Pet Insurance: Is it worth the cost? - Part 2

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Whoever coined the phrase "good friends are hard to find" probably didn't have a pet.

They are loyal, they don't judge, they don't gossip and they give us unconditional love. They frolic through life with wild abandon, chasing their tails and loving it. What's not to like?

Well, pets can be expensive. Aside from the expected bills for shots and heartworm and flea and tick treatment, there can be big bills. Those we don't expect. Like an unexpected accident or serious illness.

So is pet insurance a good investment?

John and Lenore Sidorowicz of Granger love their 4-year-old golden retriever, Kahuna, and had insurance for their previous dog.

Only 1 percent of pet owners have pet insurance. John and Lenore had it for their previous dog. So did it pay off? John says, "It probably did because, now that I think of it and recall, it did cover a lot of the vet visits and so on. It covered inoculations, I believe, and a lot of his other medications. So yeah, I believe there was some advantage to the pet insurance."

And that's what Dr. Lindsey Candey of the Kryder Veterinary Clinic says people have to weigh when dealing with their furry family members. Do you need coverage, and what kind? Dr. Candey explains, "The most important thing that I would emphasize is that there are different levels of coverage, so depending on what your pet needs, the coverage may be different. So the cost is going to be associated with those just like human insurance, where you pay more for more coverage, and less for less."

Pet policies, like people insurance, come with a variety of deductibles and premiums. You can buy insurance than covers wellness visits and vaccinations and spaying or neutering, or you can buy a catastrophic policy, which covers things like accidents, surgeries and cancer treatments. Or you can buy both.

Like Dr. Kathleen Neuhoff from Magranes, Dr. Candey admits pet owners are playing the odds when it comes to whether pet insurance will pay off, pointing out, "That's the point of insurance with your home or your car. Pet insurance is modeled after those two types of things."

In other words, we cover our homes and cars and may never have an accident or fire, but if we do, she says, "It's a possibility. That is the roulette wheel right there, how many hundreds of dollars in premiums versus how many hundreds of dollars would you get out of benefits, and that is a hard thing to determine."

My husband and I are now the proud parents of our puppy, Lucy. She is our third Dalmatian, and because her sisters before her sadly suffered serious injuries that led to lifelong and expensive treatments, we opted to buy the catastrophic insurance, hoping we never have to use it.

Dr. Candey says that seems to be the route people who buy pet insurance take, especially if they own pure breeds. "The smooshy-faced breeds have a lot of health concerns, so that's Bull Dogs and Bostons and Pugs, those guys. Every breed, because they are genetically limited, are going to have some breed-specific concerns, medically, and so if you have a specific breed, it seems to me to think about potentially getting insurance when they are young. If you get them when they are young adults or a puppy, because that is going to help cover for some of those things."

But she advises shopping around because some policies, while expensive, will not cover pre-existing conditions related to known breeds.

While the Sidorowiczes had a good experience with insurance with their previous pooch, the expense factored into their decision not to buy pet insurance for Kahuna. John says, "Part of it maybe is affordability, because my wife and I are both retired, so I am on a budget of course. We have to watch our nickels and dimes."

And speaking of money, unlike the battles humans often face to get their insurance companies to pay bills, and timely, both Dr. Candey and Jennifer Helmen, Elvis and Dottie's mom you met in part one of this story, say it's been a breeze.

Dr. Candey says, "I have never had a hiccup with any of the pet owners that we have with insurance."

Jennifer agrees, saying, "When I file a claim, within two weeks that check is in the mailbox."

Dr. Candey says for some pet owners that she sees, having pet insurance is reassuring. "Would it be helpful for me to defray the costs instead of one sudden, and sometimes unexpected, large cost if something were to happen? I hate having a life or death decision with a pet come down to money. We know that that's part of it, unfortunately, and we try to work with folks as much as possible."

Still, she says, she has clients who have sadly made the decision to put their animal down because they couldn't afford the treatment.

That's a decision Jennifer never wants to make. She has catastrophic insurance for Elvis, who needed a $4,000 surgery. With insurance, her bill was $700. And she says she will buy it again. "Oh yeah, definitely. When we get another Bernese mountain dog, we will get insurance for it, because having four of them we know what kinds of problems they can have. So we'll be ready."

So to buy or not to buy? At its most basic, it's a gamble, and like our dogs chasing their tails, we could be going around in circles all day.

But pet insurance is a tool to help pet moms and dads avoid a financial crisis because of unexpected accidents and illnesses.

And since our pets are a part of our family, we want to do everything we can to keep them healthy and happy. So whether your pet meows or barks it may just give you peace of mind for man and woman's best friend in your house.

So what's the cost?

On average, dog owners spend $248 a year for routine pet visits, and cat owners spend about $219.

The Insurance Trade Group says accident and illness coverage runs about $473 a year for dogs and $285 for cat owners, generally with premiums of $20 to $60 a month.

If you want to consider pet insurance, an independent consumer advocates group has put together a list of the best plans out there. If you click on the following link, you can check them out. And as both Dr. Neuhoff and Dr. Candey suggested, read the fine print.

If pet insurance isn't for you and you want to be ready in the event an emergency or horrible illness arises, both doctors suggest setting up a savings account so you've got the money in the event you need it.

And a couple fun facts: Pet insurance is one of the fastest growing optional employee benefits at a number of companies. I was also thrilled to find out -- mainly because my three sons make fun of me -- that 97 percent of pet owners talk to their pets.

If you missed part 1 of this series, you can find it here.