Americans spend more than $15 billion annually keeping their pets healthy, according to statistics from the American Pet Products Association, and an emergency room visit or operation for a dog or cat easily can run thousands of dollars. That's where pet health insurance comes in, but it has some basic differences with human health plans. Nevertheless, says Dr. Rene Baumer of Metairie Small Animal Hospital, pet insurance is always a good idea. "The No. 1 limiting factor for treating dogs and cats is financial constraints," Baumer says, adding that only 10 to 12 percent of his patients are insured.
Some tips for getting health insurance for your furbutts:
Not all pet insurance is created equal. Among the companies that insure pets are Trupanion, Healthy Paws, Petplan, Pets Best, Embrace and Pawbamacare. Baumer's office recommends Trupanion, which he says covers 90 percent of pet medical care after a deductible is met. Check with your own vet to see which plan he/she recommends.
Insure young. Some plans don't take older animals; others won't insure pre-existing conditions. In general, the younger and healthier your pet, the less expensive monthly premiums will be.
Your pet likely will need an exam. It varies by insurance company, but most will want proof of an exam in order for you to file a claim. If your pet has been examined in the last year or so, that may be good enough. Check with your vet or insurance company.
Policies generally are inexpensive. Depending on the deductible you choose, the monthly cost of insuring a pet can run in the range of $20-$50. The final determination involves several factors, including the pet's age, breed and where you live.
Pet insurance likely won't cover basic care. Rabies shots, checkups and other routine vet visits probably won't be covered. Insurance does kick in for more expensive, specialized needs like MRIs, X-rays, chemotherapy and other cancer treatments.
There's generally a waiting period between the time you purchase insurance and when it kicks in. Trupanion, for instance, has a five-day waiting period for injuries and a 30-day waiting period for illnesses (as long as it's determined it wasn't a pre-existing condition).
There's no such thing as "out-of-network" veterinarians. Most if not all pet insurance companies let you choose your own vet.
Ask if the insurance pays the doctor directly. Find out if you're going to pay out of pocket for the vet bill while you wait to be reimbursed, or if the insurance company will pay the vet directly, leaving you only to pay any deductible or percentage.
Consider where you live. Louisiana dogs may be more prone to skin and ear problems than dogs in drier or colder climates, for instance. Those generally would be covered by insurance.
To insurers, a cat is a cat is a cat. While indoor cats tend to live longer lives, don't expect a break on insurance compared to an indoor-outdoor or outdoor cat. The price stays the same.
Beware breed restrictions. Baumer says various policies may not cover well-known problems with particular breeds. For instance, Cavalier King Charles spaniels are prone to heart disease; a plan that specifically excludes heart problems in those dogs would not be useful. Check with your insurer and your vet to make sure the plan fits your animal's breed.
Health insurance is strongly recommended for certain breeds. Baumer has dachshunds, and says they're prone to back problems over their lifetime. Other dogs that might particularly benefit from insurance include larger breeds (Great Danes, for instance, consume far more medicine than smaller dogs) and the "brachycephalic" (short-nosed and/or flat-faced) breeds such as bulldogs, boxers, Boston terriers, Bullmastiffs, Lhasa Apsos, Pekingese, pugs and Shih Tzus, which are prone to breathing problems.
Understand pet insurance deductibles. Pet insurance deductibles vary in two ways from human health insurance, according to Baumer. First, a deductible doesn't reset every year; it's good for the lifetime of the animal. Second, each deductible is tied to a specific condition, rather than the pet as a whole. For instance, if you've met your deductible for skin conditions and the pet then develops a non-skin-related malady, that's a separate deductible. If you have any questions about this, consult your veterinarian or insurance company.
For those in need: The Humane Society of the United States has a list of pet-related financial need organizations on its website. While animal welfare groups don't subsidize pet insurance, they can guide you to low-cost assistance for general care like spay/neuter, vaccinations, pet food, supplies and other necessities.
Last word: "It's a no-brainer," Baumer says. "I wish 100 percent of my patients had pet insurance."