Will pet obesity fatten your insurance bill?
It looks like American humans aren’t the only ones struggling with weight gain. Our furry friends also are tipping the scales — resulting in higher bills for veterinary care and possibly higher premiums for pet insurance.
According to a nationwide survey by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention, 53 percent of adult dogs and 55 percent of adult cats in the United States are overweight. That comes out to 88.4 million pets that veterinarians say are too heavy.
“When you’re talking about more than 50 percent of a population, I think it’s safe to classify this as an epidemic,” says Dr. Jules Benson, vice president of veterinary services at Petplan, a provider of pet insurance.
Benson says the expanding bellies of people and pets are related.
“As we get more sedentary, our pets also become less mobile,” Benson says. “Kids aren’t going out to play as much, we’re not walking as much, and I think the downside of that trend has bled over into our pets’ health as well.”
Poor nutrition is another factor, says Dr. Bruce Silverman, a Chicago veterinarian.
“People love their dogs, but that also means they love to spoil them like crazy with treats,” Silverman says.
When it comes to cats, Americans have become conditioned to feed them improperly, typically by pouring dry kibble into a bowl and walking away, which often results in overeating.
“It all comes down to lack of exercise, lack of time and lack of nutritional education,” Silverman says. “It also means higher costs for veterinary care.”
As with humans, obesity in pets is a catalyst for several dangerous medical conditions. According to Petplan’s 2011 insurance claims data, the most common maladies resulting from overweight pets include severe immobility), fractures, spinal disc disease, heart disease, hip dysplasia and ligament tears.
The 2011 claims for arthritis soared 348 percent from the year before, while diabetes claims climbed 253 percent and cardiac disease claims rose 32 percent.
“All of these problems are exacerbated by excess weight,” Benson says. “They are also what wind up costing pet owners the most money.”
According to Petplan’s data, the average cost for veterinary care in 2011 was more than $900 per visit for pets with diabetes, with costs climbing as high as $5,700. Cruciate ligament tears, which can be caused by excessive weight on the joints, averaged $2,000 per visit. Arthritis, however, is the priciest of obesity-related conditions, often costing more than $2,000 per visit and resulting in more than $9,000 in total medical expenses.
“Many pet owners don’t think about these costs until it’s too late,” Benson says. “When they find out it’s going to cost $5,000 for a hip replacement, there’s definitely some sticker shock.”
Even though pet insurance is growing in popularity, the U.S. market remains small. According to Stephen Ebbett, president of Protect Your Bubble, a newly launched provider of pet insurance, only 1 percent of U.S. dogs and cats are covered by insurance, despite the fact that two-thirds of Americans own pets.
Americans spent an estimated $450 million on pet insurance in 2011, according to the American Pet Products Association. That figure is expected to jump to more than $500 million in 2012.
Obesity-related pet insurance claims have been climbing in recent years. Veterinary Pet Insurance, for instance, says it pays out more than $14 million in weight-related claims each year, a figure that is expect to grow if the obesity epidemic isn’t addressed.
How this will affect the market is anyone’s guess. Right now, pet insurance premiums — which can range from $5 to more than $28 a month — don’t depend on an animal’s weight or overall health. But as the costs for treatment and the frequency of obesity-related maladies continue to climb, some say the cost of pet insurance will have to follow suit.
“All of the insurance companies are finding that obesity-related costs have gone up, so there may come a time when insurance companies will charge more for an obese pet or won’t cover that pet at all,” says Dr. Amber Andersen, a certified veterinary journalist with the American Society of Veterinary Journalism.
Benson says that in addition to higher premiums for fat cats and dogs, insurers one day may offer discounts to people whose pets are lighter and healthier.
Keeping them slim
According to Benson, pet owners can help their furry companions maintain a healthy weight by:
• Watching what they eat: Your pet may be consuming more calories than needed, so Benson suggests people consider switching to regular twice-daily feedings. Also, cut out table scraps, and swap fatty processed treats for whole foods like apple slices or baby carrots.
• Getting in motion: Daily exercise is essential for all pets, including low-energy dogs and cats. “But don’t get into an intense exercise regimen too quickly,” Benson says. “You could risk injury to your pet.” Instead, he suggests starting with short walks and moderate play sessions, gradually progressing to more frequent and energetic workouts.
• Making fitness fun: Make pets work for their food by incorporating meals into food-releasing toys, or use food as a reward while teaching new tricks. Turn exercise into a game by playing fetch or tug-of-war or by introducing a pet to an obstacle course.
“It’s people who are responsible for the weight of their pets, and they end up trying to show affection through treats and food,” Andersen says. “Instead, people need to realize that they can show love and affection through healthy foods and daily exercise.”