Having worked in the veterinary industry for many years, I’m often asked for my opinion when friends, family, or crawl-out-of-the-woodwork Facebook acquaintances are thinking about getting a new furry friend. The one thing I tell everyone…Invest in pet insurance! Pet insurance can literally save your beloved pet’s life. Just this week at the animal hospital where I work, we had to put a young cat to sleep because the owners could not afford to pay for surgery to repair her badly broken leg. (We did present them with a number of different options, but given their personal financial situation, unfortunately none of them were feasible.) Are you prepared in the case of a medical emergency with your pet?

One of the keys to using pet insurance to your benefit is to get the insurance policy when they are young, healthy animals. Trying to obtain insurance for a pet with pre-existing conditions can often be impossible, or at the very least, extremely expensive. The whole point is to have insurance before you need it. Although everyone claims to know someone who had a dog or cat that never went to the vet, never had a single illness, and died old and peacefully at home, that scenario is truly an exception. Don’t play roulette with your pet’s health! Chances are, you’ll need the protection an insurance plan has to offer at some point.

Pet insurance has come a long way in the last few years. The multitude of options can be mindboggling (and make you feel like a few tokes of the catnip are necessary), but with a few helpful pointers you can successfully navigate the pet insurance maze.

4 Pointers to Navigate Pet insurance:

1. Choose a company

There are many, many pet insurance companies out there. Pick a company that has been around for a while and has good reviews. (Much of that information, along with side-by-side comparisons, can be found here or here.) Ask your vet which companies and/or plans they prefer, and why.

  • If you have a purebred dog or cat, make sure the company will cover hereditary conditions that may pop up in the future.
  • Be sure to check that the company will let you choose your veterinarian and will reimburse based on the billed cost to you. Some companies use a ‘US average cost’, which will hurt you if you live in New York City or Beverly Hills.
  • Fool around with the numbers online and find out which company will give you the best coverage for the least expense. Today I went online and got a quote from three different companies for my 3-year-old Labrador Retriever. With the same maximum annual coverage cap, deductible and percentage reimbursement, there was a $13 monthly difference in premiums between the three companies. Spend some time doing your homework and find the right fit.

2. Pick a plan

Most companies have different plan options. You can choose a more basic plan that will cover only accidents and illnesses, or one that also covers wellness visits. Some plans also offer prescription coverage. Then the fun starts! (I think I need to get out more.) You get to customize the ‘Big Three’: the deductible, percentage reimbursement and maximum annual coverage cap (the maximum amount the company will pay in veterinary expenses each year). Ask yourself, “How much can I afford to pay out of pocket each year?” My deductible is $500 a year for accident/illness coverage because it seems like a reasonable amount for me to swallow during the course of a year on whatever vet bills I incur. The main reason I purchase pet insurance is for the catastrophic scenarios/major illnesses. I also have 80% reimbursement for vet bills and an $8000/year maximum annual coverage cap. Be realistic about what you are willing to spend, as these figures (deductible, percentage reimbursement and maximum annual coverage cap) determine your monthly premium.

3. Use it

Submitting a claim can be a bit of a process, as the veterinarian needs to sign the forms before you send them in, then you have to wait for the reimbursement. Just remember, even if you only brought Fluffy in for what ended up being a hairball and it didn’t cost much, the amount you paid will still go toward your maximum annual coverage cap.

4. Make changes when necessary

Your rates will creep up each year as your pet ages. If that change becomes too much, you can adjust the ‘Big Three’ until your premium becomes economically comfortable (or at least manageable). Just remember that veterinary care usually becomes more important as Fido goes grey. Having pet insurance can help you afford to provide more care than without it. I have a friend whose Boxer had a brain tumor and she was able to get him the chemotherapy needed to have him around for several additional months. Without insurance, she would have had to put him to sleep much earlier on.

Full disclosure here…the main reason I got pet insurance two years ago was because it became a company perk for employees. My dog and cat are both young and fortunately, haven’t had any significant illnesses or injuries at this point. But I’ve seen the difference pet insurance makes for the clients who have it as they are often more willing (and able) to access the very best care for their pets. Putting money aside for a rainy day is a great idea, but we all know that that rainy day fund gets depleted (for example, when your boys are wrestling in the living room and one dives teeth first into the marble fireplace) or forgotten and the money isn’t there when your fur baby needs it most. Make sure the money is there when you need it! Pets can be expensive, and it makes sense to have an insurance plan for them, just like you have one for the humans in your family. After all, sometimes we love them MORE than the babies related to us by blood. (Like when your son gets a stomach bug and vomits on the brand-new carpet… At least dogs eat their own vomit so you don’t have to clean it up!)