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?
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