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Dr. Sarah Kanagy examines Lexi, at Lakeview's Blum Animal Hospital. Doctors at the animal hospital educate their clients on pet health insurance, Hayes said.

Pet health policies: Are they worth it?

by Sheila Dichoso
Jan 22, 2009

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American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to AnimalsLake Shore Animal ShelterBlum Animal HospitalAmerican Pet Products Association

Interested in insuring your pet? Here are some tips from Mary Haight, board vice president at Lake Shore animal shelter:

Do your research. Find out important information such as if policies set age limits or exclude pre-existing conditions.

Always read the fine print. “There’s a lot of legalese [in an insurance plan], so a lot of times people can’t understand what it says,” Haight said. “[It’s] very much ‘let the buyer beware.’”

Think it through. Especially if you have “a perfectly healthy young dog,” she said. “It’s just a matter of what your position is in life and whether it’s a viable thing."

With medical costs surging, it’s not only man’s health that’s suffering – but man’s best friend too.

According to the American Pet Products Association, the number of U.S. pet owners buying health insurance for pets has doubled since 2002, and experts say it’s due to financially tough times.

“In times when the economy is so threatening, people don’t want to be burdened with surprise medical bills,” said Elysia Howard, vice president of marketing and licensing for the New York-based American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Animal hospitals such as Blum Animal Hospital in Lakeview are “definitely” noticing a rise in pet health policies, said Tania Hayes, the hospital administrator who processes health forms. “I’ve seen, probably in the past two years, that it has doubled,” the 39-year-old said.

Mary Haight, board vice president of Lake Shore Animal Shelter in the West Loop, agreed.

“Vets are getting so expensive now that it can be prohibitive to many,” Haight said. “All of a sudden $5,000  might not be affordable if you just lost your job or if your mortgage is high. People think, well, I’d rather pay 20, 30 bucks a month that will cover something that just came up.”

Already popular in Europe, pet health insurance is a fairly new concept in the United States. Although the number seems small – of an estimated 163 million U.S. pets (dogs and cats), 2 million are insured – the association projects a 5 percent to 7 percent increase by 2010.

The insurance policies generally reimburse a portion of medical care costs for pets, usually covering injuries, accidents and illnesses. “It’s pretty much like human health insurance,” Haight said. “There are different plans, depending on how much you want to pay and co-pay.” 

The anti-cruelty society began providing health insurance two years ago. Howard says it is the fastest growing pet health insurance company with more than 75,000 subscribers. 

The society offers five plans that range in price from $7.50 to $77 a month. The most popular –
and cheapest – covers unexpected emergencies, such as a pet being hit by a car. Other plans cover vaccinations, medications, wellness and surgeries depending on how much a pet owner wants to spend.

Since ASPCA is committed to animal welfare, Howard says it covers spaying and neutering, but what it doesn't cover are procedures the society considers “unethical” such as tail docking, ear cropping and declawing.

But pet health insurance still has its skeptics.

Companies may have restrictions on coverage such as excluding hip dysplasia, a joint disease common among dog breeds including german shepherds and golden retrievers.

Potential buyers should research the limitations of other pet health insurance providers.

Fred Dudek, 35, insured Stella when she was three months old. But when the collie and german shepherd mix tore both her anterior cruciate ligaments (ACL), the Lakeview resident learned the insurance would not cover the surgery. Soon after, Dudek canceled her policy after a year of coverage. The ACL crosses inside the knee to help stabilize it.  It tears when it endures too much pressure, making it the most common injury suffered by human athletes--and it's a common injury in dogs as well.

“It was more like we were wasting money,” Dudek said.

But some still find pet insurance helpful.

“If your dog is seven or eight years old, your dog is getting older and cancer becomes a big thing, ask yourself, ‘do I want to have to make a choice to put my animal down, my family member, because I don’t have the money?’” Haight, the owner of a rescued shih tzu, said.

“People seem to think that it’s valuable and worthwhile,” Howard added. “It’s a great way to give yourself peace of mind."