Chocolate, a miniature dachshund receives acupuncture therapy from veterinarian Satoshi Okada to help with lumbar disk herniation, at the Marina Street Okada animal hospital on April 12, 2013 in Tokyo Japan
Adam Pretty / Staff / Getty Images News / Getty Images CC

Pet Insurance: Is It Worth the Price?

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Chocolate, a miniature dachshund receives acupuncture therapy from veterinarian Satoshi Okada to help with lumbar disk herniation, at the Marina Street Okada animal hospital on April 12, 2013 in Tokyo Japan
Adam Pretty / Staff / Getty Images News / Getty Images CC

Covering Pet Medical Costs

Pets are members of the family, especially the feline and canine varieties. When they're hungry we feed them and when they're sick we take care of them. And when a medical emergency arises we do what must be done and worry about the bill, which can skyrocket into the thousands of dollars, later. Some dog and cat owners opt for pet insurance to cover such contingencies. But this product, too, comes at a hefty price.

We queried five pet insurance providers about why cat and dog owners might consider insurance, what they can do to minimize the cost of premiums, and what fine print to watch out for.

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Cat at the vet
AnnaStills/istockphoto

Why Pet Insurance Pays

The first question owners should ask is whether to buy pet insurance at all. Although pet insurance providers have an obvious bias towards an affirmative answer, they do offer several persuasive reasons why it might be a good idea. For one thing, more than one-third of household pets become sick or injured in the course of a year, noted Laura Bennett, CEO of Embrace Pet Insurance. And, added Jessica Calise, marketing manager at PetPartners, the cost of one emergency vet visit could easily top $1,000. Pet insurance, then, provides a type of security that lets owners make healthcare decisions based on medical necessity rather than what their budget allows, argued Chris and Natasha Ashton, co-founders at Petplan Insurance.

Related: The Best Cheap Dog Food

Happy dog sits near owner using laptop
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Premiums Can Vary

Pet insurance premiums are paid monthly or annually, the latter often offered at a slight discount. The cost varies depending on factors such as type of animal, age, breed, and place of residence, and on the extent of coverage, the size of the deductible, and the percent reimbursed (vet bills are typically paid upfront).

Related: The Easiest and Hardest Dog Breeds to Train

Maltese
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Different Dogs Have Different Costs

For example, the price of insuring a 6-week-old Maltese mix in New York City through one of the providers we interviewed ranges from nearly $22 a month to $63; the lower rate covers up to $10,000 a year in expenses with a $200 annual deductible and 80 percent reimbursement; the higher rate covers up to $22,000 in annual expenses and miscellaneous outlays — e.g., $500 towards boarding, $500 to advertise a lost animal and/or pay a reward — with a $50 deductible and full reimbursement. Another provider charges $15 a month for a one-month, mixed breed male cat (also living in New York City) on a plan that includes a $5,000 annual maximum, a $500 deductible, an 80 percent reimbursement rate, and coverage for prescription drugs; choosing a $200 deductible would push up the monthly fee to $24, while wellness coverage would add $15 a month.

Related: How to Save Money at the Vet

Professional vet giving an injection to a cat, the owner is cuddling the pet
demaerre/istockphoto

Some Plans Include Check-Ups and Shots

Upscale plans open the door to coverage for prescriptions, annual checkups, and shots; dental cleaning often can be added for an extra fee, and ditto for coverage of chronic and hereditary conditions (on the order of $50 a month with some providers). Some insurers argue that a plan that includes hereditary and chronic conditions is a better value than an economy plan with restrictions.

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Disabled dog
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Lower Costs Are Possible

As evidenced by the examples above, the best way to lower the cost of a plan is to accept a higher deductible and lower reimbursement rate. PetsBest offers a $9 per month accidents-only plan for dogs and a $6 per month accidents-only plan for cats. Another way to save is to bypass a sign-up fee, as Petplan does.

Cat in the veterinary collar falls asleep on the bed
LENblR/istockphoto

Another Reason to Spay and Neuter

Spaying or neutering a pet also lowers the cost of pet insurance, as is covering several pets at the same time (the family-plan approach). And if rising premiums become an issue, Dr. Jack Stephens, president of Pets Best Insurance, recommends speaking with the insurance provider before canceling. Most providers don't cover pre-existing illnesses, so trying to switch providers by canceling and then re-signing at a later date with the original carrier can prove even more costly.

Related: Petco vs. Petsmart Comparison

The doctor does an ultrasound examination of the cat's abdomen, an animal on the operating table, a doctor and a patient, a veterinary clinic
nakleyschikova/istockphoto

Read the Fine Print

Before choosing a pet insurer, it's important to check the fine print. A wellness option may set yearly allowances for certain services, a dental rider may exclude X-rays or crowns, and the deductible may not cover exam fees. Pet owners should carefully scrutinize plan restrictions related to specific breeds, conditions (e.g., cancer), or even animal age. Additionally, some providers don't cover costs for weekend emergencies or specialty vets even though their expertise may be necessary. Adam Fell, a spokesperson for VPI, suggests that owners look for plans with an annual deductible rather than one that imposes a deductible for each incident. Dr. Stephens also urges owners to shop for an insurance company that reimburses based on the vet's actual bill rather than a benefit schedule or a UCR (usual, customary, and reasonable), which both pay a pre-determined amount. He also advises owners to inquire about how quickly insurance companies pay claims.

Vet and Labrador retriever
THEPALMER/istockphoto

The Bottom Line

Bottom line: As with any type of insurance, tolerance for risk has a big impact on decisions about coverage. Cost plays a role, too, and pet owners need to weigh what they can afford emotionally and financially.

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