Pet Insurance: The Next Big Thing?

 

Pet health insurance is gaining momentum. It’s already common in the United Kingdom where 12 percent of pet owners use it as a hedge against rising vet bills spurred by increasingly sophisticated technology and treatment. Though available in the United States for decades, the practice only took off here five years ago when insurance reps began selling direct to consumers as well as their vets.

Today, about 1 percent of 136 million dogs and cats in the United States enjoy the benefits of pet insurance. Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI), Petshealth, PetCare, Pet Assure, Pet Protect, and Hartville Group are among the growing ranks of providers.

Like people plans, pet policies come in many flavors. Traditional Blue Cross/Blue Shield-type plans enable customers to use their own veterinarian. Pet HMOs may include local docs. Discount clubs exchange an annual fee for a 10- to 30-percent discount on vet services, training, boarding, and animal health and grooming products.

”Each plan has its pros and cons, and each must be carefully examined —especially the fine print—so that you can select a plan that’s best for your pet,” says veterinarian Debbye Turner.

Operating much like human health insurance, though at a fraction of the cost, premiums for basic pet accident coverage and first-time illnesses can range from less than $100 to just over $1,000 a year, depending on enrollment age, species, breed and region. Family plans are available for multiple pets. Deductibles may run from $40 to $100 per ailment or incident, though programs with zero deductibles exist.

Of course comprehensive coverage costs more. For example, “For anywhere upwards of $25 to $30 a month for a cat, or $50 to $55 a month for a dog, you can have coverage for up to $7,500 per event for all accidents and illnesses known to the dog and cat world,” says Mark Warren, president of PetCare Pet Insurance. Companies like his offer a wide range of options and cover holistic treatments as well.

Figures published by VPI, the largest pet insurer in the country, show that domestic cat and dog medical costs average $1,000+ for things like infections or ingestion of a foreign body and up to $5,000 to $6,000 for catastrophic problems like hip dysplasia, cancer or a road accident. Cost of treating a leg fracture falls somewhere in the middle.

Coverage is not limited to our larger, four-legged friends. Birds, rabbits, guinea pigs and snakes also qualify as long as they are 6- to 12-weeks old. Avian care for the 300 bird species kept as pets also is on the rise.

Buyers will do well to stick with proven companies since as many as 30 new pet insurers have come and gone in the past 25 years. As with any purchase, securing a referral from a trustworthy source or two is a good way to go.

BY S. ALISON CHABONAIS

Sources: www.VetMedicine.about.com; www.CBSnews.com; www.PetTravel.com.

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