Pet Insurance: What Are Your Best Options?
By Jason Edinger
Ah, insurance: the bane of existence because of its necessity, but a lifesaver when you need it. Regardless of how you feel about it, pet insurance is essentially the same thing: You are paying for a service you hope your pet will never need.
Once upon a time, I had been paying for pet insurance for my two cats, Lilly and Tiger. I thought it would be a good idea to have because, well, you never know. Long story short, I don’t carry pet insurance anymore, because for me and my cats, who were healthy, it was not worth the expense. Consumer Reports and other advocacy groups tend to agree: For many pets and their humans, pet insurance often isn’t cost effective. But for other animals and their humans, it might be worth it, particularly for so-called catastrophic care costs.
Pet Insurance: What Do Plans Offer?
Most pet insurance companies have 3 levels of care: a basic wellness plan, an intermediate plan, and what my bosses like to call a Cadillac plan. As you can imagine, the wellness plan covers exams and basic preventative care like spaying/neutering, vaccinations, flea/heartworm control, nails/grooming, blood/fecal tests, and microchipping, but only up to a certain cost (say, $40 toward the cost of a microchip). The intermediate plan generally includes major medical issues (cancer, surgeries, emergency visits) in addition to basic wellness care. The Cadillac plan includes all of the above but also covers dental work, behavioral issues, diets and supplements, and alternative/holistic treatments.
The real decision you have to make, in addition to asking, “Is pet insurance right for me and my pets?”, is which plan do you want or need to cover your animals. A quick Google search of pet insurance yielded me a good number of companies. I took the top 3 and gathered information on what they cover, what the deductibles are, what the yearly maximum I could claim was, what the percentage of reimbursement was, and of course, how much the monthly premium would be.
Premiums, Deductibles, and Reimbursements
All pet insurance companies charge more for coverage for your dog than for your cat (about 30% to 60% more). They will also charge more to cover your so-called exotic animals. Where providers differ is that some offer the wellness care as an add-on to their other plans or as their base-level plan. Some may also have a maximum-claims benefit versus an unlimited amount. Two of the three companies I reviewed gave the option of customizing annual deductibles ($250/$500/$750) as well as reimbursements (60%/70%/80%/90%).
Annual cost of pet insurance for exotic vs. other pets
For exotic pets, your insurance options are quite limited. Although there are many companies that will provide you with liability insurance for your exotic pet, a search for traditional pet insurance for exotic pets yielded only one result: Nationwide. Their plans for animals other than cats and dogs (such as chinchillas, goats, iguanas, and “most birds”) were available only by phone, and only during normal business hours. However, here’s what I found.
First, let’s start with what Nationwide does not cover: No horses and no fish. I didn’t ask about fish because I found that to be rather obvious. Horses, however, are just too costly, they said.
I asked for pricing on a scarlet macaw as well as a chinchilla. The plans they offer for exotics work slightly differently than the cat and dog plans. These plans are a $50 deductible per incident, then 90% reimbursement via a filed claim. I didn’t get too much on specifics of what exclusions they had other than pre-existing conditions. The monthly cost for a 4-year-old scarlet macaw was $14.35/month ($172.20/year). The monthly cost for a 2-year-old chinchilla was $11.50/month ($138/year).
In addition, Nationwide does have a wellness plan, but only for birds. For the scarlet macaw, this was an additional $8.25/month ($99/year) and covered exams, parasite tests/treatments, blood work, and beak/nail/wing trimming, among other things. However, each item was up to a preset allowance, just like the cat and dog wellness plans. (For example, there was a $25 allowance towards exam fees, $20 for parasite tests, and $7 each for beak/nail/wing trimming.)
When I had pet insurance for my cats, I had an 80% reimbursement rate and a $250 deductible. Lilly had a preexisting condition (chronic UTI), while Tiger was always healthy. He had only been to the vet once in 7 years for something not routine. That all said, my insurance did not cover flea/heartworm treatments (which amount to roughly $360/year), the meds for Lilly’s UTI, or even the yearly exams (which I did not realize when I signed up). All of that for only $25/cat/month! Now the fun part: MATH!
The monthly premium cost me $300/year (per cat). On top of that, I had a $250 deductible. Add that up, and that is $550/year per cat that I would have to pay no matter what―literally, the cost of doing business. If your pets never get sick, you would never see any of that back in the form of a reimbursement. This is where people have the most issue with purchasing pet insurance. However, and I cannot stress this enough, you never know if your pets are going to need it. My cats were healthy. But one major illness or surgical procedure could make pet insurance worth the cost.
So Is Pet Insurance Worth It?
For Lilly and Tiger, it was easier (and cheaper) to not have pet insurance, since I could not claim anything on the plan anyway. I’ve not purchased any pet insurance since and still have no plans on buying it for my cats, though you may decide that your pets need to be insured. To help you decide, check this list of 20 questions to ask before you buy pet insurance: http://bit.ly/2iUHevr.
Other Options for Essential Pet Care
If you decide against buying pet insurance, vets and consumer advocates suggest you set aside funds in a dedicated saving account for the essential, regular care your pets will need each year. How much should you have on hand? Consumer Reports noted that in 2014, “Dog owners spent an average of $235 on routine vet visits and $551 on surgical visits; for cats, the averages were $196 and $398, respectively.” (I generally set aside $150/month, and that has worked out very well.)
Local animal welfare groups and clinics offer options for quality lower-cost vet care and services. (For all services mentioned here, please see Resources below.) For example, certain vaccinations for cats and dogs, like rabies and distemper shots, are necessary but can sometimes be done at a lower cost at a sponsored clinic. Vets consider flea and tick treatments essential, too, because your pets can develop anemia or parasites if not treated. Some humans decide to go with treatments other than commercial “spot-on” products applied directly on their pets (http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2009/07/10-ways-to-safely-keep-your-pets-flea-and-tick-free/index.htm). Other shots or procedures may be optional, depending on what your vet advises. Some, like microchipping, can also be done at lower-cost clinics. Spaying/neutering of cats and dogs helps prevent various forms of cancer, keeps unwanted kittens and puppies from ending up abandoned or feral, and can be done at discounted prices at area vet clinics and through animal welfare groups.
The best thing you can do for your pet is your homework. If you decide to get pet insurance, find the plan that fits your budget, has a deductible you can manage, covers wellness care for your pets without an insurance rider (as Consumer Reports recommends), and gives you the biggest warm and fuzzy feeling for your buck. After all, they’re not just your pets; they’re your family.
Resources for Essential Vet Services at Lower Cost:
Spay/Neuter Assistance Program
Animal Welfare League of Alexandria
SPCA of Northern Virginia
Rabies Shot and Microchipping Clinics
Animal Welfare League of Arlington
2017 schedule and fees: awla.org/services/low-cost-rabies-and-microchip-clinics/Vaccination Clinics
Humane Rescue Alliance
Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday 10:00 a.m.–2:00 p.m.
Spay/Neuter Clinics for Feral Cats
Virginia Metro Ferals
Jason Edinger lives in Alexandria and is a volunteer with King Street Cats, where he has proudly served as a cat daddy for close to 4 years. Jason’s 2 cats live a life of luxury and tend to eat more exotic foods than he does (pre-packaged and bought at the local pet supply store, of course). Jason thanks Steph Selice of King Street Cats for researching pet resources for this article.