A few years ago, pet insurance would have ranked right up there with life insurance for children and dread-disease coverage on a list of policies, that most believe, you don't need.
Most people are better off forgoing pet insurance and instead putting the money they would have spent on premiums into a savings account. Pet coverage can cost $2,000 to $6,000 over the life of an average pet, and the chances are slim you'll ever need to shell out that much for treatment. But if you're the type of person who would do anything to save your pet, including spend thousands of dollars on medical care, pet insurance might be a preferable alternative to going into debt.
Treatments once reserved for humans, from radiation therapy to kidney transplants, are now available for pets. That means once-fatal conditions are now treatable at costs ranging from $1,000 to more than $5,000.
Vets have access to increasingly sophisticated and costly diagnostic tools, such as MRIs. Such screenings not only boost the cost of exams but often detect problems that once would have gone unnoticed and untreated. These expensive tools and procedures have helped create health care inflation in the pet doctor world.
Collectively pet owners spend more than an estimated $50.84 billion on their pets in 2011 and $14.11 billion of that was devoted to veterinary care, according to the American Pet Products Association. Still, pet owners with insurance are still a small minority.
Insurers have teamed with the American Kennel Club and Petco Animal Supplies to offer insurance, and more than 1,600 companies -- including Office Depot and Google -- provide the coverage as an optional employee benefit.
Pet insurance is far from a cure-all, though:
•The policies typically have deductibles, co-pays and caps that limit how much
will be paid out annually.
•Pre-existing problems and hereditary conditions, such as hip dysplasia in
retrievers and German shepherds, are normally excluded,
•The older your animal, the more you'll have to shell out in premiums. Some
insurers don't cover pets older than 9; others levy stiff surcharges.
If you don't have sufficient savings to cover the treatments, you might consider pet insurance. But do your homework before you buy:
-Shop around. Policies and premiums can vary widely. Take note of not just the monthly or annual cost but the differences in deductibles, co-pays and caps, which may limit payouts by incident, year or the animal's lifetime. Ask whether the insurer offers discounts for insuring multiple pets or whether your employer offers pet insurance as a voluntary benefit.
-Check with your state. Like human health insurers, pet insurers should be registered with your state regulators.
-Scrutinize policies and understand their exclusions. The conditions most likely to afflict your pet are often the ones most likely to be excluded from a policy.
-Beef up your savings. A Consumer Reports analysis found that pet owners with insurance may actually spend more over time on their animals than those without.
Whether you opt for pet insurance or not, you can help control how much your animal costs you. Here are 6 ways you can trim vet bills/cut costs:
1. Get second opinions. You also can consult The Merck Veterinary Manual
online for a rundown on your pet's condition and recommended treatments.
2. Ask for samples. Your vet may have free starter packets of many popular
medications. It doesn't hurt to ask.
3. Shop around for meds. You can call around to other vets, check out pet
catalogs or search the Internet. DiscountPetMedicines.com has links to
sites that offer lower-priced medications.
4. Don't cheap out on pet food. An investment in better-quality food can pay
off in fewer health problems, particularly with cats, which can be more
susceptible to urinary tract infections if fed inexpensive cat food. Check
with your vet.
5. Keep their weight down. Just as with people, obesity in animals can
trigger health problems.
6. Keep your pet indoors or on a leash. Free-running animals have more
accidents, contract more illnesses and take a bigger toll on the
environment than pets that are kept under control.
Remember that insurance is designed to cover catastrophic events that you are unable to pay out of pocket.