When it comes to pet ownership in the United States, the numbers are staggering. According to the American Pet Products Association (APPA), about 62 percent of all U.S. households have at least one pet, totaling about 78 million dogs and 86 million cats. What’s more, a large percentage of these companion animals come from the nearly 7 million dogs and cats placed in shelters each year.
And while adopting a shelter dog or cat can bring plenty of joy to a home, it can also put a strain on the family budget. According to APPA, Americans spent almost $53 billion on their pets in 2012, and the average cost of food, supplies, medical care and training for a dog or cat can approach $1,000 annually.
If you’re one of the millions who already owns a pet, or want to adopt a furry addition to the family, pet insurance may be the best option to help ease the financial burden.
According to Chris Ashton, co-founder and co-CEO of Petplan pet insurance, only one percent of U.S. dogs and cats are covered by insurance. But, Ashton says, this number is starting to grow.
“I think it’s being driven by the rising cost and advancements in vet care,” Ashton says. “The things they can do for pets these days are just unbelievable. But it’s also very expensive.”
Consider the story of Robin Moss. Last year, Moss rescued an Italian Greyhound/Toy Poodle mix. Nine months after the pooch came home it needed surgery for a luxating patella (a dislocated knee cap). After the initial consultation, x-rays and surgery, the cost cost over $2,500. But since her dog was covered by pet insurance, Moss only had to pay a $250 deductible and 20 percent of the final bill.
“This is my third dog and first rescue, but it’s the first with pet insurance,” Moss says. “But trust me, now that I have it, I’m very glad it’s there.”
How to insure your shelter pet
Since June is National Pet Adoption Month, it’s worth considering the growing connection between pet insurance and animal rescue organizations.
Steve Siadek, cofounder and chief operating officer of Healthy Paws Pet Insurance, says that pure breeds are generally more expensive to insure than mixed breeds (since hereditary problems like hip dysplasia in pure breeds are passed down from generation to generation). And since most shelter pets are mixed, it’s a good bet that your rescue pup or kitten will be less costly to insure than a pet purchased through a breeder.
Furthermore, an increasing number of pet insurers are teaming up with adoption centers and animal rescues across the country to offer new adoptive parents a trial run of insurance. For instance, Petplan recently teamed up with the North Shore Animal League on Long Island, NY. Every pet that gets adopted from North Shore comes with a free 30-day trial of insurance.
“Shelters spend all of this time and effort re-homing pets, but so many of them get returned, especially when the pet gets sick and owners have to spend money on treatment,” Ashton says. “We’re hoping this will really help raise awareness for pet adoption and also helps lower the rate of pets being returned to shelters.
Insuring older pets
Age is important to consider when thinking about insuring your shelter pet.
For instance, Ashton says some pet insurance providers have upper age limits for their pet insurance policies, which means they will not insure a pet over that age, or may discontinue or reduce coverage once the pet reaches that age. Petplan has no age restrictions and will insure any pet older than six weeks.
“Senior pets are more likely to have preexisting health problems, which pet insurance cannot cover,” Ashton says. “That’s why we encourage people to insure their pets as young as possible, because it increases the likelihood that any conditions that emerge can be covered.”
If you’re adopting a senior pet in the second half of its lifespan, Siadek says pet insurance may not be the best option.
“(Senior pets) most likely have one or more preexisting conditions that would be excluded from coverage,” Siadek says.“Ask for medical records from your shelter and understand what conditions exist and how they will provide ongoing care for those conditions. ”
Shelter pet health history
If you adopt a shelter pet that’s older than a year or two, it’s important to learn their medical history. How this affects the process of obtaining pet insurance varies from company to company.
For instance, Ashton says Petplan does not require medical records for enrollment, but they are required once a claim is submitted. But if someone wants to determine whether their older pet’s existing medical conditions will be covered, Petplan offers a by-request medical underwriting service at no charge.
Meanwhile, Healthy Paws requires a newly adopted pet to have a check-up by the pet parent's own veterinarian before providing insurance.
“This check-up is an important step regardless of pet insurance and is just part of being a good pet parent,” Siadek says.
Bad dog (or cat)!
Because shelter pets come from all sorts of circumstances, new adoptive parents may need to correct certain bad behaviors like fear aggression or excessive barking once the pet comes home. Pet insurance can come in handy with this issue as well.
According to Ashton, Petplan will cover behavioral therapy for your pet if the veterinarian recommends it—but only up to a preset maximum that’s determined by your policy.
According to Alison Andrew, vice president of marketing for Trupanion pet insurance, many insurers will offer the option to slightly increase your monthly premium costs to cover something like behavioral modification. For instance, Trupanion offers a five-dollar-per-month rider that customers can purchase in order to provide coverage for behavioral modification.
“Make sure your shelter provides a behavioral assessment,” Andrew says. “It’s in everyone’s best interest that the new owner has the best experience of having that pet in the new home.”
How to shop for pet insurance
When shopping for pet insurance, Wendy Toth, director of content for Pet360 – a pet advice website, says consumers should make sure the provider covers the following conditions (which often can be excluded):
• Coverage for cancer.
• Coverage for chronic diseases: “If your pet comes down with a chronic disease, some insurers may only cover treatment during the year your pet was diagnosed,” Toth says. “You want to make sure this coverage isn’t limited.”
• Coverage for hereditary and congenital diseases.
• Coverage for medical conditions common to your specific pet: “German shepherds, for instance, are prone to hip dysplasia. Some insurance providers won’t cover these types of conditions,” Toth says. “Make sure you ask about these issues before buying insurance.”