We're all familiar with health insurance. Health insurance is usually considered somewhat of a necessity, especially for those of us that have a chronic health condition. Many of us couldn't imagine not being able to rely on health insurance to help us out. Personally, I wouldn't be able to afford my migraine treatment and medication without health insurance - I am incredibly thankful for it!
Health insurance for our pets is a relatively new concept that has been slow to catch on. Only 1-2% of dogs and cats in the U.S. are insured. This could be because, for a long time, pet insurance wasn't very good. Thankfully, this is changing.
There are now some very good pet insurance companies out there. On a daily basis, I see how this makes a huge difference in my patients' lives. Families that have pet insurance are able to say "yes" to treatment, which can extend their dog's lives, while other families are not able to.
Gone are the days when the only option for treatment was an antibiotic and steroid injection and "see if they get better". We can now offer brain surgery, insert pacemakers into hearts, perform kidney transplants, and offer chemotherapy and radiation therapy (which is much different in dogs than in people). These advanced healthcare opportunities do come with higher price tags - just think of all of the expensive equipment involved!
Having health insurance often allows families to take money out of the equation (to a large extent) when they are deciding whether or not to treat their dog - which can be a huge luxury.
What is Covered by Pet Insurance?
Coverage depends on the specific pet insurance company and the plan that is elected. Some plans have a maximum payout associated with each diagnosis, others don't. For example, if you select a plan that has a maximum payout per diagnosis of $10,000 and your dog requires surgery to remove a tumor, it will be covered (surgery costs far less than $10,000). If your dog has a type of cancer where surgery and chemotherapy are recommended, costs may exceed $10,000, so you might need to pay additional expenses out of pocket.
Some insurance plans will cover 90% of all medical costs, but will not cover preventative care (vaccines) or exam fees. Other insurance plans do cover exam fees.
What is NOT Covered by Pet Insurance?
Pet insurance doesn't cover pre-existing conditions (as far as I know). This is very different from the type of insurance you and I have. If I change jobs and subsequently health insurance companies, the new company cannot tell me they won't cover my migraines because they were first diagnosed in 2006.
Pet insurance works differently. Say your dog had surgery to remove a mast cell tumor (a common skin tumor in dogs). Thankfully, you had money saved for an emergency, but it was still very expensive ($3500). You want to prevent having to shell out such a large lump sum in the future, so you decide to purchase pet insurance. Fortunately, pet insurance will cover your dog and future health problems, but they are unlikely to cover expenses related to FUTURE mast cell tumors (if your dog develops any).
We know that a dog that develops one mast cell tumor is genetically predisposed to developing mast cell tumors and has a 44% chance of developing a second mast cell tumor down the road. Because of this, mast cell tumors would likely be considered a pre-existing condition.
A good pet insurance plan can still be incredibly valuable. I recommend purchasing insurance when your dog is still young (to avoid as many pre-existing conditions as possible). Be certain to really do your research and compare different companies and different plans. Your job may offer pet insurance as a benefit - make sure that the pet insurance company gets excellent reviews (otherwise, it's not actually going to save you money and you're better off using a different company).
So Which Insurance Companies Are Best?
This is changing all of the time and I also feel that this depends on your specific needs. From talking with clients, I hear the best reviews for Trupanion, Healthy Paws, and Pet's Best. Most insurance companies require you to pay upfront for veterinary services and will then reimburse you. Trupanion does not always require you to pay up front, which can be VERY helpful (your vet just needs to set up payment with them); you then pay the difference of what is not covered (similar to human health insurance).
Again, this is not an exclusive list, so do your homework, call around and compare numbers. I do not receive any financial benefit for mentioning these companies, these three recommendations are made strictly from client recommendations.
What if My Dog Has Cancer and I Don't Have $5000 Laying Around for Treatment?
Well, then you're like most people. If you want to treat your dog but can't afford to there are a few options. Most vet clinics will accept Care Credit. If you know that your dog's treatment will cost $5000, you can contact Care Credit (usually your vet clinic can help with this). Care Credit will run a credit check (this may affect your credit score) and consider approval based on your credit history. If approved, they'll pay for your veterinary bill and typically grant you an interest-free repayment period. If the balance is not paid in full during the interest-free period (which might be six months, but varies), you'll get hit with credit card-type interest rates (ex. 17%). This is a good option for some people, but not for others.
Some vet clinics offer discounts for military personnel, working dogs, and people over 65. There are also many foundations set up specifically to help people pay for cancer treatment for their dogs - many of these are even breed-related (ex: the Riedel & Cody Fund). Consider these options if you need assistance.
When our dogs get sick we feel desperate and often want to do everything possible to help them get better. I've had clients pay for cancer treatment by selling their cars and depleting their kid's college savings account - these are not decisions that I would want you to make.
Having pet insurance takes some of the weight off a very stressful experience. Maybe it can help you - if not now, then in the future.
Dr. Lori Cesario
Board Certified Veterinary Oncologist
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