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Do you need pet insurance for your dog or cat?

Pets are considered part of the family and that’s why proper health care for dogs and cats is so important. To cover veterinarian costs, pet insurance can be an affordable way to pay vet bills in the event of illness or medical emergency.

Let’s face it, a visit to a veterinarian can be costly. Bills can easily run into thousands of dollars. That’s where pet health insurance comes in, but is it worth the cost of a policy?

The answer depends largely on the physical condition of your pet.

"We want the same health care for our pets as we do for other members of our families," says Dr. William H. Craig, a veterinarian who is chief medical and underwriting director at PurinaCare Pet Health Insurance. "Unfortunately, a lot of technological advances come with a price tag. Advanced imaging procedures, ultrasounds, high-tech surgical procedure -- the list goes on and on."

Many of these procedures, Craig says, were not possible five or 10 years ago.

“Pets would have had to suffer with consequences of disease,” he says. “We have so many more options these days. However, these procedures come with a price."

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Why all pet insurance policies aren’t equal

Veterinary Pet Insurance issued the first pet insurance policy in 1982 to Lassie -- the most famous four-legged TV star in the world at the time. Since then, numerous pet insurers have come on board to offer similar policies, covering everything from routine veterinary visits to accidents to illnesses.

The North American Pet Health Insurance Association estimates that 1.4 million pets are insured – a number that has grown 12.6 percent from 2012 to 2014. That number may sound high, but it’s only about 1 percent of the cats and dogs in North America.

Dog owners, curiously, are far more likely to insure their pets. NAPHIA says 83 percent of all insured pets in North America are man’s best friend.

Coverage, though, can vary wildly. For instance, some pet insurance plans cover treatment for cancer, while other policies do not. Oftentimes, accidents are extra and pre-existing conditions are not covered.

"The sole purpose of pet insurance or any insurance is to soften an unexpected … bill," says Dr. Frances Wilkerson, a veterinarian who authored "A Vet's Guide to Pet Insurance."

No two policies are alike, and it can be hard to figure out which policy is right for you and your pet. Low-cost policies usually don't cover major illnesses or accidents. It's up to you to read each policy to see what is and is not covered.

The good news is that there are no networks in pet insurance, as there are in human health insurance. You can go to any veterinarian. Pet health insurance plans are agreements between the carrier and the pet owner. Policyholders are reimbursed by the insurance company, so the vet is out of the loop. You fill out a form, submit it with your vet's invoice to the insurance company, and the pet insurance company sends you a check.

What vet treatments are the most expensive?

Wilkerson says costly financial hits in veterinary medicine come in the form of:

  1. Emergencies (broken bones, accidental poisonings, ingestion of foreign objects).
  2. Chronic diseases (heart disease, liver disease, cancer, chronic kidney disease).
  3. Diseases that are contracted quickly (for example, pancreatitis or leptospirosis, a bacterial infection).

"To get an idea of your costs, ask your veterinarian, 'What is the highest estimated cost I can expect from each of the three scenarios?' The costs will vary based on geographical location, with big cities being much higher than rural areas," Wilkerson says.

These, however, are not necessarily the most frequent insurance claims made by pet owners.

Veterinary Pet Insurance, one of the nation’s oldest pet insurers, says bladder infections, dental disease and thyroid conditions top the claims list for cats.

Top claims for dogs were skin allergies, ear infections and upset stomachs.

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How much does pet insurance cost?

For 2014, NAPHIA says the average annual premium for dogs was $473. Coverage for cats came in at an average of $285.

Significant savings can be had by selecting "accident only" policies, and most insurers offer discounts for homes with several pets.

Dr. Arnold Goldman, a veterinarian at Canton Animal Hospital in Canton, Connecticut, suggests that pet owners ask their veterinarians for recommendations on insurers.

"And your state's insurance commission can provide you with information about different policies so you can make your own comparisons," Goldman says.

Goldman believes that pet owners should buy health insurance before any pre-existing conditions occur, "but for major medical only," he says.

Consumer Reports recently compared nine plans from four insurance providers -- ASPCA Pet Insurance, Trupanion, 24PetWatch and Veterinary Pet Insurance. The nonprofit magazine focused on coverage for a 10-year-old beagle and for two cats with rare medical conditions. Consumer Reports researchers concluded that pet owners would realize savings only on care for dogs and cats with major medical problems.

"The cost for routine annual care is not worth the bother or extra cost," Goldman says, "whereas the security of knowing that if a disaster occurs -- a sudden illness or accident -- the cost of the required care will not have to limit the possibilities or result in the end of a pet's life. Insurance represents peace of mind."



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