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Unexpected Veterinary Costs Pack a Punch

Should you buy pet health insurance? The purchase came in handy for one Lake Forest resident after her dog suffered a bout of pancreatitis.

My friend Gina has Flat-Coated Retrievers. Flat-Coats are energetic and fun-loving—they are nicknamed the “Peter Pan” of dogs—but they have one very big downside: they are prone to cancer. Gina’s 7-year-old Flat-Coat McKenzie was diagnosed last month with malignant histiocytosis. It’s an aggressive form of cancer that progresses rapidly, and dogs diagnosed with it generally have a poor prognosis.

Luckily for McKenzie, she has two things going for her. The disease was caught in the very early stages, during her twice-yearly wellness exam, and Gina had pet health insurance that covered the diagnostics and chemotherapy for McKenzie’s disease--$3,000 and counting.

In the past, I haven’t been a huge fan of pet health insurance. Often, it didn’t cover the heritable conditions that can affect pets, such as MH in Flat-Coats, mitral valve disease in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels or hip dysplasia in German Shepherd Dogs. My dogs don’t live in an environment where they might be prone to accidents, such as being hit by a car or finding something poisonous, and the costs of managing their old-age problems and mitral valve disease have been within reach so far. For myself, I’m more a fan of setting aside the amount I would spend in premiums to cover any unexpected veterinary bills or of getting an interest-free Care Credit loan if necessary.

For Certain Breeds, Insurance May Make More Sense 

But if I had a breed that was prone to cancer or to orthopedic problems that might require expensive surgical repair, you can bet that pet health insurance would be a priority purchase for me. When my Greyhound was diagnosed with bone cancer in 1996, the cost for amputation of her leg, followed by chemotherapy, was approximately $6,000, and I’m sure that the cost would be the same or higher now.

As with any insurance purchase, it’s smart to do some research and cost comparisons beforehand. I recently got a couple of quotes for Harper, just to see what the options were.

There are now pet health insurance plans that cover heritable diseases, but not all of them are equal. For instance, one only covers pets that are signed up before their second birthday and only up to $750. That might cover the diagnosis—if you’re lucky. The other plan I looked at seemed much better. For an annual premium of $313 (the cost after a 5 percent discount for paying annually instead of monthly), plus a $500 deductible and a 20 percent copay, it pays for accidents and illness up to $5,000 per year and did not put any restrictions on coverage of heritable diseases. It did not cover wellness visits, dental care or prescriptions, but other plans are available that do. You can also purchase a plan with more accident and illness coverage, for a higher fee, of course.

Weigh Your Finances To Make the Right Decision

Lake Forest resident Pam Becker faced an $1,100 veterinary bill after her 11-year-old dog Bentley suffered a serious bout of pancreatitis—inflammation of the pancreas—last year. She has pet health insurance and was reimbursed $627. The annual premium for Bentley’s insurance is $380.

“I’m glad that I have the coverage, but you really have to look at a comparison,” Becker says. “Like all insurance, it’s very complicated.”

The bottom line is whether you could afford a big veterinary bill if it came along. Bichon Frise owners Dave and Anne Grenier of Billerica, Massachusetts, didn’t have pet health insurance when their dog Hayley May developed an autoimmune disease that ended up requiring a two-week hospital stay, eight blood transfusions and round-the-clock monitoring in the intensive care unit. They were prepared to sell their car or mortgage their home if necessary to cover the more-than-$12,000 bill, but not everyone can do that.

Questions to consider are whether your pet is susceptible to an expensive health problem, lives in an environment where it runs the risk of being hit by a car or suffering some other serious trauma, or has hazardous habits such as eating rocks or hand towels, and whether you would have to make the decision to euthanize your dog or cat if you couldn’t afford treatment. If the answer to any of those is yes, pet health insurance is probably a good buy. To save money, choose a plan that covers only accidents and illness, not normal veterinary expenses such as annual exams, flea treatment or heartworm preventive.  If you have the discipline and dollars to set aside money monthly for unexpected veterinary bills or can afford to put the charges on a credit card and pay them off in a reasonable time frame, then self-insurance is the way to go.

As for McKenzie, six weeks after she was diagnosed and began chemotherapy, her tumors have regressed to the point where they can barely be seen. She will continue on chemotherapy for the rest of her life, but that life will now almost certainly be longer than the original prognosis of six months.

Are you interested in adopting a pet?

Look no further than Powder, Orange County Animal Care's Pet of the Week. Powder is a white, fluffy, 6 year old Bichon Frise mix. According to shelter employees, Powder is a fun-loving canine who is looking "extra handsome" these days thanks to a recent grooming by an OC Animal Care volunteer. Shelter employees says that he may be 6 years old, but has lots of energy and love to share. Meet Powder today and make this sweet boy a part of your family! His pet ID is A1163797.

Gina Spadafori April 18, 2012 at 05:17 PM
McKenzie's policy is with Embrace. I went with the highest deductible available ($1K per year) to keep the premium costs down, and 80 percent of EVERYTHING has been covered after the deductible was cleared. Fast turnaround, too: Reimbursements in my checking account within 48 hours. Look at all plans and figure what's best for you and your pet. My dog would not be alive were it not for her oncologist and pet health insurance, and that's a fact. Instead, she is perfectly normal, surviving and thriving with cancer.
Sarah de Crescenzo (Editor) April 18, 2012 at 05:32 PM
Gina, thanks for sharing your story! I'm so glad that McKenzie is doing well. It sounds like pet insurance was a great investment for your family.
Gina Spadafori April 18, 2012 at 05:55 PM
Thank, Sarah! One more thought about pet health insurance. I was talking to someone about my experience, and he pointed out that this is a very young industry. Lots of changes since it started, and the companies are not at all alike. With car insurance, you'll get roughly the same thing from one company to another. That's not true with pet health insurance. The different companies have different visions of how this coverage works best. I don't think there's a "wrong" answer overall, but each pet-owner needs to compare companies, plans and (as Kim so wisely points out) the more probably and likely kinds of illness and accidents. Then select a company and a plan accordingly. I use three different companies (I have three dogs and one cat) and researched before choosing the best matches. My pets are family, and I love having them covered so I don't have to choose euthanasia when good veterinary care can save a life. Thanks for a great article, Kim!
Andy April 18, 2012 at 08:14 PM
Great article ... a lot of times people hear about a product or service and immediately get excited; it's good to have reviews like this. I would never let anything happen to my pets, of course I have insurance. I don't like the deductibles, though, so I also got something called Pet Assure, which basically gives me a discount at the vet so even the first $500 a year I get 25% off :)
Nick Quotes April 24, 2012 at 03:14 AM
Pet health insurance can be complicated but it's a necessity for any dog or cat owner who would pay any amount of money to treat their pet. I encourage anybody to visit www.petinsurancequotes.com to learn more about pet insurance and get free quotes from all the top companies in real-time.
Sonya Simpkins May 02, 2012 at 04:21 PM
Supplements that help fight diseases such as cancer can also be very helpful for dogs that are prone to cancer. Here is an article on Reishi mushroom, which has proven to be a very powerful aid to fight canine cancer. http://www.ilovedogs.com/2012/05/fight-canine-cancer-with-reishi/

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