As the coronavirus pandemic carries on, one thing is clear: Many of us, including myself, are turning to pets to help get through it.
Like so many others last year, I suddenly found myself with a new, homebound lifestyle and a need to beat back the boredom and loneliness of quarantine. So, after a few months and much deliberation, I decided to get a 12-week old puppy.
Because I treat my dog Ollie as a family member, there’s a financial aspect to our life together. One of those financial decisions involves insurance: Should I insure my dog against the risk of veterinary expenses?
Two-thirds of pet owners in the U.S. primarily pay out of pocket or with cash for vet expenses, compared to just 3% who use pet insurance, according to a 2020 MetLife and CivicScience survey.
I am not in that small minority who have pet insurance, and I’m not going to be. Does that make me a bad pet parent? No, I’m just not fully convinced pet insurance is worth the cost for me. Instead, I have an alternative strategy for protecting Ollie: a budget for pet expenses and a pet-specific emergency fund I can use for unexpected vet bills.
That doesn’t mean pet insurance isn’t worth considering. Getting pet insurance is both an economic and an emotional decision that should be based on the type of pet you have, your appetite for risk, and your financial situation. Pet insurance can also help bridge the gap between your pet’s medical bills today and an emergency fund, which may take time to build.
I spoke to several experts and pet owners to learn more about pet insurance, and many recommend it not only to reduce the potential shock to your wallet, but also for peace of mind. It can avoid the heartbreak of having to put your pet down because you can’t afford treatment.
So, is pet insurance the answer for you? Well, it depends.
Playing the Odds
Having a pet isn’t cheap. There is not only another mouth to feed, but also medical costs. Like humans, pets can get serious diseases or get injured in an accident that could end up costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Depending on the type of animal and its size, the cost of owning a pet can range, on average, from $227 to $2,008 a year, according to ASPCA.
Luckily, I haven’t had to pay for any expensive surgeries or medications for my dog Ollie, but between food, treats, toys, occasional vet visits, and puppy training, I’ve still spent well over $2,000 on my dog in 10 months.
Three months after Barros adopted her dog Oliver, he ran away while her neighbor was babysitting him and he was hit by a car. His pelvis broke, which meant a $10,000 surgery and expensive custom-made medication that she had to pay out of pocket. She was able to dip into her emergency fund and work out an 8-month payment plan with the hospital, and even received some donations to help pay for Oliver’s surgery — but the ordeal left her financially hurting and emotionally scarred.
“I didn’t have pet insurance when I adopted Oliver, which was a huge regret of mine. It was such a traumatizing experience — I don’t even like to think about it,” says Barros. “I was luckily in a position to pay for it, but what if people can’t pay it and they don’t have insurance? Someone said they would have to put the dog down, and I was hysterical when I heard that.”
Immediately after the surgery, she signed up for pet insurance. “I just wanted to make sure if something like that were to ever happen again, he’s at least covered,” says Barros.
Unfortunately, Barros’ situation with her dog is not uncommon. Nearly 70% of households in the U.S. own a pet, and of those pets, it is estimated that 1 in 3 will need emergency veterinary treatment every year, according to a survey by the American Pet Products Association.
“Pet insurance allows pet owners to make medical decisions based on what the health and welfare of their pet rather than what they can afford,” says Dr. Gary Richter, a veterinary health expert with Rover, an online marketplace for people to buy and sell pet care services. “No one should have to make life or death decisions based on cost.”
If you don’t want to pay for pet insurance, start an emergency fund for your pet instead. If you ever have trouble affording your pet’s medical bills, the Humane Society has a list of pet financial aid and discounted veterinary care-related organizations that can help you. Additionally, many vets are willing to work with you to figure out a payment plan.
What Does Pet Insurance Cover?
Pet insurance is a niche product that has become increasingly popular over the years. Pet insurance kind of works like auto and homeowner’s insurance, except it’s for your pet. You have a policy with specific coverage and deductible amounts, as well as a reimbursement process with the provider, and you pay a premium every month for it.
Pet owners can generally choose from three types of coverage: accident and illness, accident-only, and wellness plans. Accident and illness policies cover injuries in addition to most illnesses, whereas accident-only policies only cover injuries. Wellness plans typically cover your pet’s preventative care costs, such as annual checkups and routine vaccinations.
Just like humans, there are different levels of health coverage and deductibles that you can customize to fit your pet’s needs. The maximum annual limit for most pet insurance providers is $10,000, but a few will insure your pet up to $20,000.
If you decide to get pet insurance, experts recommend getting it when your pet is young and healthy, because most policies exclude pre-existing conditions.
“Veterinary care can be kind of a big question. It can be pretty affordable for several years, and then maybe there’s a surprise that can really eat into your finances really quickly,” says Katie Blakeley, vice president and head of pet insurance at MetLife.
How Much Does Pet Insurance Cost?
Most people get pet insurance when their pets are young and healthy, and monthly premiums are the lowest. As pets age and become more susceptible to health complications, pet insurance premiums tend to go up.
That’s what happened to Barros after having pet insurance for three years. Barros was paying $33 a month, or $396 a year, for $10,000 worth of accident-only coverage. But when she recently received a statement from her insurance company that said her monthly premiums would increase to $47, she decided to lower her dog’s coverage to $5,000. Now she’s paying $28 a month, or $336 a year, for pet insurance.
“I just recently reduced the coverage because I’m at a point now where I have enough money saved if something were to happen,” says Barros. “Honestly, I don’t even really need pet insurance anymore. I could probably cover anything that happens to him, but for me, it’s peace of mind. It’s just nice knowing that there’s something.”
Pet insurance premiums have on average shot up over the last few years. Data from the North American Pet Health Insurance Association shows the average accident and illness premium for a dog was about $585 a year in 2019, up from $465 in 2015. Cats are less costly to insure than dogs, with an average accident and illness premium of $350 in 2019, up only $34 since 2015.
The average monthly premium for all MetLife pet policyholders is almost $46 a month, equivalent to about $552 annually, according to Blakeley. The pet insurance market in the U.S. consists of about 20 companies, including Nationwide, ASPCA (through Hartville), Embrace, Healthy Paws, PetFirst, Petplan, Trupanion, and several others. Nationwide is one of the few that offers coverage for birds, snakes, turtles, and other more exotic pets.
Blakely says MetLife has seen an uptick in pet insurance quotes and the number of pet insurance enrollments in the last year.
“It’s tough to draw a direct correlation, but it does seem to tie in well with the fact that 2.4 million dogs and cats were adopted from shelters between January and November of 2020,” says Blakeley. “The pandemic has heightened our sense of awareness when it comes to the importance of pets in our household.”
Buying pet insurance is a very personal decision. Just because I don’t have it for my dog Ollie doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have it.
While the thought of my pet being covered by insurance would be comforting, I feel good knowing I have a fund that can help if something does go wrong. Instead of paying a monthly premium, I put $150 aside each month in my pet-specific emergency fund.
I see Ollie as a member of my family, and I’m comfortable with the idea of spending whatever it takes to give him the best medical care possible. Having a line in my budget, being proactive about preventive care, and having emergency savings have allowed me to say no to pet insurance.
That doesn’t mean I’m ruling out pet insurance forever. But for now, I’m OK without it.