Nine Surprising facts about Pet Insurance

Everyone knows that it isn't a good idea to be without health insurance, but what about your cat? "Like people, pets live longer these days," says Gina Spadafori, co-author of Cats for Dummies (For Dummies). "If you're the kind of pet owner who expects your pet to get the same level of healthcare as the rest of the family, get pet insurance." Unfortunately, navigating the various providers and plans can render that advice less simple than it sounds. Here are nine things you need to know about cat health insurance before you buy.

1. Your pet's monthly premium can go up each time you file a claim.
The premium is what you'll pay each month to insure your cat. Premiums can range from as little as $8 a month to well over $100 a month after your pet has been sick. Like car insurance, your pet's monthly premium can increase every time you actually file a claim for an illness or an injury. The less you pay, the higher your deductibles will be. Preventive care is never covered by the lower-fee plans.

2. Your cat may have a "pre-existing condition," even if it has never been sick. 
Insurance companies will not cover any condition that is diagnosed before your pet becomes a subscriber to the plan. Seem straightforward? It's not. Some companies consider hereditary conditions to be pre-existing. For example, Siamese cats are genetically prone to hip dysplasia, which means that your healthy Siamese may never be covered for that condition even if it first manifests years after you initially subscribe to the plan.

3. Many companies will cover a condition one year, but not the next.
Some insurance companies "reset" your cat's pre-existing clause each year the policy is renewed. "My insured cat got diabetes in 2004 and my insurer reimbursed me for her treatment," says Jenna Blank, 29, of Hartford, Conn. "What I learned when I renewed my policy the following year, though, was that now diabetes was a pre-existing condition for her because she had it during the last policy year. So they would no longer cover it."

4. Even if your cat has no pre-existing conditions, an insurance policy won't cover everything.
It's not only pre-existing conditions that don't qualify for coverage. Depending on the insurance company and the policy you purchase, there are countless procedures that may not be covered (such as neutering or spaying, for example). These conditions may not be clear on a company's website. Ask them to send their literature and if you have any specific concerns, put them in writing. Save any and all written correspondence with the company.

5. Your vet may not be covered in your health plan.
Some insurance companies require that you visit a specific veterinary office in their network for your cat's care. But if you and your cat have a long-term relationship with your current veterinarian, switching might be less than ideal.

6. Many common procedures are not covered unless you ask for a "wellness rider."
Inoculations against rabies, heartworm testing, dental and eye care, nail trimming and flea control are normally not covered unless you add a "wellness rider" onto your policy, which can cost an additional $100 per year.

7. You may still be responsible for a portion of the bill.
Some insurers guarantee a certain percentage of reimbursement for any treatments they cover. These companies will compensate you for, say, 80 percent of your veterinary bill, leaving you responsible for the other 20 percent. Others rely on what they call "usual and customary fees." In this case, the insurer determines what a procedure should cost (based, at least in theory, on what vets in your area charge on average for the procedure) and reimburses a portion of that.

8. If pet insurance isn't for you, create your own plan instead.
Unhappy with the pet insurance he'd tried in the past, Don Fieldman, 45, of Atlanta, Ga., took a tip from a veterinarian friend. "I dedicated first a savings account, and eventually a money-market account to my pet's healthcare," he explains. "Every month I deposited the amount I'd traditionally been paying to an insurance company. It's a good buffer for emergencies, and unlike the premiums I was paying out before, it grows and collects interest."

9. Pet "HMOs" are a cheaper alternative for those on a budget.
For less than $100 a year, you can join programs like Pet Assure and Pet Protect Savings, which offer 25 percent off veterinary bills (and up to 30 percent off medicines and supplies) for visits to vets in their network. There are no exclusions and no limitations -- and that's just what the (animal) doctor ordered.

The Most Unlikely Cat Hero

Just as neighbors have been known to put aside their differences to help each other during a natural disaster, search and rescue teams recently found a heartwarming example of two mortal cat enemies doing the same.

And a tiny kitten is alive because of it.

Rescued From the Rubble
On May 20, a devastating tornado
ripped through Moore,Okla., leaving in its wake utter chaos and destruction. The next night, rescuers digging through the debris saved what appeared to be a rather large housecat. The seemingly portly pussycat was soaked to the bone, curled up in a ball and clearly in shock when rescuers delivered it to the emergency shelter at the Central Oklahoma Humane Society in Oklahoma City. It was there that Veterinary Assistant Sabrina Cantrell, 40, took over. 

“The cat was covered in dirt and debris and wood splinters,” Cantrell said. “I thought the cat was injured, then I went to examine it and I saw a little head with two little beady eyes pop up covered in mud, and I realized the larger cat was clinging onto a kitten.”

It turned out the fat cat who was rescued was actually a skinny cat latched onto an emaciated kitten. Cantrell, who lives in nearby Mustang, Okla., and the rest of the staff assumed they had come across a mother cat/kitten combination. After washing the mud off the larger cat, Cantrell, who is also a registered nurse, was shocked to find out that it was a “he” and not a “she.”

“Usually males don’t have that kind of affection toward infants,” she says.

An Unlikely Pair
Affection turned out to be an overstatement, as the two cats had to literally be pried from each other’s grip. The male cat turned out to be one of thousands of feral cats that populate the Oklahoma City area. "I could not get the baby away from him,” said Cantrell. “They were holding onto each other for dear life. It made me cry. It was not even 24 hours after the tornado, so we were working around the clock. It brought to light the devastation out there. It was touching. I broke down a bit, gathered myself and got back to work."

In any other situation, male feral cats -- commonly known as tomcats -- would be aggressive toward, or even kill, kittens, which made the pair quite an odd couple. But just as people put their differences aside to help each other in an emergency, the tomcat came to the rescue of the tiny kitty in distress. Cantrell believes the kitten was separated from his mother during the storm and cried out to find her. She thinks the male cat must have heard his cry and come to his aid. "He was protecting the kitten from the chaos around him,” she said. “We really think he was trying to hide the kitten and keep him safe.”

Life After the Storm
Both cats were immediately administered fluids, cleaned up and fed.  The kitten barely clung to life. For the next week, Cantrell fed the four-week old every three hours, around the clock. “I took him home with me every night,” she says. “I would get up in the middle of the night and bottle feed him. He was extremely skinny, had runny eyes and an upper respiratory infection.”

The two cats have both recovered and will each find a good home. The feral cat has already been pre-adopted and will go to a farm, part of OK Humane’s Barn Buddies Program, which sends unsocial cats to farms where they can live outdoors.

The kitten will have a little while longer to wait before finding a home, since The Humane Society has a 45-day waiting period before adopting out animals in order to give owners enough time to claim their pets.

Cantrell credits the feral cat for saving the pint-sized kitten’s life. “He was sick and distressed from being pounded by the storm and buried in the rubble,” she said. “I don’t know that he would have made it through another night out there.”

Best Practices for Bathing Your Cat

Since cats aren’t generally known for their love of water, it’s a good thing they don’t need to be cleaned as regularly as dogs. The reason is because cats fastidiously clean themselves with their tongues and teeth on a daily basis.

Most of the time, brushing your cat will be enough to keep him clean, but on occasion -- like if your cat has gotten into something particularly dirty, or you’re trying to eliminate excess dander -- little Fluffy might need to take a dip in the tub.

In those cases, here are some tips for making the experience less traumatic for you and your furry friend.

  1. Be prepared. When giving your cat a bath, the quicker you can make the experience go by, the better. Have a plastic pitcher or large cup, a towel, a washcloth and cat shampoo at the ready. Also, the ASPCA recommends trimming your cat’s nails prior to bathing him if you’re concerned about scratching. You should also brush your cat thoroughly before bathing him to remove all excess hair and mats ahead of time.

  2. Set the scene. Fill a sink, basin or tub with several inches of lukewarm water. Keep in mind that your cat probably will try to claw her way out of wherever you’re washing her, so try confining her to a space that’s not as easy for her get out of, like a tub with glass doors. If you have access to a spot with a retractable spray nozzle, even better. Test the water, just as you would for a child or baby, to make sure it’s not too hot or cold.

  3. Be steady and confident. If you’re nervous, your cat will sense that and be nervous as well. When you’re ready, place your cat in the water and wet him from his neck to his tail using water from the pitcher. Don’t pour water on your cat’s face, and do not dunk his entire body into the water all at once. Not only will he hate it, but you run the risk of getting water in his ears and/or nose. Instead, use a damp washcloth once the cat is out of the bath to gently wipe off his face.

  4. Lather up. Clean your cat’s fur with specially formulated feline shampoo, since human shampoo can be too drying for cats’ sensitive skin. Be sure to pay attention to the specific product’s instructions.  Again, avoid your cat’s face, especially his nose, ears and mouth. Use the pitcher or cup to rinse off the soap. Since cats clean themselves with their tongues, be sure to get rid of all the suds so that they don’t ingest too much of the shampoo later. Be sure to check under his chin, paws and belly for any residual bubbles.
  5. Dry him quickly. Wrap your cat in a soft towel and dry off his fur as much as you can. For long-haired cats, you may need to brush or comb their fur to get out tangles.
  6. Give your little bud lots of praise -- and a treat! -- for being so brave. Who knows, your cat might be one of the few that likes baths or, at the very least, will stoically endure them.

If you know your cat is extremely anxious or water-adverse, be sure to consult your vet first. And if your cat absolutely will not tolerate being submerged in water, consider having him professionally cleaned at either a groomer or at the vet.

Changes in your cat that mean they need the vets’ attention

Cats are funny creatures, not known for showing their feelings or emotions, which can make it difficult for caring pet owners to tell if their cat isn’t feeling well. Here are some signs and symptoms to look out for to determine if your cat is indeed sick and at what point you should see a veterinarian

Signs Your Cat Might be Sick

If you notice any changes in your cat’s normal routine or behavior. Any abrupt change that lasts for more than a few days may be an indicator of a more serious issue. Watch out for the following changes:

  • Loss of Appetite:One of the biggest indicators of illness in cat? A change in appetite. A decrease in appetite could be caused by infection or liver disease, according to Newfield. If your cat is eating well but losing weight, you’ll want to watch out for that too. It can be a sign of early diabetes, hyperthyroidism or even cancers of the
     
  • Changes in Attitude or Behavior: if your older cat starts acting spunkier, don’t rejoice too quickly, as over-active behavior might be a sign of hyperthyroidism, Newfield said. Additionally, if your cat is suddenly fearful, overly timid or rough, or you notice any major change in behavior, those also can be signs of a problem,
  •  
  • Decreased Movement: although many cat owners will attribute a decrease in activity to old age, it can actually be a sign of arthritis or other ailments.  If your cat is not jumping up on counters or running around after a toy like she used to, she may be experiencing joint pain.
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  • Changes in Grooming Habits: if your cat suddenly stops grooming herself, take note, as an unkempt coat and poor grooming habits can be indicative of thyroid disease or a sign of poor health. You’ll also want to look for excessive itching or licking in addition to shedding or hair loss, according to
  • the Integrative Veterinary Care Journal. A dry, oily or lack-luster coat also can be a sign of larger issue.
  •  
  • Unusual Bowel Movements: Large or more frequent stools can be a sign of an internal disease or issue. Bloody stools should also be addressed immediately.
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  • Increased Hairballs or Vomit: unless the hairballs your cat coughed up are comprised completely of hair, chances are high that your cat actually vomited. Vomiting repeatedly can mean your cat has heartworm or other ailments.

If you aren't sure, don't take a chance. The worse thing that could happen if it turns out there is nothing wrong with your cat is a unnecessary trip to the Vet.

Insure Your Kitty's Health

Gretchen von Grossmann was stunned when her vet told her that it would cost $3,000 to treat her 8-year-old tabby, Bob, for a serious infection. “I stepped outside the office and cried,” she says. “Then I went back in and told them I had to put him down.” 

Luckily that didn’t happen, since von Grossman and her veterinarian discussed other options and agreed on a more affordable treatment. But for many pet owners, the cost of care does lead to that desperate outcome. An often-overlooked solution is pet health insurance. Knowing that they will never have to put their kitties down for lack of money to pay for veterinary fees offers cat owners peace of mind.

Why cats are good candidates
Pet insurance is less common among cat owners than dog owners, even though kitties are perfect candidates for it. Why? Maybe because it’s easy to think a young, healthy or indoor cat doesn’t really need it -- or that an older cat may not even qualify for it. In all of these cases, however, insurance can be life- and money-saving.

“Cats will hide their illness or injuries,” says Jack Stephens, DVM, who founded the Boise, Idaho, insurance company called Pets Best Insurance. “It’s their wild nature to hide when they’re vulnerable, for protection.” Because of this, a pet owner may not realize a cat is ill until a disease has progressed to a point where treatment is expensive. “Cancer is the main reason for euthanasia of cats,” says Stephens. “We’re working to make sure pet owners don’t have to do this.”

Younger cats, and indoor cats of any age, can also get into household mischief that leads to accidents or ingestion of nonfood items. When James Helmer’s cat, Mittens, began limping around the house, he immediately took him to the vet and learned that Mittens had a torn ACL (a ligament in the leg). Surgery and testing came to $1,800, but Helmer’s pet insurance -- Veterinary Pet Insurance Company (VPI) in Brea, Calif. -- reimbursed him $1,400. “If it wasn’t for VPI, we probably would have put him down,” Helmer says.

What to look for
A lot of pet owners don’t even think about insurance until their pets become seriously ill, and by that time, it’s usually impossible to get coverage. So, do your feline family member a favor, and look into the costs and benefits of pet insurance well before a crisis. Here are some questions to ask when looking for a reliable insurance company that will fit your needs:

  • Does the company offer coverage for routine health care? Often, different levels of programs are available, one of which may cover basic care, sometimes referred to as “well-cat care.”
  • Does the company spell out what it does not cover and explain all fees? A schedule of benefits and any extra fees should be clear to you.
  • How long has the company or its executives been in this business? Look for stability, as well as experience with veterinarians.
  • Does the company require you to visit only certain veterinarians? If this is the case, check to see if your veterinarian is on the list of accepted doctors.

Insurance makes even more sense if you have more than one cat, because of the eventual costs of care they may rack up. “The earlier you can get your cat enrolled, the better,” says Brian Iannessa of VPI, which currently insures over 400,000 pets. “The longer you wait, the greater the chance that an illness or injury will occur.” Also, be clear about what is not covered. For instance, some insurance companies do not cover diseases that are preventable by vaccines, orthodontics or treatment for parasites.

How it works
Once you enroll your pet or pets, you will be charged a monthly premium. You can get an estimate on premiums at many pet insurance Web sites. When you take your cat to the doctor, you will need to later submit a claim for the cost, and the insurance company will then reimburse you the full amount, or a high percentage of the fees.

“Pet insurance is a form of risk management,” says Iannessa. “It’s there to protect you and your pet against the unexpected.” It can give you the confidence of knowing you’re doing everything you can to provide your kitty with a long and healthy life.

Photo: Corbis Images