Cents and Sensibility

Protecting Your Four-Legged Loved Ones

I’d like you to meet Honey Honey and Chiquitita, named after my mother’s favorite ABBA songs.

Honey Honey and Chiquitita Dacuma

Honey is the sweetest member of our family. She likes to curl up very close to you when you sleep. Chiqui is sassy and independent. She prefers to sleep on a pillow next to your head. Both of them exist to do three things: eat, sleep and love people.

The day that my puppies go home to Jesus, there will be mourning on an epic, near-Biblical scale. I’m talking sackcloth and ashes, rending of my garments or at least a personal day from work. So naturally, I want to keep them safe and healthy. They get walked at least once a day. They are fed reasonable amounts of organic food. They get their shots and regular flea treatments. I buy them adorable outfits to keep them warm, though that may be more for me than it is for them. Chronic worrier that I am, I even looked into the possibility of purchasing health insurance.

Pet health insurance works like human health insurance. Rather than paying the full cost for medical care, you pay the insurance company the cost of your policy. Depending on the type and level of coverage you purchase, the insurance company covers certain medical expenses. Pet insurance policies don’t cover pre-existing conditions, so waiting until your pet requires costly surgery to purchase a policy is not an option. Like any insurance policy, it is something that you have “just in case”, and you have to determine whether the risk of financial CATastrophe (sorry, couldn’t resist) is high enough to merit purchasing the insurance.

An August 2011 study done by Consumer Reports compared the costs of nine policies from four different providers versus the amount you would pay the vet without a policy. The study ran the costs for the medical needs of a healthy 10-year-old beagle named Roxy. For regular wellness and preventative care, paying the vet directly was consistently less expensive than the cost of owning an insurance policy. However, the insurance sometimes proved to be the better buy once Roxy needed specialized care for major health problems (although there were policies at both deductible levels that still weren’t the most cost-effective option, some by over $1,000).

A policy comparison of Roxy's expenses/savings versus paying the vet directly. The negative figures show extra money spent.

Beyond measuring the financial risk, there is an emotional factor to purchasing pet health insurance. Opting out of flood insurance, for example, will cost you a fortune in the event of a real flood. Euthanizing an uninsured pet because you can’t afford treatment might be less expensive, but much more heartbreaking. Knowing you can avoid this situation may be worth the additional costs of having a policy that you may or may not need.

The decision to purchase a health insurance policy for your pet is a personal one, and it’s your call to balance the risk of spending more money against the assurance of knowing you won’t have to put down your pet because you can’t afford the medical care. But if you are operating on a tight budget, I would hedge my bets and pay the vet directly for preventative care for younger pets. Just be sure to start shopping around before your pet develops something that might require special care. And if you can afford it and would prefer the peace of mind, invest in the insurance sooner.

If it’s any consolation, both of my puppy loves remain uninsured. That is likely to change in the near future because I’m pretty neurotic and Chiqui has a tendency to eat first and ask gastrointestinal-related questions later. This weekend, they will be attending their second Puppy Bowl viewing party; and thus far, our decision to pay fully out-of-pocket has been the right one.

Whatever you choose, whatever your means are, I hope this helps provide some clarity about the best way to simultaneously care for your pets and your pocketbook.

Images from Cheezburger.com and ConsumerReports.org