Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Pet Insurance: Worth the Cost?

Captain after an overnight stay in the emergency vet clinic, treated for pneumonia when he was a puppy.
New Years can lead to all sorts of new beginnings and resolutions. Maybe you've added a new puppy to your family, or maybe you're trying to tighten your purse strings. As for us, we're re-evaluating various investments, including Pet Insurance. I thought I'd post some information about Pet Insurance, and try to get some reader feedback and experiences, since I know this is a topic that comes up often for pet owners. To insure or not insure, that is the question.

Our Introduction to Pet Insurance:

When we were planning on getting a puppy, my Uncle kept recommending that we get pet insurance. At the time, I kind of laughed it off. Insurance? For my dog? What? Never having had a dog before, it seemed like a hassle, and a waste of money. The first time we took Captain to the vet for his puppy shots, our Vet also provided us with some information, and left the decision up to us- she was pretty up front about it sometimes paying off and sometimes not. We didn't seriously consider insurance until after a GIANT vet bill from an unexpected- and scary- trip to the emergency vet.

Captain's puppyhood was filled with a few issues, including a number of episodes of giardia and a few bouts of kennel cough. These are fairly common for puppies, particularly those in cities or who go to day care and dog parks, since their immune systems are still developing. As with human child development, there's the argument that the social interaction with peers (yes, puppy peers!) outweighs the minor sicknesses, and may possibly strengthen immune functioning in the long term. But the difference is, most puppies don't have health insurance, so every time you are treating those sicknesses, you are paying out of pocket for them. Unless, that is, you have health insurance- although even then you may be paying at least a chunk of the cost. (By the way, yes, it is very important to take your puppy to the vet if they are experiencing an issue! Better safe than sorry!)

One Friday night, we came home after a puppy social, and Captain wouldn't stop wheezing and twisting his neck around. It looked like he was painfully trying to get air, and it scared us. He'd recently had kennel cough and had finished his medication, so we thought he was all clear, but his breathing suggested it had now taken a turn for the worse. At about 10pm on a Friday night, we took him to SF's SPCA emergency clinic (a really great facility, by the way).

After a few hours, we were told they thought he had pneumonia and that he needed an overnight stay, various tests, etc. When we were given the anticipated bill, our mouths dropped. It was over $2,000. When the clinician handed us the sheet of paper though, she told us to ask questions if needed. At the time, I was still in grad school, and my husband was unemployed (what a winning financial combo, I know!). So my husband started asking questions about each item, and that was when we were told not everything was absolutely necessary. It was kind of a new concept for me to "negotiate" terms at a medical center. I had background thinking, as a human- or at least as a lucky health-insured human in a developed country- that if something is medically needed and available, it's done. Of course I wanted the best care for Captain, and I was a little uncomfortable trying to negotiate a "bargain basement" medical treatment. At the same time, forking out over 2 grand for everything under the sun was a hard pill to swallow...

In the end, we ended up paying for what was necessary to get him better, while balancing cost- which meant leaving out a few diagnostic tests, but paying for x-rays and overnight treatment, somewhere around $1,200 I think. Ouch. That was when I started looking in to pet insurance- which would have reduced my out-of-pocket cost to only a few hundred dollars. I signed up for a pet insurance plan through VPI shortly thereafter, and it has helped to cover some costs for heartworm and flea meds, yearly checkups, and portions of other vet visits.

After two full years of a (thankfully!!) completely healthy pup, though, I'm starting to question our $49/month payments, especially when I look over the list of benefits schedules and limits. Allergies are only covered as one incident (no matter how many times you go to the vet for allergic episodes), something to consider for Vizslas especially. And there are other considerations...

Accidents happen...
Our pet insurance experience by the numbers:
  • During the time we've had pet insurance (about 2.5 years), we've had an average of 42% of our vet costs reimbursed. That sounds fairly helpful, except that we are paying a month rate, and the savings haven't been offset by the amount we've spent.
  • Comparing the cost we've spent on vet bills to the cost with vet bills+ pet insurance less pet insurance reimbursements, we've spent an extra 17% (about $350 more during our 2.5 year pet-insurance coverage, above the cost we would have spent on vet bills alone during this time had we not payed for pet insurance.
  • If we had gotten pet insurance right when Captain was a puppy, before any giardia, kennel cough, or pneumonia (which we had to claim as pre-existing conditions, and for which we cannot receive any reimbursements for), we would have saved a few hundred dollars.
I should qualify this information by stating that Captain has thankfully been a very healthy boy during the period of time we have had pet insurance. Obviously, the longer he is healthy, the less insurance pays off in net spending. If I could sign a document insuring Captain's health for the rest of his life, I would! Sometimes it does feel like paying for insurance is paying to keep him healthy- kind of like taking an umbrella and then not having it rain ;-) But it is important to look at the numbers, since things can get expensive.

Pet Insurance Basics (based on my knowledge; please consult with individual insurance agencies for more info!)
Pet insurance pros:
  • Peace of mind. Most of us have health insurance, and pay a pretty penny for it; why shouldn't our fur-babies be covered too?
  • Emergency situations and large expenses will be significantly cheaper if you have insurance. 
  • You can choose different plan options, to fit the type of coverage you want.
  • Our experience with VPI has been overall positive- the agents are very friendly and helpful, and the claim reimbursements are processed fairly quickly.
Pet insurance cons:
  • Monthly payments may not be offset, particularly if you are paying for insurance for a healthy dog.
  • Pre-existing conditions are not covered, which is a greater issue for older dogs.
  • Expenses are not fully covered, and are sometimes poorly covered depending on the condition.
  • You need to stay on top of submitting claims, and you must wait for reimbursement checks.
My overall conclusion on pet insurance (so far): Based on our spending so far, and the information I've looked over, it seems that unless you are taking your dog to the vet frequently, or are very unlucky with emergency accident or health situations, it is probably cheaper not to have pet insurance. That said, the additional expense for coverage has not been excessive (so far), and it does provide significant peace of mind and reassurance that - God forbid- should a catastrophe occur, not all the expense will fall on me. In the end, it is insurance- ie, it is not necessarily savings, but rather, a weighing of risk versus loss. My personal recommendation is to either sign up for a plan the day you get your puppy (before any pre-existing conditions can be ruled out, and so those immune-challenged early days will be covered), and re-evaluate whether it makes sense to continue coverage during your dog's middle years, or to make a personal commitment to set aside at least $25-50 a month in a "doggie savings account," so you will be prepared for any accidents and health emergencies that may come up during your dog's life.

I actually don't have a "final" conclusion; I'm still weighing the pros and cons and thinking about what makes sense, and what makes sense will likely differ for different dogs. I'm eager for readers to weigh in their thoughts and experiences in the comments below, as I hope this will be helpful not only for me but for others dropping by to learn a little bit more.

For more information:
  • I found a good article on MSN Money weighing the pros and cons of pet insurance. And of course, the breed they picked for their dog picture is a total winner ;-)
  • Check out  www.petinsurancequot​es.com to compare payments by insurance company.
PLEASE leave your thoughts and experiences on pet insurance in the comments below! Let me know if I missed anything, your personal pros or cons, thoughts, etc. I hope this post will serve as a useful resource for all of us!

I will update this post as needed.


  1. So, the cost of VPI wellness coverage, i.e. vaccines and heartworm testing, is definitely not worth the money. You can go to low cost mobile vaccine clinics for a fraction of the price and then consolidate your dog's medical records. I did decide to maintain the accident coverage for, well, accidents because they cab happen and I want to be a good provider. The accident coverage also includes illnesses.

    1. Good advice! I am planning on changing our coverage, what you suggest sounds good, since our current plan is definitely not worth the price. Definitely very important to pay attention to the plan types.

  2. I found with the insurance I had that not only were pre existing conditions not covered but also there was a limit to how much they would pay out per year for the same condition. For example my dog had gastroenteritis & pancreatitis more than once. They did not pay the same for the second occurrence. In the long run I don't think it was beneficial for us. Maybe it was the plan I had. That said one of my dogs now has complications from a foxtail and I've put out a couple thousand already. It might have helped but of course like you said I would have signed up immediately after bringing my puppy home because any ear infection would have made it a pre existing condition. I came to the conclusion that I should try to save monthly for vet expenses but I haven't investigated other plans than the one I had.

  3. I think the pros for pet insurance definitely outnumber the cons. My cat is my baby and I couldn't imagine something happening to him and not being able to afford for his care. I believe that pet insurance cost is being made affordable with monthly payment options. These monthly payments are nothing compared to how high vet bills can become for those that are uninsured.

  4. I am not a professional breeder but have owned a dog my entire life and bred a few litters (yes, intentionally). I recommend to anyone who gets a puppy to pay for the insurance the first year. I currently have a six month old puppy which came from my last litter. I go to Banfield (the vet inside of petsmart) and get the wellness plan.
    I have found that the first year can be very expensive as young dogs are developing their immune systems and are more likely to have
    bouts of diarrhea, vomiting, and eat every thing in site (good and bad). This plan is good for one year and covers all vaccines, it ends up costing $50 more than what you would spend on puppy shots, deworming, and fecal tests anyways. But you don't have to be $40-$70 for an office visit while on the plan. If you think your pup is sick take them to the vet for free and then you get a discount on any tests they run and 20% off medications. However, I do not like Banfield and only use them for basic care. I find that they don't give all the facts and often push their own agenda. After the first year I change over to my regular vet. If my pup was deathly ill or had been hit by a car I would not carry them to my local Banfield I would go straight to my regular vet.