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Ensuring Healthy Pets: Do I Need Pet Insurance?

As a pet parent, there will inevitably come a day when you’re faced with a big vet bill. If you’re lucky enough to keep your furry family member into their senior years, these bills come more and more frequently. Planning for these events is crucial, but which makes more sense – buying a pet insurance plan or putting away money each month to self-insure

The answer depends on your budget, your discipline, and your pet. Medical-related costs are arguably the most expensive aspect of pet ownership.  According to the 2019-2020 APPA National Pet Owners Survey, average yearly vet bills for dogs are $212 for routine vet visits and $426 for surgical vet visits; for cats, $160 for routine vet visits and $214 for surgical vet visits. These numbers vary according to your pet’s breed, age, and size, and don’t account for emergency veterinary bills, which can escalate into the thousands. Frequently, when faced with an expensive emergency vet bill, many dog and cat owners must make the heartbreaking decision to choose between their pet’s life and their budget.

Pet health insurance can take the money worries out of your decision-making by covering many of the costs associated with preventative and emergency care. Depending on the policy, many pet insurance plans will cover routine procedures like yearly exams, blood panels, and dental cleaning, saving you hundreds of dollars. Pet insurance also covers emergency surgeries, procedures, and treatment plans for a wide range of issues, saving you thousands. 

I’ll give you an example of a recent vet visit for my dog, an eight-year-old German Shepherd, for whom I have pet insurance. I brought him in because I thought I saw worms in his stool, he had a small growth on his ear, and I wanted to get a blood panel to clear him for his yearly dental. My bill looked like this:

Exam/Consultation                                      $80.00

Fecal Test                                                    $88.90

Senior Blood Panel w/Heartworm             $355.80

Cytology of Ear                                         $231.20

                                   TOTAL                    $755.90

All of this was covered under his pet insurance policy, so my out-of-pocket was $0. When I brought him back for his dental cleaning, that was also included, as were the dental x-rays, saving me another $650. I pay $114 per month for his senior-rate policy, which I just signed up for last month. I estimate that I’ll do slightly better than breakeven for the year, but knowing this preventative care was covered allowed me to take him to the vet based on his need to go and not on my ability to pay for it. Being able to take my dog for regular preventative care saves me money over time and will prolong his life and health as well, so in this case, the monthly payment is worth it to me.

Your situation might be different, and it’s worth sitting down and outlining the pros and cons of purchasing pet insurance versus setting aside money each month yourself, or “self-insuring.” Some questions to consider are: what is your budget each month? Are you disciplined enough to consistently save? How old is your pet? Does your pet have pre-existing conditions?

If your pet is young and healthy, you may decide that luck is on your side and that your pet won’t have any significant health issues for a few years. Maybe you put aside money now and invest in health insurance when your pet is a little older. (Keep in mind that as your pet ages, premiums increase, so make sure you know the payment threshold for your pet’s age.) Be very honest with yourself about your appetite for risk – accidents and emergencies can happen to pets of any age. Will you be able to save enough money in time or come up with a lump sum if your pet needs immediate critical care?

If your pet is older, pre-existing conditions come into play and you may end up paying more for the policy. On the other hand, older pets need more preventative care and are more likely to need costly procedures and surgeries. If you are self-insuring, will you be able to afford routine exams and blood panels, sometimes twice a year? Would you be more likely to keep the appointments if the costs were already covered under your pet policy? 

The time to make the decision is before financial calamity strikes. Pet insurance plans vary widely in coverage and cost – if that’s the route you choose to go, you can find one to suit your budget and your needs. Self-insuring carries more risk, but if you have the financial means, it could be a better option for you.  Ideally, we would never have to choose between our budget and our pet. With a little bit of planning, you won't have to.

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