Top 10 $1,000 Cat Health Insurance Claims

Few of us consider that treatment for a single pet-health incident or condition can cost $1,000 or more -- a reason many cat owners give for surrendering their pets to shelters. A recent survey from Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI), the nation’s oldest and largest provider of pet health insurance, identified the top 10 most common claims that cost $1,000 or more. They are:

1. Torn knee ligament/cartilage

2. Foreign object in the intestine

3. Foreign object in the stomach

4. Intervertebral disc disease

5. Stomach torsion/bloat

6. Broken leg

7. Laryngeal paralysis

8. Tumor of the throat

9. Ear canal surgery/ablation

10. Ruptured bile duct

Heart disease, diabetes and other types of cancer didn’t make the list because the survey includes large one-time expenses rather than the cost of care for chronic diseases.

Common Sudden Expenses for Cat Owners
Out of the top 10, the most common costly problems affecting cats are Nos. 2 and 3, related to cats accidentally swallowing foreign objects like string, according to Dr. Silene Young, a veterinarian and the director of veterinary marketing for VPI. “Because the digestive tract is basically a long hose open at each end (mouth and rear), if a long, stringy object is ingested and then the ‘hose’ is wiggled around, the string ends up causing twisting and ‘knotting’ in the hose. This results in damage (holes) to the intestine (hose) and requires surgical removal.”

The surgical process isn’t simple, though. “As you can imagine, if you put a string through a hose then twisted it up and then pulled from each end, the string would cause more damage; it wouldn’t just pull out of the twisted mess of hose,” she explained. “Any surgery involving opening up the abdomen and cutting open intestines, in one or multiple locations, to remove objects requires a good deal of surgical time, anesthesia, pain control, medications and recovery.” The average cost for a pet insurance claim for such work comes close to $2,000.

Preventable Conditions
When shown the top 10 list, Dr. Karen Halligan, a veterinarian and the director of veterinary services at the Los Angeles SPCA, was surprised. “What I thought was interesting was that several of the conditions on the list were preventable.” Cat owners, for example, can keep strings, ribbon, tinsel and other dangerous-when-swallowed items hidden.

Halligan was also surprised with throat tumors being that common, since she rarely diagnoses them, but cancer in general is on the rise partially because pets are living longer. That’s an important point, because cats go through the aging process faster than we do. Prevention can help stave off certain health problems, but you will probably be caring for your pet through its old age, when medical issues can creep up.

Pet Insurance to the Rescue
The only thing likely to cure the shock you experience when a steep veterinary bill comes is pet health insurance. “Most of us will have pets with an expensive veterinary bill at least once,” says Young. “Pet insurance is how you plan for that eventuality so in a time of stress, you can focus on your cat and not your bank account.”

People often think that insurance is an investment that should pay back money. Some owners do save quite a bit, depending on when an illness or accident happens. Like home, auto or any other type of insurance, however, the real benefit is planning for the future -- with your cat in mind.

Cat Health Care on a Budget

During the economic meltdown, families are looking to cut expenses, including their pets’ health care costs. But Arden Moore, editor of Tufts University's Catnip magazine and author of Happy Cat, Happy You (Storey Press 2008), learned firsthand why it's sometimes a good idea to pay a little more up front and avoid costly veterinary bills later.

Moore had purchased pet health insurance for her two dogs and her youngest cat. But when her 12-year-old cat, Callie, had to undergo radioactive iodine treatment for hyperthyroidism, it cost $1,500 from her pocket. "Because of her advanced age and preexisting condition, the insurance policy would only cover accidents -- not medical conditions," Moore says.

The lesson she learned: get a health insurance policy when your cat is young, before it develops a health condition. "We love our pets," Moore says, "but medical procedures can be very expensive." Here are some other pointers on how to best maintain your cat's health during the recession, without it costing an arm and a leg:

Tip No. 1: Don't Skip the Annual Checkup
While it may be tempting to skip your cat's annual or biannual veterinary appointment, you may end up paying more in the end. At a routine checkup, your veterinarian can spot signs of illness so that you can treat them early, potentially saving a bundle on bills later on and possibly saving your cat's life.

"When talking about pet health care on a budget, treat it like your child’s health care -- it’s the one thing you don't want to skimp on," says Pam Johnson-Bennett, certified animal behavior consultant and author of several books on cats, including Psycho Kitty (Ten Speed Press 2007). "Your cat should be going to the veterinarian a minimum of once a year for a checkup and whatever else the cat needs for its stage of life. The sooner you find out about something that might be wrong, the easier and cheaper it is to correct."

Tip No. 2: Shop Around for Vaccines
Vaccinations are one form of routine care that your cat needs on a regular schedule. But did you know that you have choices about where to get them done? Low-cost -- and safe -- alternatives are widely available for less than you'd pay at a veterinarian’s office.

First, try your local animal shelter or humane society. They often hold walk-in clinics. It may cost you in time (there are often waiting lines), but it will save you in your pocketbook. Certain humane societies, for example, have advertised feline leukemia vaccines for $15 apiece and rabies shots for as little as $12. Fees can vary.

If your local animal welfare organization doesn't offer vaccinations, ask other cat owners or inquire at your local pet shop about where an animal lover on a budget can get low-cost vaccines for kitty. 

Tip No. 3: Ask for Generic Medications
Pet medications can cost a bundle. So when your cat needs a prescription, don't hesitate to pop the question that you've learned to ask your own doctor: "Is there a cheaper, generic version of the medication available?"

"Veterinarians are like that, too. You can ask them if a generic is OK," Johnson-Bennett says. "If it's not, they will specifically write that on the prescription." She also suggests that if you must spring for the name brand, see if your veterinarian might let you pay in increments on a payment plan if you've lost your job or are having other money troubles. There's no harm in asking.

Tip No. 4: Brush Kitty's Teeth and Hair
Get in the habit of brushing your cat's teeth at least a couple of times a week, Moore recommends. Use special toothpaste and brushes made specifically for cats. You can find these at most pet stores. Cats are physiologically different than humans, so don't try your own favorite brand on your cat. Regular dental care may prevent oral health problems that can be more costly in the end. "It can cost up to $400 to do a professional dental cleaning," Moore says. "By just getting in the habit, you'll be able to see early on if the gums aren't pink or if there is a tooth problem."

By the same token, another regular grooming routine to get into with your cat is brushing its hair. "I have a short-haired cat, and I brush it not only to keep the coat clean, but to let me feel for any lumps and bumps that weren't there last week," says Johnson-Bennett. Another positive effect of a regular brushing is that you can possibly cut down on your cat's hairballs. The more dead hair you remove, the less the cat is ingesting. Hairballs can become costly if they cause an intestinal blockage, which may jeopardize both your cat and your pocketbook.

Tip No. 5: Practice Good Nutrition and Don't Overfeed
Moore suggests that you spend a little more -- even in tough times -- to buy a good-quality commercial cat food made with real protein and all the other nutritional elements that cats need. In the end, you're actually going to save more on veterinary bills than you would if you started buying bargain-priced kitty food. To help cut costs, buy in bulk sizes. Moore recommends putting extra food in resealable freezer bags, adding a date and storing the food until you need it; however, freezing will not extend the “best used by” date of the product.

Keeping your cat at a healthy weight can also prevent future health problems. "Fat cats may look cute, but those cats can cost you because they’re more prone to developing diabetes, arthritis and other conditions," Moore says. "Treat them with calorie-free hugs, rather than a bunch of extra food treats."

Tip No. 6: Try Pet Health Insurance
Ultimately, as Moore discovered, it may be worth your while to spring for cat health insurance from the start. For as low as $8 per month, you can find some basic coverage for your cat that will pay up to 80 percent of most veterinary bills related to major illnesses or accidents. There are a variety of companies and groups that now offer cat health insurance, including Pets Best and VPI Pet Insurance. Even the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals now offers pet insurance in conjunction with the Hartville Group.

Here are some quick questions to ask when considering cat health insurance:

  • Are there discounts for insuring multiple pets in a household?
  • What are the different tiers of coverage, and what is the maximum per ailment that each tier will pay out?
  • Does the plan cover wellness visits and routine care?
  • What is the lifetime maximum payout?
  • How much will your costs increase as your pet ages?

As Moore found out the hard way, cat health insurance "­­­is your safety net."

How to Manage Your Cat’s Health Care

Has the recession affected your spending habits? A new survey reveals that the economic doldrums have impacted many cat owners. “Dogs and cats are feeling the bite of the recession as pet owners put a leash on pet care expenses,” says Susan Spaulding, executive vice president and principal at The Pert Group, which conducted the survey with Brakke Consulting. “The recession has not only decreased what consumers spend on their own health, but what they spend at the veterinarian.”

Cats have especially taken a hit. John Volk, a senior consultant at Brakke Consulting, shares the reason why -- as well as promising news for cats and their owners.

Fewer Cats Are Going to the Veterinarian
On the downside, the Pet Owner Channel Use Study found that less than 50 percent of cat owners took their cats to the veterinarian last year. “Some have never even been to a veterinarian,” says Volk. He believes additional research is needed to dig into the reason as to why that’s the case, but he offered these possible explanations:

A lot of first-time pet owners are cat owners. They haven’t developed proper habits for routinely taking their pet to a veterinarian.

Cats are often indoor animals, so owners may feel they can spend less on health care prevention, such as heartworm and flea and tick products. (All of these problems can hurt indoor cats, as any owner fighting a home flea invasion knows.)

In comparison to what’s available for dogs, there aren’t as many health-related products available for cats.

Factor in the recession and the cost of veterinary care and you can see why owners could be postponing trips to the veterinarian. A lot of people are tight on funds now.

Longtime cat owners, however, realize that preventive care can help stave off health issues, ultimately saving pet owners money. If your cat is 6-7 years old or younger, schedule a veterinary visit once yearly for a routine examination. Cats older than age 7 would benefit from twice-yearly vet visits. The visits will include the basics, such as a full physical, a dental evaluation and a parasite check. Routine blood work and a urinalysis should also be included, especially for older cats.

Pet Insurance Spending Is Increasing
One positive outcome from the study is the finding that cat owners are now spending more on pet insurance. Insurance is another tool for combating the recession, allowing for regular veterinary visits and safeguarding against the cost of required special care, such as hospital stays and treatments for serious illnesses.

Volk says there is growing interest in health insurance for pets, so expect this business sector to continue to grow in the years to come.

Food Spending Remains the Same
Compared to a similar study conducted in 2007, the findings of this latest pet owner study show that cat food expenditures are basically the same. “There are more purchases of cat food, but actual expenses are higher for dog owners because dogs are often bigger than cats and eat more,” says Volk.

The Way We Buy Pet Health Care Products Is Changing
The study found that more and more cat owners are turning to the Internet for their shopping needs. The reasons? Variety, sometimes-lower costs and convenience. Still, the trend is worrisome to Volk, who supports one-on-one interaction and expertise rather than online ads and in-store displays.

He and his colleagues are also concerned about the Fairness to Pet Owners Act of 2011. This legislation was introduced last year and referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health. Among other things, it would require veterinarians to write a prescription whether or not they will dispense the product. The majority of survey respondents have already indicated that they would fill those prescriptions outside of their veterinarians’ offices at least some of the time. How veterinary offices would react to the change remains unknown.

Signs of Improvement
In the few months since the new Pet Owner Channel Use Study was conducted, there are “anecdotal reports that veterinarians are seeing increased volume,” says Volk. However, Volk also adds that it is too soon to tell whether or not the recession and other problems of recent years are finally on the way out.

Nevertheless, at least one major pet health insurance company has “reported a good uptick in revenue for the first quarter of 2012.” That, food sales and other indicators provide hope that cat owners have learned to cope with financial challenges and are looking ahead to an even brighter future for themselves and their pets.

A Night in the Life of an Emergency Pet Hospital Vet

TV shows often chronicle the dramatic goings-on in the emergency room of hospitals, but what about emergency pet hospitals? Here, Dr. Katy Nelson, an associate emergency veterinarian and a certified veterinary journalist in Alexandria, Va., describes what goes on at such hospitals from her perspective.

How an ER Shift Starts
Nelson says a typical shift in an ER starts and ends the same way: with rounds. “Vets, just like doctors, have to turn over their patients so that the incoming doctor knows all the ins and outs of each case, knows what to watch for, and what the plan is.”

After this work comes what she and some other ER vets call “SOAP.” This stands for “Subjective, Objective, Assessment and Plan.” The acronym refers to many different activities, from fielding owner questions, to communicating with other veterinary hospitals, to handling all of the emergency cases that come through the front door. Some nights, this process goes very quickly; other nights, it goes on and on. “The reality of emergency medicine is that it’s like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates -- you never know what you’re going to get,” says Nelson. But she says most “emergency types” thrive on the uncertainty.

Cat ER Patients
Nelson says that most cats come into the emergency room for the following health problems: vomiting, diarrhea, urinary problems, respiratory issues and lack of appetite.

“Cats can be very vocal and very physical, so you’ve got to use caution when dealing with them,” says Nelson. “For the most part, they’re just scared, so by dealing with them slowly and with patience, you often can achieve what you need to get done by simply assuring them that you’re not out to hurt them.”

How ER Pet Hospitals Differ From Others
As opposed to a regular veterinary office, most ER facilities stay open for 24 hours, or handle cases after normal working hours. Emergency hospitals are typically more expensive, with care costing about 20 percent to 30 percent more due to higher overhead and higher liability, as well as what Nelson calls “the convenience factor.” As opposed to other care facilities, some ER hospitals would rather that the owner not be in the treatment area at the time of the emergency. This is much like a human hospital, where the family is frequently kept outside in the waiting room.

Reasons to Visit an ER
Because of the ER cost and the often late-night hours, some cat owners try to wait out their pets’ health problems until the morning, figuring that their cats’ usual veterinarians can handle the issues then. Nelson, however, says you should never wait until morning if the following symptoms surface:

  • Respiratory distress. It could be tied to asthma, congestive heart failure or a clot in the lungs, all of which can be fatal.
  • Nonproductive urination. A urinary obstruction can be life-threatening.
  • Vomiting/diarrhea/lack of appetite for more than 48 hours. This can lead to severe and life-threatening liver damage among cats.
  • Ingestion of string or a possible toxin. It’s better to be safe than sorry in such cases.

What to Do Before Going to the ER With Your Cat

Nelson offers the following three tips:

1. Try to bring a copy of the medical records with you (and not just a receipt) so that your ER doctor can have a complete picture of your cat’s history rather than just having to go on your memory alone, which is not always that great during an emergency.

2. Always bring your cat in a carrier. Remember that there will be other pets in the hospital. For your own pet’s safety, having it in a carrier is key.

3. If you know your cat gets aggressive or has required sedation during prior visits, please tell your veterinarian or technician immediately so that no one gets hurt.

Nerves and emotions run high at ER hospitals, so by following such advice, you can eliminate additional hassle. You might also help to save your pet’s life.

Can a Pain Management Center Help Your Cat?

From dealing with bad knees to recovering from a recent surgery, cats nationwide are benefiting from new interest in animal pain management treatments. These veterinary practices specializing in pain alleviation are now available to help you and your cat, no matter the situation, whether you have an elderly cat or one suffering from a more chronic condition.

How the Process Starts
All veterinarians offer pain medications, but you might want a specialist in pain management. If so, and depending on where you live, you might wind up at places like the Animal Pain Management Center in Snyder, N.Y.; The Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colo.; or at Mountain Ridge Animal Hospital & Pain Management Center in Lafayette, Colo.

Even if you are seeking a second opinion, your cat will likely have to undergo routine blood work and X-rays. “These allow us to see exactly what’s going on,” says Michele Beveridge, practice manager of Mountain Ridge. Cats are notorious for hiding pain and illness. Conversely, some of their behaviors might be misinterpreted as pain. It’s therefore essential to find out the truth behind the symptoms. “We cannot just pass out medications,” says Beveridge. “If medications are prescribed, we also have to run routine blood tests, since each individual handles medications differently.”

Available Treatments
Once a diagnosis is made, one or more pain medications may be prescribed. Alternative treatments are also possible. These could be offered in addition to the prescribed meds. They may include one or more of the following:

  • Acupuncture Small-animal acupuncture care is becoming more common both nationally and internationally. Mark Bianchi, a holistic veterinarian at the White Oaks Veterinary Clinic in Edmond, Okla., is certified to provide veterinarian acupuncture by the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society. “As pets age, natural wear and tear on the joins can lead to pain and reduce a pet’s ability to move comfortably,” says Bianchi. “Pets that have sustained an accident injury may also suffer recurring pain, even after the injury has healed. Pet acupuncture is a natural way to relieve this pain by restoring balance to the nervous system and enhancing a pet’s natural endorphins for pain relief.”
  • Laser Therapy Laser therapy involves a low-light laser that is run over areas of the cat’s body. Doctors now use this kind of therapy on humans too. “It can decrease inflammation, improve blood flow to target areas and may decrease pain,” says Beveridge.
  • Stem Cell Therapy To treat pain and chronic conditions, some veterinarians now also use another carryover from human medicine: stem cell therapy. “It requires a surgical procedure,” says Beveridge. “Fat is removed from the animal’s stomach. Stem cells are harvested from the fat and are then later injected into trouble sites.” Rob Landry, veterinarian and owner of Mountain Ridge, says she has successfully treated both dogs and cats with stem cell therapy.

Cats Can Live a Pain-free Life
Thanks to new therapies and animal pain management specialists, your cat has a very good chance of living a long, healthy and pain-free life. If your cat suffers from a serious illness, sometimes discomfort can hurt the chances for healing. For example, many cat cancer patients suffer from appetite loss after chemotherapy. Bianchi believes acupuncture can help to both relieve pain following cancer treatments and prevent this loss of appetite that often happens. Your cat then has a better chance of eating as usual, keeping your pet’s strength up at a time when fortitude is needed.

Your cat’s behavior might even improve for the better. “Many times, a pet may act out or be aggressive toward other humans or animals because of pain,” says Bianchi. “By relieving the pain, a pet’s natural even temperament emerges, resolving the behavioral problems.”