Janelle Frazier’s rescue dog, Cody, is just 2, but Janelle is already considering the possibility of needing pet insurance. It’s a growing trend, as more companies are offering increasing options for pets, now routinely given full family status. Pet insurance is even becoming a perk — all adoptions through the Oregon Humane Society include a short-term policy.
This year Americans will spend an estimated $9.4 billion on their pet's healthcare, up from $8.7 billion just a year ago, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, which tracks such statistics. Veterinary medicine now often mirrors human health care, with options such as MRIs, kidney transplants and chemotherapy. As interest in advanced options (often coming with higher costs) grows, so does interest and participation in pet insurance programs that can provide a safety net.
Not all policies are created equal. Some, according to online reviews, are stingy with claim reimbursements. Others are quick to exclude certain breeds or genetic conditions to which some breeds may be predisposed. In some cases it appears Veterinarians may face endless paperwork to get reimbursed for their services.
Trupanion, a provider that began in Canada in 1999, is now the second-largest pet insurance provider in North America, and the fastest growing, according to Trupanion COO Howard Rubin. “In the past 10 years companion animals are considered part of the family more than ever before,” he says. “The problem we’re solving is enabling people to share their risk just like you would in any other insurance program, and provide the highest quality care for their family members.”
Trupanion offers only one plan — which covers 90% of vet bills for sickness or injury. The plan has no annual or lifetime limit, and issues or diseases stemming from congenital or hereditary defects are covered. However, the Trupanion plan does not cover preventative care, wellness or vaccines. “We cover sickness and injury;” says Rubin, “the things you can’t plan for.” A Trupanion plan averages about $40 per month, though it varies based on chosen deductibles, and cats cost less.
When Janelle Frazier adopted her Shepherd mix Cody from First Avenue Shelter in Eugene, she received a flier about pet insurance. “That was the first time it crossed my mind,” she says. Frazier plans to track her spending on Cody’s regular vet care and then compare plans and options to see if insurance makes financial sense. “I want to look at what I paid for and see how much of that would have been covered,” she says. Frazier tells of a friend’s 13-year-old dog whose legs gave out and who is now receiving expensive steroid treatments. “That kind of thing can happen with dogs,” she says. “It’s a weird choice to add on the expense of insurance and still be paying for vet bills, but it’s the same choice you have to make when you get your own health insurance.”
In the US, less than 3% of the estimated 71 million pet owners have pet insurance. In Great Britain, roughly 25% of pet owners have pet insurance, and in Sweden, nearly half of pet owners insure their pets, according to the American Animal Hospital Association. According to statistics released in September by Pets Best Insurance, the average age of a pet at enrollment with Pets Best is 3.45 years, and the average first claim is filed within approximately two months. Pets Best reports that in 2012, pet owners filed claims on behalf of nearly 50 percent of all pets insured through the agency. Among those, the company received an average of 4.75 claims per pet, averaging $1,717 per claim that year.
The specialized care available for pets accounts for a large percentage of the money spent. Jason Reeder is a small animal internal medicine specialist at VCA NWVS in Clackamas. “We diagnose and treat some pretty intense diseases,” Reeder says. “I am a big fan of pet insurance when that plan covers major medical. Sooner or later there will be some age-related issue or concern or terminal disease. Those who have insurance plans are more committed to treatment.”
Dr. Reeder says that having insurance makes you “willing, able and ready” to do whatever it takes to care for your pets. “People who are referred to me who don’t have insurance come in and spend some money on consultation and I make a suggestion to get a diagnosis; then they say they can’t afford it and leave, or else we guess at the diagnosis and base treatment on that guess. Those patients don’t get the best care, and the people are cutting corners. The real shame is when a patient has something fixable but the owners can’t or don’t want to pay for it.”
Even if you don’t wish to invest in insurance, Reeder stresses the importance of preventative and routine care. “Get your vaccines, get a full physical exam once a year,” he says. “You have a better chance of keeping your pet well.”
As to that limited policy included in OHS adoptions? “We feel very strongly as an organization that insurance provides the next step in the bond that a person creates with their pet and their vet,” says Brenda King, OHS Operations Director. Insurance gives people another safety net, she says, because you’re just getting to know your animal and they might not have been at the shelter for very long. “There are some health-related things that we might not discover during the short time an animal could be with us,” she says.
At OHS, pets are automatically enrolled for 30 days, after which owners have the option of continuing the coverage on their own. “It’s like health insurance in that there are so many levels of coverage, and most policies have some level of coverage you can choose from,” King explains. “You want a certain level of deductible and a certain value of your coverage and they are all a little bit different; that’s what makes them confusing.”
King believes pet insurance can help families keep their aging pets. She says that animals are increasingly coming to OHS from people who can’t afford to pay veterinary bills. “Maybe the pet has ongoing issues with diabetes and it’s older,” she says, “or maybe it needs expensive orthopedic surgery and they just can’t afford it. Those things you’re not expecting can be a real hardship on the family, and that breaks the bond of your pet with the family.”
According to Trupanion’s Rubin, having insurance removes economic decisions from the equation of seeking health care for your pet. “I personally believe that it’s important for every pet owner,” he says. “We’re going to give you and your vet the ability to make decisions about giving the highest level of care versus having to sit there and worry about money.”
After all, a healthy pet who happily celebrates you home is priceless.
Pet Insurance Resources
- Compare available pet insurance plans on The Oregon Veterinary Medical Associations website at oregonvma.org/care-health/pet-health-insurance.
- As with human insurance, you are your best expert. Investigate the options and seek out references from your friends and Veterinarian. Take time to research the following:
- What plans cover and exclude
- Deductibles and copays
- Providers covered (is your favorite Veterinarian?)
- Also at oregonvma.org, check out "Resources for Responsible Pet Ownership" for tips on saving money on pet care expenses and managing medical costs.
Vanessa Salvia's love for animals began as a child, when stray kittens just seemed to follow her home. She now lives on a sheep farm outside of Eugene, Oregon, with a llama named Linda, a dog, a cat, a rabbit, two kids and a patient husband.