Pet Medical Insurance

Questions to Ask Before You Buy a Pet Health Insurance Plan

By Kathleen Doheny
WebMD Pet Health Feature

Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S

Twenty years ago, if you suggested getting a pet health insurance policy, most pet owners would have taken it as a joke.

Not anymore. As veterinary treatments have gotten more advanced and sophisticated -- and vet bills for serious conditions can quickly add up to thousands -- buying pet health insurance is something to consider.

Don Klingborg, DVM, is associate dean for extension and public programs and director of the Center for Continuing Professional Education at the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. He tells WebMD that only about 5% of U.S. pet owners have pet insurance. But in other countries, he says, pet medical insurance has caught on among a much higher percentage of the population.

One reason for the difference is the trend is newer here. Pet insurance appeared only about 15 years ago, but it is slowly building. Today, there are a handful of companies and organizations, including ASPCA, that offer plans.

If you have a new kitten or puppy -- or an older pet about whose health you have concerns --here are some questions to consider before you buy a pet health insurance policy. And if you do decide to buy pet insurance, here are some tips you can use to help you choose a plan.

What is pet insurance?

"Pet insurance is very much like human insurance," says Jo Sullivan, executive vice president of external affairs for ASPCA, New York. She notes that the same general principles and array of options exist.

"Pets live longer and longer lives these days, thanks to advances in medical care," she says. As treatment options have become more sophisticated and more widely available, they've also become more expensive. Veterinarians now routinely perform hip replacements and administer cancer treatments, Sullivan says. "But longevity definitely comes with a price tag."

Which types of pets are covered by pet health insurance?

Pet insurance plans primarily are for dogs and cats, Sullivan says. She's not aware of any plans that cover more exotic or uncommon household pets, such as ferrets or snakes. "Everyone,” she says, “seems to be sticking to primary companion animals."

What services does pet health insurance cover?

Basic plans offer reimbursement for accident or illness expenses only. But there are plans that cover such routine needs as vaccinations. Coverage on some plans may include dental care, flea prevention, prescription medicines, and common medical screening tests, such as blood work, fecal examination, and urinalysis.

With all plans, there can be caps or limitations on coverage. For instance, a company may pay only up to a certain amount per incident of illness or per accident.

Sometimes, pre-existing conditions are excluded. "Some of the higher-quality programs will waive pre-existing," Sullivan says. Or a plan may not exclude a common pre-existing condition that requires fairly inexpensive treatments, she adds. Sullivan suggests that before you get a plan, you should ask about pre-existing condition coverage.