Finding the right pet insurance policy is a lot like housebreaking a puppy: It takes time, patience and knowledge. In fact, with terms such as per condition, per year, lifetime coverage, time limited, coverage reset, direct claims and accident only flying around, researching pet insurance can leave you feeling frazzled. But if this makes you want to hide in a corner and whimper, fear not!
What Is Pet Insurance?
Let's start at the beginning and ask "What is pet insurance?" Pet insurance helps cover the cost of veterinary treatment for your sick or injured animal. You pay a monthly contribution to the insurance company and in return the company covers treatment expenses up to a certain limit. Think of insurance as protection against the unexpected, because it does not cover routine health care such as vaccinations, worming and neutering.
One Size Does Not Fit All
Not all pet insurance policies are equal; some are high-end while others are bargain basement. When taking out a policy, you must weigh the quality of the product against its value. In simple terms, you get what you pay for.
Basic Coverage or Complete Peace of Mind?
If your pet is ill and you make a claim, the amount of money the insurance company is prepared to pay out is known as the "level of coverage." This seems simple enough, until you look at the details.Three factors combine to shape the policy:
- How much money is in your pot? (the level of coverage)
- Does the pot refill every year? (lifetime coverage vs. time limited)
- Does each illness have its own pot of money? (Coverage per condition vs. a communal pot)
If you desire complete peace of mind about your pet, then you need a policy that pays out for each condition over the entirety of the pet's life. There is perhaps nothing more upsetting than assuming you have coverage in place, only to discover the policy only covers a long-term condition for the remainder of that year.
An example of this is a patient I treated recently. Poppy is a 4-year-old Labrador. She had a subtle front leg lameness. Screening radiographs suggested elbow dysplasia, but the lameness was mild so the owner decided to wait and see what happened. All was well for about 9 months, and then Poppy took a turn for the worse.
Poppy needed to see an orthopedic specialist; but to her owner's horror, Poppy's insurance no longer covered her treatment. Because a claim had been made the previous insurance year, there was now a lameness exclusion in the contract. Poppy's owner was distraught. She would have happily taken out a more comprehensive policy if she'd understood the implications in the first place.
Timed-Limited vs. Lifetime Coverage
To understand the difference between time-limited and lifetime coverage, let's take another example. Let's say your dog starts drinking a lot of water and having urinary accidents. You take her to the vet, who runs tests and discovers your dog has a bladder infection. The cystitis is treated with antibiotics and clears up. You submit an insurance claim and the costs are reimbursed within two weeks.
Your insurance policy is doing exactly what you expected. However, contrast this with a different scenario:
Your dog starts drinking a lot of water and wetting herself at night. This time, tests show your dog has sugar diabetes or diabetes mellitus. After the initial shock, you are reassured to learn that the condition can be controlled with regular insulin injections, which are needed for the rest of her life. Everything goes smoothly until the end of your policy year approaches. Along with your renewal reminder comes a letter saying coverage for diabetes is about to end.
Suddenly, you remember. Your previous dogs were healthy right to the end, so pet insurance hardly seemed necessary, let alone lifetime coverage. Now you have to pay the cost of monitoring, insulin, needles, syringes and check-ups out of your own pocket.
There are numerous conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, Cushing's disease, and renal failure where a great deal can be done to sustain health, but at a price. Lifetime coverage policies insulate you from those ongoing costs, but this is reflected in the purchase price of the policy.
Will Insurance Cover Everything?
If you want to know your pet health expenses will be accounted for whatever the future holds, make sure that your policy covers everything you need. However, it is standard practice for insurance companies to apply "exclusions" to a policy. This include things such as:
- Pre-existing conditions: If your dog is already on heart meds, it is unlikely an insurer will cover that condition because it existed before you took out the policy.
- Breed-specific conditions: For example, breeds such as the Shar Pei are so likely to develop skin conditions that many insurance companies exclude coverage for skin disease.
- Two-week wait before coverage is activated: If your dog started vomiting yesterday, it is no good insuring her today. Most policies apply a "quarantine" period whereby illness that develops during that time is not covered.
- Preventive care: Insurance does not cover preventive health care such as vaccination, worming and neutering.
Decide On Your Perfect Policy
You will need to balance your expectations against your personal budget. It is helpful to first write down your priorities. Factors to consider include:
- Lifetime coverage for each condition vs. cover for one year only
- A single pot of money for everything vs. a pot of money for each condition
- Accident-only coverage
Ultrasound, in-house blood tests, MRI scans -- these days there is so much that can be done for sick or injured animals, but this technology all costs money. If you want to avoid the heart-breaking scenario of knowing a treatment exists but being unable to afford the cost, then pet insurance could be the way for you.
At first glance, the pet insurance market can seem complicated. But it's worth persevering for the sake of your pet, and a independent agent can help you find the best policy to fit your needs.