Nine Surprising facts about Pet Insurance

house cat without 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.

by Darcy Lockman