Pet Insurance

Animal Chatter By Iris Winston

Being ready to give your pet the best possible care

Both animals are gone now, but not without years of tender loving care. Tori, a cross between a Golden Retriever and a Great Pyrenees, died at 10. Storm – one blue and one green eye – was a stray who arrived on a stormy night and was about 14 when he died (he was an adult when he arrived so we were unsure of his age) – both had cancer.

Adopting a cuddly puppy or kitten is the beginning of a loving relationship. And, as with the entry of any new member of the family, the love is accompanied by a long list of responsibilities.

You know that providing quality food, a comfortable bed, toys and, of course, preventative medical care can be costly, but you have already included $3,000 or more (the average annual cost of caring for a dog) in your budget. (Cat care is generally considerably less, although cats usually live longer than dogs.)

The next question to be addressed is whether or not to invest in pet insurance. As with any type of insurance, costs vary according to the precise coverage and are generally focused on major, unexpected expenses. For instance, auto mobile insurance deals primarily with damage through accidents, vandalism and fire. House insurance is mainly invoked in cases of fire, flood and burglary.

With pet insurance coverage, the primary concerns are major medical issues and injuries that stand apart from routine veterinary care. If an animal is struck down by a life-threatening form of cancer or kidney disease, for example, the cost of care can be prohibitive for some owners. And as my daughter — a veterinary specialist, used to having patients who need very expensive treatment and surgery — emphasizes, an owner should never be in the heart-breaking position of the high cost of necessary surgery or ongoing treatment being the deciding factor on whether the animal lives or dies. With insurance coverage, the best veterinary care is within reach at a small percentage of its actual cost.

However, for many people, there is also the question of whether the insurance premiums are similarly within reach on a continuing basis. The premiums vary widely according to the age, breed and size of the animal and the type of coverage purchased. The many different companies offer very different types of coverage and varying deductibles. Some include dental procedures and wellness care in the list of insured services. Others are restricted to major illnesses, limb breaks and foreign body ingestion.

I was reminded yesterday just how expensive the last can be. Apparently, a child in the household in question had offered the family dog a spoon covered in peanut butter and the dog had swallowed the spoon rather than just licking it clean. The cost of the surgery and subsequent veterinary care needed to save the dog’s life was close to $5,000. Some pet insurance plans would have covered 80 to 90 per cent of the amount in this type of situation.

The good news about pet insurance is that you are buying peace of mind against major unexpected veterinary expenses. But, according to a recent President’s Choice Financial poll, a large majority of pet owners choose to take the chance that their pets will not face major illness or injury. Currently, fewer than five per cent of pet owners in Canada carry pet insurance of any kind.

Instead of buying insurance, some pet owners set up interest-bearing savings accounts designated to cover veterinary expenses. The intent is to save at least the amount that would have been their pet insurance premiums each month and, if they are very disciplined, this can be a good start in preparing for a pet’s medical crisis.

The alternate way to be ready is through insurance. Ideally, owners who decide to purchase pet insurance should do it when their animals are young and healthy. Just as older human beings pose a greater risk to companies selling them life insurance, so are older animals more likely to contract certain diseases and therefore premiums are going to be higher. Similarly, if a certain breed of dog has a genetic predisposition to a particular condition or disease, this is reflected in an increased premium. Further, preexisting conditions would not be covered at all. Most insurers require a vet’s confirmation of the health of the animal to be insured within a specified number of months of the insurance being purchased.

Assuming that the animal is found to be in good health, the average premium for a dog in Canada ranges from $30 to $100 a month. Monthly premiums for a cat average between $20 and $40. Costs are lower or higher depending on the degree of coverage, the size of the deductible and whether or not there is an annual ceiling on claim amounts. Some companies raise the premium as the animal ages. Others do not change the rate after initial purchase. Beginning insurance coverage for an older animal is much more costly and again may increase further as the animal ages.

There are several reputable pet insurance companies and it is wise to shop around. Check with your veterinarian and be very clear about the coverage you want and its cost, now and later, before signing on to pay a continuing monthly premium. Note in particular whether an insurance company insures for certain conditions only. Similarly, you should avoid signing on to caps on coverage for each condition. A cap of $2,500 or even $5,000 may sound good, but if your pet needs emergency or specialist care, it may not be nearly enough. The best plans are those that cover a percentage of the bill (preferably 80 per cent or more) with no limitation per condition. These plans may have higher premiums but would pay off in the long run.

Whether you choose to insure or to save privately, the most important thing is to be ready to give your beloved pet the best possible care throughout his life.

Almonte, Ontario writer, Iris Winston, is a former Executive Director of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies. She has been an animal lover all her life. Her pets have always been important members of her family.