READY FOR THE WORST

If your dog sprains his ankle deciding not to jump off the dock at the last minute, pet insurance could help.

You know we are living in crazy times when your dog can get health insurance easier than you can.

The question of health insurance for your pet cat or dog, however, is one that each owner needs to research to find out if insurance is going to meet their expectations. The number one misconception among pet owners is that the hefty price they pay each month means clear sailing when their dog goes to the vet. But, like a hidden reef under the waves, the reality of just what is covered can come as a large—and damaging—surprise.

The number one thing to understand about pet insurance is this: it is not for expected expenses—it is for unexpected expenses. You will be hard pressed to find a policy which will cover the normal things one goes to a veterinarian for, such as vaccinations, worming, flea treatment, microchip, or neutering. Almost all pet insurances offer coverage only for injuries due to accidents, or treatment for illnesses. If they offer “wellness” coverage, it is as an additional expense of an add-on.

As a dog breeder, pet insurance makes little sense for me; costs associated with health screening of breeding animals and costs related to breeding or whelping of a litter are rarely if ever covered. By far this is the source of my greatest outlay in medical expenses for my dogs, with annual HOLTER and echocardiogram heart screening for my three Dobermans alone costing well over a thousand dollars each year.

For a pet owner, the cost of a dog’s medical treatment will, ultimately, depend on how healthy the animal remains throughout its life. Due diligence before buying a dog can save a lot of expense and heartache by staying away from high-risk breeds and breeding practices. A “cheap” dog from a rescue, bred without thought or care by some careless pet owner may end up, at life’s end, having cost much more than a well-bred and costly purebred dog from a reputable breeder. Allergies, stomach disorders, and skin issues are all easily controlled by good breeding and rarely if ever seen in well-bred dogs, and yet they are common complaints at the veterinarian’s office. There is a myth that mixed breed dogs are somehow healthier than purebreds, often erroneously blamed on inbreeding, when, in fact, the chances of obtaining a dog with health issues are much higher when purchasing a dog from carelessly bred, unhealth-tested stock.

So, the first step in making a decision about the worth of pet insurance for each pet owner is a realistic look at the present and future health issues facing your pet. There are some breeds which are healthier than others due to the priorities of their breeders. Some dogs are actually bred for characteristics which cause health issues, such as the foreshortened muzzle of the Boston terrier and French and English bulldog. Some are bred for excessive skin folds and wrinkles which can cause eye and skin issues requiring surgery, such as Shar Pei, chows, French mastiffs, and Neapolitan Mastiffs. And many a dachshund owner has paid thousands of dollars for back surgeries to alleviate the suffering of a ruptured disk in the overly long-backed breed.

Like human health insurance, pet insurance has a wide variety of ranges in coverage, deductables, co-pays, maximum coverage, add-ons, ease, and quickness of payout. And like human insurance, there are choices of coverages based on price, annual limit of coverage, and percentage covered.

I took a look at a few of the top-rated pet insurance companies to see what they had to offer. I used two dogs of different sex, age, and breed to compare the cost between a breed considered “unhealthy” (Doberman) and “healthy” (Labrador). Results were as follows:

The first I looked at, Farmers Insurance, offered a free quote online but warned that your email address (required) would be used to send you information from a plethora of companies; for this reason, I skipped them.

Second, I checked out “Lemonade” which got good reviews—but alas is not available in our area yet. Third, SPOT, a well-reviewed company that offers between 70 and 90 percent reimbursement on eligible bills. They offer plans which do cover annual exams (as an add-on) and even offer a 24-hour hotline to call and speak with “veterinary experts” who will answer questions on “pet health, behavior, and wellness” at no additional charge.

SPOT’s “recommended” coverage for a male, three-year-old Doberman runs $58.62 a month with a $250 deductible, a $4,000 annual limit and 80 percent reimbursement. The same price was offered for a one-year-old female Labrador. This coverage covers no breeding costs, no pre-existing conditions, no wellness checks or vaccinations and no health screenings.

Third: “Pumpkin” pet insurance offered $20,000 annual limit with 90 percent reimbursement and a $500 deductable for $96.84 a month for the Doberman and $80.29 for the Labrador.

Fourth, Trupanion, a pet insurance company based out of Seattle, offers a wide variety of coverage, everything from surgeries, hospital stays, medications, diagnostic tests, and prosthetic devices and carts, but again does not offer coverage for basic care, vaccinations, de-sexing, microchips, or dental work. Their “recommended” coverage for my two sample dogs would run $153.08 a month with a $200 deductable at 90 percent reimbursement.

Last, and least, was the American Kennel Club (AKC) insurance. While they offered relatively low prices—$53 monthly for the Doberman and $42.50 for the Labrador—this hardly makes up for the usual difficulty of dealing with anything AKC. The American Kennel Club universally exasperates dog breeders and owners who go to their website to simply register their dogs. The insurance website was no different, and it also had that well-known AKC trait of trying to add on items in a rather “quiet” way, seemingly so you will not notice until after checkout. As much as I’d like to recommend the AKC (as a breeder of purebred dogs) I cannot; there are better choices.

The question of pet insurance is one every pet owner should consider, just to see if it fits well with their needs and their budget. For me, I would rather rely on owning healthy dogs, saving up for emergencies, and having a good, trusting relationship with a local veterinarian who understands that in some cases payments may be necessary. It is foolhardy to wait until your pet is seriously injured to introduce yourself to a veterinarian and then expect them to provide hundreds or thousands of dollars of care without payment. I think the very best insurance is a good, caring veterinarian with which you have a long-term relationship based on trust.