Dog Health Insurance… Getting Fido Covered Can Be a Lifesaver!

Originally appearing in the May 2016 Issue of ShowSight. CLICK TO SUBSCRIBE.

Many of you may remember that last year my veteran bitch tore her cruciate ligament and I spent a few columns discussing surgery and rehabilitation. As if dealing with that injury once isn’t bad enough, dogs that tear one almost always go on to tear the other. I had hoped that my bitch could be one of the special few and tried to keep her exercise controlled, but on Christmas Eve she came up lame on her other hind leg. Shortly after New Year’s we drove down to her orthopedic surgeon (yup—I don’t even have a general practitioner, but my dog has her own orthopedic surgeon) for TPLO number two. She has gone through rehab again and we are once again getting back to a normal routine!

One of the things that this adventure has driven home to me is the value of pet health insurance. My mom and I hemmed and hawed about it for years, putting it off and making excuses because researching insurance and adding to the list of bills to pay is pretty low on the Fun Things To Do list. But in the summer of 2014 we finally buckled down and signed the dogs up. After about $10,000 in surprise vet bills for one dog in 2015, we are so glad we did!

Things to consider when choosing a pet insurance company or policy are coverage, limits, deductibles, reimbursement and customer service. There are a lot of companies out there, each with different pluses and minuses. As onerous as the task may be, it is worth it to dedicate the time to figuring out which company and plan is best for you and your dogs. You may even end up finding that one company is best for one dog’s situation while another is best for another dog.

Coverage is the big factor—what does the plan cover and, perhaps more importantly, what are the exclusions? Injury coverage is fairly standard, but illness can be dicey if the problem is or might be an inherited defect. Some plans don’t cover any heritable health issues, while others cover some or all. Know what health problems your breed or lines might be prone to and be sure to find out if those conditions are covered in a given plan. If your dog has already had a health problem, be aware of the plan’s policy on pre-existing conditions before signing up.

Most plans focus on illness and injuries, but some also include coverage for routine care and/or prescription drugs. Some offer add-ons for these types of coverage so that you can choose if you want just illness/injury coverage, illness and injury with prescription drugs, etc.

As members of the dog fancy, most of us have intact dogs, which is yet another coverage consideration. Some plans offer discounts for spayed/neutered dogs and a few won’t even accept intact dogs. Costs associated with breeding are usually not covered, but a few companies are starting to offer options.

If possible, it is best to get health insurance before your dog has a problem and while they are as young as possible. My bitch was 9 at the time that we signed our dogs up and that drastically limited her options—many plans had drastically higher rates for a senior dog and others wouldn’t have covered anything other than traumatic injury because of her age. Getting the insurance early also ensures that you won’t have any pesky pre-existing conditions to worry about. Even after applying, plans often have waiting periods for coverage. This is especially true of orthopedic problems. The waiting periods can often be waived if your dog is examined by a veterinarian or, in the case of orthopedics, has
OFA clearances.

Limits can be annual, lifetime, per condition, or non-existent. None of us anticipate major or ongoing health problems for our dogs, but the what-ifs are good to have in the back of your mind. With annual limits, pay attention to whether they follow the calendar year or start at the date that your policy begins.

The deductible is the amount that you pay. Deductibles are usually annual (the first $500 of applicable vet bills in a given year are paid by you, then the insurance kicks in), but some plans offer per-condition deductibles (you pay the first $500 for radiation therapy, then the insurance kicks in). The year may follow the calendar year, or might reset on the anniversary of your dog’s plan’s start date.

We all know about premiums—the fee that you pay, usually on a monthly basis, as your subscription to the plan. Premiums are determined based on your dog’s age, breed, current health status, where you live and what coverage and add-ons you want. Every pet insurance company that I checked out had a very pushy website front page asking for my pet’s info to get a free quote. Just plug in your info and voila—the monthly premium. It can be obnoxious, but does make it very easy to get an idea of how much a particular plan will cost for your dog and enables you to compare plans before making a decision.

Reimbursement usually comes to you after you pay the bill up front and then file the claim. A few companies will pay the veterinarian directly. Many have customizable plans that allow you to choose how much of the veterinary costs will be paid by the insurance, such as 70% or 90%. If you sign up for 90%, your premium will be a little higher but the insurance company will pay for 90% of your dog’s vet bills. With 70%, the premium will be lower but so will the amount that the insurance covers. It’s a matter of what your budget and preferences are.

While customer service doesn’t have as much impact on your wallet, it can have a big effect on your experience and peace of mind. Read reviews on unaffiliated sites to find out about how quickly a company responds to questions, if they work with owners on complicated issues and what the attitude of the company is. Some companies are great about swift response to emails, while others require a phone call for fast feedback.

Because my bitch was already signed up for health insurance, both of her surgeries and the rehab costs were covered under her plan (rehab is not always covered—we lucked out with our company!)Check out some different companies and see what looks best for you. Depending on your budget and situation, you may just want insurance as protection against the big things that might happen, or you might need the extra coverage for routine care. Pet health insurance is an annoyance when the dogs are healthy, but great to have when something goes wrong!  

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