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