Connecticut resident Chris Guelke’s 6 ½-year-old Lab mix, Watson, has a zest for life. Whether it’s diving off a dock to swim in a lake or running full throttle through the woods, he gives it his all—with disregard for his personal safety.

“He’s high energy, he’s large, and he goes 100 percent all the time,” Guelke said. “The first year that we had him, we were at the vet often so we thought, ‘We’d better look into pet insurance.’”

So 4 years ago, Chris and his wife, Jessica, chose a plan offered by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) that costs about $550 a year. Over time, Watson had a number of claims, including cuts on his ears (from running through thick brush), eye and skin infections, a snapped tendon in his paw, and an $800 surgery after an encounter with a less-than-friendly dog. The Guelkes would pay the veterinary bill and once the deductible was met, be reimbursed by their pet insurance plan. Watson had about a year of being accident-free until recently, when he needed an MRI.

“Insurance was really a godsend at that point because an initial checkup and the follow-up MRI was $2,500.”

Chris said overall, the insurance company has paid them about $100 more than they’ve paid in premiums over the past 4 years. He said having pet insurance for Watson offers peace of mind.

“It’s his quality of life—if something’s wrong, we’re going to take him in,” he said. “We don’t want to ever be put in that position where we’re considering money over his health.”

John Santilli, DVM, co-owner of AAHA-accredited Mayfair Animal Hospital in Cary, N.C., said he is surprised by how many clients don’t even know pet insurance exists. He often recommends they call pet insurance companies to find a plan that fits their budget; most of his clients pay around $30 per month by adjusting their deductibles to create lower premiums. He said that by finding an affordable plan, there is no downside to pet insurance because health care costs are rising and it helps provide for emergency surgeries or illnesses like cancer. Without pet insurance, he said, some people have to decide to euthanize their pets—even when the problem could have been fixed with surgery—leading to feelings of guilt and compounded grief.

“With today’s society, there are people trying to make ends meet, putting their kids through school and everything; say it’s a $500 bill out of the clear blue—they can’t afford that, and so they make a decision.”

Dr. Santilli said there are several factors that affect insurance premium costs, including breed, age, what is covered, and where you live (e.g., it can be more expensive to insure a dog who lives in a city, where the risk of getting hit by a car is higher). He also said it is best to get insurance while the pet is young, before he has any pre-existing conditions that might be excluded from the policy. 

It makes sense to have insurance for specific breeds known to have health issues, such as English bulldogs, boxers, cocker spaniels, bichon frises, and Westies, but Dr. Santilli said ideally all dogs and cats should be insured because "accidents happen, unfortunately." 

While some people choose to try to set aside money each month for veterinary care instead of investing in pet insurance, it can be hard to budget for emergencies. In 2010, Denver, Colorado, resident Sue Kohut discovered her beloved Great Dane, Floyd, was showing signs of bloat, an often-deadly stomach twist. She rushed him to an emergency veterinary hospital and was told surgery would cost $5,500. She didn’t have the money in the bank—or pet insurance—so she handed over a credit card to try to save her “baby.” Floyd hung on for 27 hours through multiple surgeries, but eventually died, leaving Sue heartbroken—and owing $10,000.

“It was horrible,” she said. “I don’t have my dog, I’m devastated, and I have a $10,000 vet bill.”

Apryl Steele, DVM, owner of AAHA-accredited Tender Touch Animal Hospital in Denver, said while it can be challenging to budget for emergencies, it is prudent to plan for prevention expenses like vaccinations, heartworm prevention, routine blood tests, and annual exams. So some veterinarians offer preventive care plans, a budgeting tool in which clients spread the cost of a prevention plan in payments over a year.

“We know that preventive care is much less expensive and results in much less suffering than treating preventable diseases,” Dr. Steele said. “Treating a preventable condition can cost more than 10 times the cost of preventing the disease.”

She said having pet insurance as well as a wellness plan can help pet owners get the best veterinary care possible.

“As veterinarians, it breaks our hearts to see patients who have an incurable disease that could have been prevented. More and more veterinarians are creating these plans to facilitate excellent preventive care.”

For more information:
Pet insurance comparisons
Preventive health care
Freelance journalist Jen Reeder has pet insurance because she shares an active lifestyle with her rambunctious Lab mix, Rio.

Photos of Watson: Kim Tyler Photography


Comments (4) -

KathyUnited States
8/29/2014 7:21:08 AM #

After paying in to VPI for 9 years, my dog had a health emergency that landed him in the vet's office overnight to be kept on an IV after eating something bad in a friend's yard.  The bill came to over $1,000, and VPI originally was only going to pay less than $100.  After sending a letter of complaint, they then reassessed and agreed to pay a total of $139.  They lost my business then and there.  And believe me, I tell my friends to avoid them as well.  

RUnited States
8/29/2014 9:22:31 AM #

Agree with Kathy.  I wasted time and money paying for Pet Insurance, only to have them cover a whopping $0 when my cat needed $1,000 of surgery.  It's a total waste of money. You're better off putting the premium you'd pay into a savings account for a rainy day.

TomUnited States
8/29/2014 10:25:29 AM #

I have been using Embrace pet insurance for my best friend buddy for 4 years now.  He is an active Springer Spaniel that goes hunting and running trough the woods.  Two years ago he jumped a log and met a stick on the other side that stabbed him in the chest.  Insurance covered it all, except deductible.  Have wellness for him also, never have a problem, always talk to a real person, get reimbursed directly into checking account.  Do your research there are definitely shady companies out there, you can find lots of reviews on line.  Take your time and find the best fit for you and your fuzzy friend, you will be glad you did if you have an active companion like mine.

TamiUnited States
8/29/2014 5:36:48 PM #

I have had insurance on my pets for around 20 years.  I can tell you VPI is the absolute WORST pet insurance company.  I had them for YEARS and they pay very little on claims and take one to two months to pay out what little they do.  One reason they are so bad is that they pay from a "schedule of benefits" and consider "primary conditions" and "secondary conditions" which in the end reduce your refund to squat.  

After them I moved on to Pet Plan, which at first seemed to be a great company.  They paid claims within 2 weeks and they paid whatever the vet charged (not on a schedule of benefits like VPI).  THEN, over the years they too have gotten bad.  They got a new underwriter years ago and ever since then they have raised my policies around $100 per year or MORE for each policy!!  I had a lot of pets with them and then when they started raising rates I cancelled all the policies on my younger animals.  Then just a little over a month ago I cancelled ALL of my policies with them.  They have simply priced themselves out of the market.

The company I am currently looking at is Pet First.  The one thing I like about them is that they have a Family Plan where you can have 3 animals under the age of 10 SHARE a policy.  Works great as longs as all 3 don't have major issues in one year.  Also, one bad thing about the company is with their basic policy once an animal has a condition (while under their insurance) they consider it "pre-existing" and will not cover them in the next policy year.  I read a few complaints that said they sometimes wouldn't cover one condition more than once in one policy year.  In any case this company MAY work for me but I will be doing more research.

The safest thing is to set aside $600 a year per pet or more and save up for an emergency.

Good luck with all your babies!!

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