By Ann Eliopulos
Americans love their pets. In 2013, we spent $56 billion on them — more than we spent on carbonated soft drinks, but still less than we spent on beer. Of that $56 billion, almost $15 billion was spent on veterinary care, which means food, clothes, toys, bedding, training, grooming, boarding and live animal purchases made up the remaining amount.
Even if your dog or cat is not getting designer bedding, human-grade food and rhinestone-studded apparel, you can plan on spending at least $600 a year for each pet, and that is with only with the most basic veterinary care being provided. Once you factor in dental work, illness or emergencies, the cost can increase into the thousands.
While our economy is improving, unexpected veterinary expenses can prove challenging at all levels. It is the rare dog or cat that will not need yearly dental cleanings consistently after the age of 3 or 4, and they will likely have an illness or two along the way, too. Like us, as they age, they will probably need more veterinary care to maintain a good quality of life.
Many people do not consider the possibility of genetic problems, trauma, cancer, allergies, heart conditions or other diseases, and are faced with difficult and sometimes painful decisions when they occur. No one — including your veterinarian — ever wants to be in the position of not being able to help a sick animal because of money.
So what’s a pet owner to do when their companion gets sick and the estimate is more than you can afford? Well, once you are in that situation, the options are limited unless you have someone who can help, or a credit rating that will get you approved for one of the medical credit card options. The caveat is that you must have good credit or you will be denied, which can seem like a Catch-22 if finances are already a problem. And, if you can’t pay it back within the interest-free time period, the interest alone is staggering.
The pet insurance industry has taken off in response to our love for our pets and desire to keep them healthy and here for as long as possible. In California alone, it is projected that the amount spent on pet insurance will reach $750 million by 2015. Is it worth it? Do you get your money’s worth? Well, it depends on what company you choose and what you are hoping to get out of it.
Many people opt for plans that focus on wellness issues, such as vaccines, yearly exams and dental cleanings. While it is true that a thorough dental cleaning and evaluation is typically at least $500 – 600, I personally don’t think that this is a great reason to get pet insurance. Instead, I recommend factoring that into yearly expenses and budgeting for it. Plans that focus on the unexpected and pay out well when those occur are often worth the yearly cost because one accident or serious illness can break the bank, even for those who set money aside.
Pet insurance can be a scary proposition because it has been a largely unregulated industry, with misleading and confusing policies that result in unexpected veterinary expenses, denied claims and policy cancellations after payout. It’s no wonder that many pet owners have misgivings about whether or not to purchase pet insurance. I have been skeptical myself until the past few years, when I have seen good reimbursements and animals getting care that may not have been able to otherwise. Still, just as with our own health insurance, not all companies have great policies.
We are lucky to live in California, the first state to pass pet insurance disclosure legislation, AB 2056. The law will go into effect July 2015. This legislation requires insurers to clearly explain their policies to pet owners. Annual coverage limits and disqualifying pre-existing conditions must be delineated. Limitations involving coinsurance, waiting periods, deductibles and annual or lifetime policy limits must also be made clear. All companies will be required to provide a 30-day trial period to try out their insurance.
Anticipating this legislation, some companies have already begun providing 30-day trial periods. At our hospital, we strongly encourage people to try this. Often there is no charge from the companies offering this and no penalty for opting out after 30 days.
I recently talked a friend of mine into trying the policy we offer here, and within a few months, her new puppy got into some medication and became limp and almost unresponsive. Finances were a huge concern for her, but because she had insurance, she felt the freedom to approve everything that was recommended because she knew she could afford it under her policy. The puppy recovered, and she let me know that the policy paid for itself in one visit.
Imagine going to the veterinarian and not worrying about cost because there is a copay or percentage that will be covered. As a veterinarian and animal lover, I want to help every animal that crosses my path. Though I was more than a naysayer on the topic of pet insurance, I now believe that the companies who walk the walk will pave the way for every pet to get the care they deserve. And while I won’t put it in print, I’d be happy to tell you the company I stand behind if you shoot me an email.
—Ann Eliopulos is a veterinarian at Bodhi Animal Hospital. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.