August 26, 2016 7:00 AM EDT

How much could you afford to spend on a sick pet? $500? $1,000? $10,000?

It’s an uncomfortable hypothetical, and it’s driving more consumers to buy pet insurance than ever before. A slew of new plans have entered the market in recent years, chopping the cost of premiums and fattening coverage areas. According to some experts, there’s never been a better time to buy.

“Pet insurance is evolving,” says Kenny Lamberti, Director of Strategic Engagement at the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). “It’s reaching lower-income communities and becoming more accessible for a wide range of pet owners. This is a positive step.”

A report from the American Pet Products Association (APPA) shows that Americans spent $60.59 billion on their pets last year, a quarter of which was spent on veterinary care. Like any insurance policy, there’s no real way of knowing if pet insurance will pay off in the end, but for many pet owners, the potential reward—a long life for their furry family member—is worth the gamble.

Originally, pet insurance only covered big-ticket veterinary emergencies, like X-rays and hip replacements, according to Lamberti. Current iterations include plans designed to cover routine vet visits, anxiety treatment and vaccinations. Chronic conditions like diabetes are also covered by most policies, provided the owner bought insurance before the condition’s onset. For senior pet owners, these changes are especially relevant.

“Like humans, dogs and cats are more prone to health problems as they age,” he says. “Having a baseline policy to help keep your pet healthy, and to give you the assurance that you’ll get help in the case of an unexpected emergency, is very valuable.”

Insurance policies have also become more customizable in recent years, says Dr. Doug Kenney, a Memphis, Tenn.-based veterinarian and host of the Pet Insurance Guide podcast. Today, pet owners can cherry-pick a deductible, co-pay and annual maximum that fit their budget. Monthly premiums range from $10 for accident coverage to $100 or more for comprehensive coverage, though most basic plans hover between $30 and $50.

It’s worth noting, Kenney adds, that pet insurance exists on a reimbursement system, so even the best coverage can force customers to dip into savings or tap a line of credit to cover costs temporarily. The good news, though, is there are no in-network providers, so a plan participant gets the same coverage at any vet they choose.

That said, it’s important for pet owners to comparison shop before selecting a plan, Kenney says.

“There are about a dozen companies that insure pets in the U.S., so you have plenty of options,” he says. “The industry is changing with the needs of pet owners. Do your research and [find one] that fits yours.”




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