Love Your Pets: Is Insurance Worth it?

More pet owners are buying health insurance for their dogs and cats. Here’s help with the math.

By: Ali Eaves

Dr. Sarah Bowman of CityPaws Animal Hospital says 40 percent of her patients are insured. Photograph by Vincent Ricardel.

Saône Crocker picked out a puppy at a friend’s farm in 1992. She named him Tobias and later bought health insurance to guarantee he’d always have the best care. Crocker, a retired attorney in DC, says having the insurance gave her peace of mind: “You have that restful feeling that if you face a terrible diagnosis like cancer, you won’t have to make a decision based on a terrible reason like money.”

More than a million pets in North America are covered by health insurance, according to a study published in 2010 by the market-research company Packaged Facts. Eleven US companies currently offer pet health insurance. The provider Crocker chose, Veterinary Pet Insurance, is the largest and most popular.

Veterinarian Sarah Bowman, co-owner of CityPaws Animal Hospital in DC, has noticed a large increase during the past three years in the number of insured pets she treats. Bowman estimates that as many as 40 percent of her clients now have insurance. Ashley Hughes, a vet at DC’s Friendship Hospital for Animals, has also seen a big jump in the last seven to ten years.

The increase is due in part to rising costs of veterinary care. MRIs, usually around $1,800, are now common for pets. Surgeons can perform kidney transplants on cats, which cost around $10,000. And serious long-term medical emergencies can reach as much as $20,000, says Frances Wilkerson, a Chicago veterinarian who runs the Web site Pet Insurance University.

Insurance can cost more than $5,000 over the life of a pet, with monthly premiums for dogs typically $40 or more, for cats $20 or more. Routine health-care of many pets will never cost that much, which is why Wilkerson says owners should consider the level of care they expect to provide. For someone willing to visit expensive emergency clinics and specialists, insurance may alleviate some of those costs. For someone just looking for help covering routine care, insurance doesn’t always make sense.

“I always recommend that people do their own math,” says Wilkerson. “Calculate what the wellness costs will be for your pet in a given year, see what the reimbursements will be, and see how it adds up,” says Wilkerson. If you decide to get insurance, she suggests a policy that covers cancer as well as chronic, hereditary, and congenital diseases—all of which are expensive to treat—and medical conditions common to your pet’s breed.

For Crocker, paying for her dogs’ insurance has been well worth it. When Tobias was diagnosed with blood cancer in 2003, she took him to a specialist for chemotherapy. She says bills in the months before he died totaled nearly $12,000, and insurance covered about $8,000. Crocker now has an English springer spaniel named Benji. He’s insured, too.

Se all Love Your Pets stories.

This article appears in the February 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.