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.

Spring 2012 Flea and Tick Care for Cats

Chances are your cat has had fleas and ticks, which have been bothering animals -- including humans -- since time immemorial. They are out in force this spring, which exterminator Alan Pendarvis of Texas credits to weather changes that are speeding up the parasites’ life cycles.

Your cat doesn’t have to suffer this spring and summer, however. New products and a better understanding of how to combat flea and tick infestations can help your cat steer clear of them.

Why Fleas and Ticks Are Bad News
Aside from the yuck factor, both fleas and ticks can spread diseases from cat to cat, and from cats to humans. Jane Koehler of the University of California at San Francisco, for example, found that cat scratch disease bacteria may spread via fleas and not just via scratches, as the name indicates. Koehler says that people with weakened immune systems are most vulnerable, and she advises that they “control flea infestation as much as possible, avoid getting scratched and, if they do get scratched, wash the scratch immediately.”

Nancy Hinkle, a University of Georgia entomologist, adds that fleas can transmit tapeworms. “An infected flea can pass on tapeworm if a dog or cat happens to swallow a flea while using its teeth to scratch, but the tapeworm is not transmitted if the flea only bites the pet,” she says. “Some animals are also highly sensitive to flea saliva, which can lead to secondary infections and dermatitis from incessant itching.”

Ticks are equally awful, burying their heads into the skin of your cat and then sucking blood for survival. This too can spread infectious diseases.

Plan of Action: Flea and Tick Avoidance and Removal
New pest control products abound this spring, with many major manufacturers introducing new and improved versions of their already popular lines. Thanks to a clever plastic gizmo, topical liquids for some lines are easier to apply, helping to keep owners’ hands away from the skin-penetrating product.

A number of natural and/or organic alternatives are also on the market now. In addition to shampoos, you can also find electric flea traps that attract fleas with heat and light and then zap them. Food-grade diatomaceous earth, a chalk-like powder that clings to the bodies of insects, works by cutting into their waxy coating and then gradually desiccating them. A drawback is that it can be a bit dusty and messy to use.

Buying Over-the-counter Meds Doesn’t Mean You Should Forget Your Vet
With so many products on the market, why did a recent pet health survey conducted by Banfield Pet Hospital find that flea infestation is one of the top 10 reasons owners bring their cats to the vet? “This might result partly from pet owners buying preventive medications at retail outlets and not talking with their veterinarians about which product is best for their pets, how to apply it and how to avoid environmental contamination from fleas and flea eggs,” says Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, veterinarian, senior vice president and chief medical officer for Banfield.

He and other veterinarians can provide fast-acting medications that may provide quick relief. Nitenpyram, usually administered in pill form, starts working in 30 minutes and can eliminate fleas within three to four hours. These are just a few of the possible remedies.

No product is free from potential side effects, however, so follow user guidelines carefully. Kimberly Chambers of VetDepot offers this additional advice:

  • Consult your vet first. Even if you plan to purchase an over-the-counter remedy, talk to your vet beforehand.
  • Pay attention to age and weight guidelines. Failing to allow for these “could result in a dangerous overdose.”
  • Do not use a dog product on a cat. Never give your cat products that contain permethrin or are labeled “For dogs only.”
  • Avoid getting topical flea-control products in your cat’s eyes and mouth.

“Flea protection is an important part of pet ownership,” says Chambers. “It not only saves pets from suffering from an itchy and uncomfortable infestation, but also protects pets from the dangers associated with fleas, including anemia.”

Finally, keep your home clean. Be sure to wash your pet’s bedding regularly and vacuum affected areas, including curtains, furniture and mattresses.

Common Eye Problems in Cats

As anyone who has woken up with a cat sitting on their chest and glaring at them can attest, cats are particularly good at expressing themselves through their gazes. Cats are very sneaky creatures, well-known to be experts at hiding signs of physical disease and distress. For this reason, these deep gazes can be an excellent opportunity to catch early signs of ocular disease in our feline companions.

Eye Problems in Your Cat
Eye disease is a common problem in cats. But due to cats’ quiet nature, it is one that can be easily overlooked, according to Dr. Marcella Ashton, a veterinary ophthalmologist at the The Eye Clinic for Animals in Kearny Mesa, Calif. Owners should be aware of the often-subtle signs of eye disease, so it can be caught and treated early.

In kittens and young cats, the most common ocular diseases are those that are caused by infectious agents or congenital disease (i.e., something the cat was born with). FHV-1, a virus that is one of the causative agents of the feline upper respiratory complex, is a common cause of corneal ulceration. Congenital glaucoma causes an increased pressure inside the eye, resulting in a large, blue eyeball. “The signs are subtle and they mask their pain,” says Ashton, “but the condition can be pretty severe.”

Underlying Diseases
Many times, an underlying systemic disease manifests itself in the eyes and is the first inkling an owner has that the cat is ill. Uveitis, an inflammation of the eyes, is commonly seen in association with systemic infectious diseases such as feline immunodeficiency virus, feline leukemia, toxoplasmosis and bartonella.

“Most owners will notice a cat crying or squinting, which is a pain response,” says Ashton. “They may also notice a difference in pupil size, sensitivity to light, changes in cloudiness of the eyes, or a blue tinge to the eye.” Any of these signs warrant a veterinary visit for a full evaluation, not only to address the eye, but also to make sure there is not an underlying disease that requires treatment.

Be Vigilant About Older Cats
These same conditions are seen in older cats. The FHV virus can remain latent in a certain part of the eye, and flare-ups are common during times of stress for cats or owners. A move, a new pet or a breakup with a boyfriend can stress the cat enough to reactivate the virus.

As cats age, a litany of diseases develop that present in the eye. One of the more common diseases Ashton sees in practice is melanoma, a cancer that manifests as brown spots on the iris. “They can be diffuse brown spots or look like cocoa powder,” says Ashton.

Kidney disease, a common condition in older cats, can also first manifest itself in the eyes. Since the kidneys are involved in the regulation of blood pressure, cats with renal disease often have accompanying high blood pressure. This leads to burst blood vessels in the eyes, causing a red eye, or retinal detachment, which causes blindness.

Symptoms to Watch
Cats are very adaptable, and owners might not notice right away when a cat is having visual problems, says Ashton. “Owners will notice dilated pupils that are not responding to light,” says Ashton. “They may also notice the cat holding their whiskers piloerected (involuntarily erected) forward,” which can also be an indication of a visual problem.

Any of the following signs are cause for a visit to the veterinarian, as they can indicate pain, infection or a disease process:

  • Dilated pupils or pupils of two different sizes
  • Sudden change in eye color
  • Unusual spots on the iris (the colored portion of the eye) or the cornea (the surface of the eye)
  • Squinting, winking, or pawing at the eye
  • Ocular discharge