, so this may be a good option for some pet owners.

While these pet insurance alternatives can be beneficial, it is important to understand that they are not insurance. The last thing you want is t o find yourself in an emergency situation and realize that you do not have the coverage that you thought you were purchasing. Research wellness plans, discount plans, and other pet insurance alternatives carefully before enrolling, so you can be confident that you fully understand the product and its benefits. 

Should I bother with pet insurance?  

It’s natural to wonder, “is pet insurance worth it?” Based on my experience as a veterinarian, the answer is a resounding yes. Pet insurance is an effective means of ensuring that you will never have to forgo life-saving treatment due to financial constraints. Statistically speaking, it’s unlikely that you will profit from pet insurance. (After all, they set their premiums in a way that ensures that they can stay in business!) 

But, if your pet experiences a life-threatening emergency and you can avoid euthanasia due to your pet insurance, that is an invaluable benefit. Do your research, read the fine print carefully, and think about your priorities when evaluating plans, realizing that you may have to make some trade-offs to find the plan that works best for your family. Be sure that you understand exactly how your plan works, to minimize surprises in an already-stressful emergency scenario.   

Dr. Barnette is a graduate of the University of Florida, where she received both her B.S. in Zoology and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). She has 15 years of clinical experience as a small animal veterinarian, treating dogs, cats, and occasional exotic patients. She now works as a freelance veterinary writer, creating educational content for veterinarians, veterinary team members, and dedicated pet owners. Dr. Barnette lives in southwest Florida with her husband and daughter (plus two cats, a dog, and a rescued dove!) and enjoys kayaking, biking, and hiking. Learn more about Dr. Barnette at www.linkedin.com/in/catherinebarnette.