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.

Homeopathic Remedies for Cats ... and are They Healthy?

While most people take their cats to a traditional veterinarian for care, some may wonder whether homeopathic veterinarians are actually the way to go. Homeopathy in general is about addressing symptoms rather than naming a disease, which some may say puts limits on treatments.

Dr. Arthur Young, DVM, CVH, was a traditional veterinarian for 30 years before moving over to homeopathy gradually. He changed his focus when he began to think that many animals’ health problems stem from over vaccination, excess antibiotic use and poor nutrition.

Here are some of the basics you should know before making the decision to switch your own pet over to the homeopathic route.

Pet Profiling

Homeopathic remedies are not species specific, but symptom specific.  As Dr. Young explained, “Homeopathy is individual specific. Once you have a picture of the patient built by questioning the owner, that creates a profile of the animal and the problem. It doesn’t have to be a cat; it could be a dog or hippopotamus. There are over 2,000 homeopathic remedies, and whatever fits a patient’s problem, that’s the one that’s correct.”

Treatments

Dr. Young said that he sees many cats that he believes have problems due to over vaccination. The solution, according to Dr. Young, would be to vaccinate your cat when she’s a kitten, and then not do it again. In his practice, Dr. Young says that cats he’s seen who he believes have been over vaccinated tend to have emotional instability and increased fear, which he treats with Bach’s Flower remedies. This type of remedy helps alleviate stress, which is a huge obstacle to getting better.

An important part of homeopathy is solid nutrition. “Cats get 70% of the moisture [they need] from their food,” said Dr. Young. “Cats are notoriously bad water drinkers. Dry food contains 10% moisture, so they have a 60% moisture shortage if your cat only eats dry food. This lack of moisture leads to problems with the urinary system like cystitis or inflammation without an infection.” 

A homeopathic approach to the lack of water in a cat’s diet would be to feed her a good wet food product that contains minerals, vitamins, enzymes and probiotics. Dr. Young also recommends supplementing your cat’s diet with taurine, a dietary supplement that prevents blindness.

Check out this story for more on understanding your cat’s drinking habits.

The homeopathic remedies that your vet will recommend for your cat do not require a prescription. They come in small pellet, tablet, powder or liquid form, and are given orally. “When you give your cat, or any animal, a homeopathic remedy, the protocol is no food and no water 20 minutes before or after,” said Dr. Young. “If your cat just ate or drank, it will compromise the energy of the pill, since it produces the effect in the nerve endings of the tongue.”

Taking the Plunge

At the end of the day, the type of medical treatment you pick for your cat will be a very personal decision, and finding the correct remedy for an ailment may take some time and a few tries. If you do decide to try homeopathic medicine for your pet, find a board certified veterinarian who has been trained in homeopathy for animals. You can look up a list of homeopaths at http://www.ahvma.org/

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.

The 5 Easiest Ways to Keep Your Cat Healthy

We know you love your cat. But even the biggest cat lovers can fall prey to a dangerous trap: thinking that your furry feline is “low-maintenance.” While it’s true that cats are less needy than many other types of pets, Dr. Jason Nichols, AKA “The Preventive Vet,” says that cats are merely silent sufferers.

To ensure that your cat lives a long and healthy life (or nine), check out Dr. Nichols’ five easy steps to promoting feline wellness.

1.      Keep Your Cat Indoors.

Depending on your home environment (and your individual cat), keeping your kitty indoors 100% of the time can be tricky. But making sure your cat stays inside, however, is one of the best ways to make sure she stays safe. She won’t be at risk of attack by other animals, like coyotes, and she won’t get into fights with other cats, which can lead to Feline Immunodeficiency Virus or injury. Indoor cats also have a lesser risk of contracting parasites. 

Additionally, more cats are killed by cars each year than are euthanized in animal shelters. By keeping your pet indoors, you’ll be keeping her safe from automobile injuries.

2.      Keep an Eye on the Litter Box.

Your cat’s litter box can provide many clues to her health. Scoop and check the box daily, and get to know your cat’s routines. If there are suddenly fewer urine spots each day, or there’s no urine at all for two consecutive days, it may be an indication that something is amiss. Irregular urination can be symptomatic of degenerative kidney disease, cystitis, inflammation of the bladder or urethral obstructions, which are all common in aging cats. Additionally, diarrhea or lack of bowel movement can also be a sign of infection or disease.

It’s not just about detection, though—prevention is also key. By encouraging water intake, you can help increase urination and prevent these diseases. Feeding your cat a canned diet (which comes in measured amounts) will help, as will adding additional water bowls around the house. Water bowls with various depths, as well as circulating foundations, can help lead to more water consumption.

Lastly, creating a welcoming litter box environment will promote healthy habits. A good rule of thumb is to have one litter box more than the number of cats you have, i.e. two boxes for one cat, and three boxes for two cats, etc. Uncovered litter boxes with unscented litter, in a low-traffic area of the house, will be most appreciated by your cats.

3.      Make Your Home Hazard-Free.

Even if you keep your cat indoors, there are still plenty of dangerous—even fatal—everyday hazards your pet could encounter. Strings like dental floss, mistletoe, Easter grass, sewing thread and fishing line can get wrapped around cats’ tongues or can damage their digestive tracts, requiring surgery 99% of the time, estimates Dr. Nichols. One easy way to fix this is to cover your bathroom garbage can, preventing your cat’s access to dental floss.

There are also many unexpected toxins that could be lying around your house. Lilies are extremely dangerous to cats—every part of the flower is toxic, including the pollen and the water that lilies sit in absorbs the toxins as well. Even a small amount can send cats into kidney failure, which is extremely expensive to treat and fatal without veterinary help. Additionally, acetaminophen—which is found in many combination medications—is also toxic if ingested.

Lastly, flea treatments formulated for dogs can be very hurtful to cats. Pet owners often believe they can save by dividing up their dog’s treatments for cats, but these medications can cause seizure-like tremors in cats. Never medicate cats without the direction of a veterinarian!

4.      Watch Your Cat’s Weight.

The majority of indoor-only cats should weigh between 9 and 12 pounds. Heavier cats are at greater risks for urethral obstruction, diabetes and arthritis, as more pressure is put on their joints. A high-protein, low-carb diet will prevent weight gain—talk to your veterinarian about an appropriate diet for your pet.

Additionally, promote exercise with fun toys that will keep your cat moving. Laser pointers and interactive toys encourage cats to run around and cut down on the likelihood that your feline will become obese.

5.      Book Yearly Vet Appointments.

Most cats don’t get the veterinary care they need. Annual exams are extremely important; aside from vaccines, a yearly visit will help your vet track what’s been going on in your cat’s life and detect diseases like heart disease, hyperthyroidism, arthritis and periodontal disease before they worsen.

These five easy steps won’t take a ton of time or money, but they’ll pay off in a big way when it comes to protecting your beloved cat’s health.

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