Pet Insurance

by Tina Blue
May 20, 2007

The newspaper articles are heartbreaking. No matter how few deaths the FDA admits as a result of the tainted petfood, we know that thousands of people have lost beloved pets to kidney failure. Our pets are more than just "animals" we "own." They are our friends and members of our family. We love them dearly, and losing them tears us to pieces.

Even before this whole tainted petfood fiasco, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the high cost of veterinary care for pets.  I am not complaining about the fees vets charge. They are highly trained medical practitioners, and I actually think may charge less than they could for helping us keep our precious pets with us not just longer, but in better health.

But even regular vaccinations and neutering are expensive enough to be beyond the ability of many pet owners to cover, and any health problem, accident, or serious illness just adds to the expense of keeping a pet. 

I have been lucky. I have used the same veterinary clinic for 37 years, through three different vets, and the practice is now being gradually handed over to a new owner.  The vets at my clinic are not just talented doctors--they are also decent, caring people. For the first 30 years following my divorce, I was too poor to pay some of the vet fees that I had to cover for my many pets. I have always had between two and four cats at a time, and during some periods my menagerie was expanded by the presence of ferrets, snakes, and lizards, as well.

As my cats aged, they needed not just regular vaccinations, but also dental care (plus anesthesia), blood tests, and sometimes even more expensive treatments. My ferrets have needed treatment, too, for the many diseases that domestic ferrets are susceptible to.

My vets have always been very kind and understanding. When I was unable to come up with significant sums of money to cover the costs of needed treatments, whether routine or exceptional, they have let me run a tab and pay on it monthly until I paid it off. Right now I am in better shape financially and can pay most normal vet bills as they occur--though I would still be hard-pressed to handle an emergency requiring, say, surgery.

But I fret about all those people who love their pets as much as I do, but whose vets will not let them pay monthly on their bills as mine have done.  This issue began to trouble me again as I read newspaper articles about the pets who were made sick or killed by the tainted pet food.  Before dying, many of the dogs and cats incurred fairly large veterinary expenses, so that in addition to the loss of a beloved friend, their owners also had to deal with owing large amounts of money to their vets.

And many of the animals that survived are not yet out of the woods. They will require expensive treatment over the long term to deal with the damage done to their kidneys.

I suppose there was a time when pets really were just "owned animals" for a lot of people and considered disposable when they got too expensive to care for. But nowadays most of us love our pets far too much to just let them go when they have treatable conditions, or when a treatment not only can extend their lifespan, but also significantly improve their quality of life throughout their years. And with the loving care we give them these days, our pets are living long enough to develop conditions that need long-term treatment, but that if treated will not significantly lower their quality of life.

Just a couple of months ago I listened to a friend describe her heartbreak over having to have her darling 10-year-old cat put to sleep. The cat had developed diabetes, and could have been treated and lived comfortably for several more years, but my friend could not afford the cost of the initial treatment or the long-term upkeep, so she had to say goodbye to her friend many years too soon.

For several years, now, a number of companies have beenoffering medical insurance for pets. What a great idea! I made small monthly payments on large vet bills whenever I had to have a pet treated. But for those whose vets won't make such arrangements, paying small monthly or quarterly premiums for pet insurance can ensure that when they do need to cover a major medical expense, the money will be there.

What's cool about pet insurance is that there are actually policies that cover more than just medical bills. Here are some of the things I have seen covered in policies: vet fees, advertising and reward for missing pets, loss of pet from theft and straying, boarding fees, third party liability (e.g., when your dog bites someone), and overseas travel.

I was not surprised to learn that the British, with their famous passion for their animals, were among the world leaders in developing various kinds of insurance for pets. One British insurance company I found, called Direct Line, covers cats for as little as 6 pounds a month and dogs for as little as 8 pounds a month. (Don't complain about how I wrote those amounts! For some reason Homestead won't let me use the pound symbol for British currency. Sigh.) I'm not sure why dogs are more expensive to insure--maybe they are more susceptible to illness or injury. Or maybe it's because they might bite someone.

There is even specialized insurance for particular kinds of animals. For example, the Brits are also famous for their love of horses. I found a British insurance company called E&L Insurance that covers not only horses and their riders, but horse trailers, too! I guess that makes sense. Horses are not just loved animals--they can cost as much as a vehicle, and yet they are susceptible to the same innumerable risks that all flesh is heir to. A house or car is far less fragile than a horse, but we insure houses and cars because we know we would be hard put to tolerate the loss of such an expensive possession. I imagine that for most horse owners, insuring their horses (and horse trailers!) would make perfect sense.

For many of us, the cost of medical treatment for our animal friends may be more than we can come up with all at once, but a low monthly or quarterly payment might be easily within our means. It is pretty much guaranteed that our pets, with their short life spans, will need significant medical care within just a few years of our adopting them, or sooner, if they have an accident or develop some serious illness. I think that for many families with pets, pet insurance makes a lot of sense. 

My friend who lost her cat to diabetes tells me she is going to get insurance for her new cat, because she can't bear the thought of losing another pet before its time just because she can't cover an unexpected medical expense.