Uncovered: The confusing world of pet insurance

In this installation of his column, Dr. Mike Fietz counsels on pet insurance. In this installation of his column, Dr. Mike Fietz counsels on pet insurance.

For all the joy that animals bring into our lives, the stress of having a sick or injured pet can take a toll. Worrying about a pet’s welfare can be taxing enough, but the financial burden of diagnostics and treatment can add another layer of strain. Pet insurance can help dull the blow of unexpected illness, but it isn’t right for everybody.

Pet insurance doesn’t necessarily result in cost savings for the policy holder, nor is it specifically intended to. If a pet stays fairly healthy throughout its lifetime, an insurance plan may wind up costing more than the care it covers. If that same pet requires an emergency surgery or a long hospital stay, the math may turn out more favorably. But that’s just the nature of insurance. The point is to spend a predictable and manageable amount of money to hedge against the unexpected. As with human medical insurance, the healthy subsidize the sick.

There are differences, however. For better or worse, human medical insurance is tightly woven into the fabric of health care. You flash your card and pay a small copay, and the remaining negotiations happen behind the scenes. With pet insurance, you still have to pay for the entire visit up front. After that, you file your claim and hopefully get reimbursed. It works out in the end, but the process can create a window of financial strain while things process.

Instead of paying monthly premiums to an insurance provider, another option is to contribute the equivalent amount to a personal fund—sort of a homegrown health savings account for your pet. This keeps the money more flexible and immediately available but comes with an obvious catch. If a medical emergency arises before enough money has accumulated, you may be left short.

If you decide that pet insurance is the way to go, it remains vital to do research into plans and options because it is pretty much the Wild West. Some plans only cover accidents and illnesses and leave you on your own for routine preventive care like check-ups and vaccines. Others may exclude certain conditions or treatments like behavioral problems or dental care. It is likewise important to consider what illnesses might be common in your pet’s breed to ensure that you select a plan that covers them.

And while you’re considering all that, keep in mind that the clock is ticking. Pet insurance doesn’t cover pre-existing conditions, so once problems start cropping up, you’re on the hook for them. To get full coverage, you’ll need to commit while your pet is still healthy.

Pet insurance remains relatively uncommon, and only a small number of my clients use it. But I have certainly seen cases where they were glad they did. When a cat suddenly finds herself with a urethral obstruction from bladder stones, or an otherwise healthy retriever blows out his knee at the dog park, insurance can prevent a medical emergency from becoming a financial one. I just wish it was all simpler.

Dr. Mike Fietz is a small animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003 and has lived in Charlottesville since.

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