Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Buying Pet Insurance

A woman pets a dog's belly as he lies on his back
Tayler Rothwell plays with Doug, a four-year-old White English Labrador, at Whim So Doodle. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Unexpected vet bills can be the most expensive part of welcoming a dog or cat into your family.

For many pet parents, pet insurance for their dogs, cats and even birds can keep the costs of pet care reasonable. While the monthly premiums are an additional expense on top of food, toys, treats and grooming, pet insurance is worth it for medical emergencies, especially serious illnesses or injuries.

With the cost of treating chronic illnesses so high, pet insurance can mean being able to afford an improved quality of life for your companion and avoiding the tough decision of saying goodbye because you don’t have the money for a $5,000 procedure.

Like all insurance, it’s a gamble. You will likely spend more over the course of your animal’s life on monthly premiums than the cost of regular veterinary care if your pet is healthy. But if your best friend is dealt a bad hand, it’s reassuring to know you have insurance to take care of the problems.

In most cases, pet insurance is worth the cost.

How to Choose Pet Insurance

Both my dogs are insured through ASPCA Pet Insurance, which was the most attractive plan for my pooch’s needs years ago, when I first signed up Greyson, my greyhound/weimaraner mix.

But with so many options on the market nowadays, you have choices for your furry (or feathery, or scaly) friend that are potentially better and more affordable.

When choosing your policy,  identify multiple policies that have the coverage, flexibility and other benefits suited to your pet’s needs and then request quotes from all of them. Compare these to find the option with the lowest premium that meets your needs.

Pro Tip

Don’t forget to check with your employer about employee discounts. Many employers now offer discounts on pet insurance as part of their benefits packages.

Before signing, read through the policy closely to ensure you won’t be barred from reimbursement for particular health problems your pet may have.

So what should you look for in a pet insurance company? Here’s what the best policies offer:

Coverage

Choose only from plans that offer comprehensive coverage, and find an insurer that covers specific conditions that are common in your pet’s breed. A good, comprehensive insurance plan should meet all the requirements listed below:

  • Find a plan that broadly covers accidents and illnesses. This includes injuries like a fractured leg (Greyson fractured his by just jumping off the couch several years back) and illnesses like bronchitis.
  • Find a pet insurance company that will cover chronic conditions (like diabetes or hypothyroidism), congenital conditions (birth defects) and hereditary conditions (genetic disorders).
  • Because the true value of pet insurance lies in its capacity to make expensive treatments for life-threatening illnesses affordable, find a policy that covers cancer treatment.
  • The best pet insurance companies will also cover lab tests and blood work; surgery; prescription medications; X-rays, CT scans, MRIs and other imaging services; and even rehabilitation, like after a broken leg.
  • Animal hospitals tend to be more expensive than a regular veterinary office (much like an emergency room compared to the doctor’s office). Only consider policies that cover emergency visits.

If you have an elderly dog or cat who has already developed serious issues, you may want to decline pet insurance. Unfortunately, the older a dog or cat gets, the less sense it makes to purchase pet insurance, as costs will be too high and you will likely not see a positive return on investment.

A Note on Pre-Existing Conditions

No pet insurance companies currently offer support for pre-existing conditions. That is why it is crucial that you insure your pet as early as possible. If you rescue a puppy or kitten, make pet insurance a top priority in the first few days you bring them home.

Pro Tip

If you’re thinking of covering a pet with a host of health problems, consider saving the money you would spend on insurance, and instead putting that into savings for future care.

If you already have a pet insured with one plan and she’s developed a number of issues, stick with it. A new policy will likely see those as pre-existing conditions, making it challenging to switch.

Coverage You May Be Able to Skip

One area of coverage that might not be worth it? Wellness coverage. Wellness coverage typically includes dental cleaning, vaccines and regular check-ups.

Many policies allow you to elect for wellness coverage for an additional monthly fee. I prefer to save the $20-ish a month and pay for the wellness bills out of pocket.

Deductibles

The best pet insurance plans have flexible deductible options, typically between $0 and $1,000. Like human health insurance, high-deductible plans are cheaper.

Most plans have an annual deductible; Trupanion breaks from the pack with a one-time per-incident/per-condition deductible, meaning if your dog has a chronic issue, you’ll only have to meet the deductible once over the course of his life before the insurance benefits kick in. This would be a great solution for Greyson, who has hypothyroidism and requires regular blood work and medication.

FROM THE INSURANCE FORUM

On the flip side, this solution would not be ideal for a dog or cat that requires lots of veterinary care for a wide range of unrelated issues, as you’d have to meet a deductible for each.

Some pet insurance plans have fixed deductibles. While that’s not necessarily a red flag, it’s nice to be able to choose the option that best suits your needs.

To save on monthly premiums, choose the highest deductible you’re comfortable paying. I view pet insurance as that “just-in-case” crutch to lean on if my dogs need emergency surgery or cancer treatment. Because I can afford a $500 vet bill from time to time, I’d rather save on the monthly payments and fork over $500 a year before the benefits kick in.

Benefits

As with deductibles, the best pet insurance companies will let you select the reimbursement option that fits your needs. Reimbursement is the amount insurance will pay after you have met your deductible. You are still financially responsible for the remaining percentage, called coinsurance.

The lower the reimbursement, the lower the monthly premium. Good pet insurance companies typically offer options for 70%, 80%, 90% and even 100% reimbursement (though the cost for the latter can be exorbitant). We only considered pet insurance companies that reimburse 70% at a minimum.

For example, let’s assume your plan has a deductible of $500, $300 of which you have already met. It also has a 70% reimbursement. You take your dog in for a stomach issue that, after testing and treatment, costs you $400. You will pay $200 toward your deductible.

Of the remaining $200 owed, your insurance will cover $140 (70%), leaving you with a $60 bill. Any future illnesses or injuries that year should also be covered at 70% because your deductible has been met.

Premiums

It’s difficult to pinpoint which pet insurance company offers the best premium, because quotes depend on variables such as your pet’s age, breed, size, location and more. Dogs are 50% to 60% more expensive to insure than cats because they are more susceptible to injury and illness.

For reference, the current average monthly premium for pet insurance is $44.66 for dogs and $27.93 for cats.

Premiums will also depend on the coverage you elect and the deductible and reimbursement amounts you select. Still, we’ve examined typical premiums across the top rated pet insurance policies and used those to influence our list of the best pet insurance companies.

Consumer Reviews

While you should take reviews with a grain of salt, I find consumer reviews of insurance companies extremely helpful. Pet Insurance Review’s website scores companies out of 10 based on customer ratings, while Consumer Affairs and similar sites let you browse hundreds of reviews of policies.

Plans for Lizards, Birds and More

A final consideration: What animal are you hoping to insure? While most pet insurance companies provide coverage for dogs and cats, only Nationwide includes policies for animals like birds, lizards and rodents.

While Nationwide is not the strongest insurer across the other criteria, it stands out as a winner for the range of animals covered.

The Best Pet Insurance Companies, Ranked

(clockwise) A dog runs, a person holds a parakeet, a person holds an iiguana, a cat lays on its back
Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder (top left); Getty Images

Which pet insurance plan has the perfect combination of coverage, flexibility, benefits and positive reviews? The four companies below represent the very best of pet insurance in 2019, starting with our top pick.

Methodology: To determine the top four best pet insurance companies listed below, we examined and rated them across these criteria: best value (most coverage at a reasonable premium), flexibility in plans and deductibles, the highest benefits and the best consumer reviews.

To be included on our list, pet insurance companies had to achieve a 7 out of 10 with Pet Insurance Review.

1. Trupanion

What we love about Trupanion:

  • One-time deductible: Trupanion’s biggest differentiator is its one-time per-condition deductible. If your dog develops diabetes at a young age, once you’ve paid off your deductible, you’ll only pay coinsurance for the rest of his life for that issue.
  • Flexibility: Speaking of deductibles and coinsurance, Trupanion offers flexible deductibles ($500 to $1,000) and a single reimbursement option: 90%.
  • Coverage: The range of what is covered is wide. It includes the basics like accidents, illnesses, medications, hereditary conditions and surgeries, but it also covers supplements and even prosthetic devices. Large-breed issues like hip dysplasia are also covered.
  • Quick payouts: Claims are paid out quickly (80% within seven days), and with direct pay, you can have your participating vet apply for reimbursement. That means you just pay coinsurance at the time of the vet visit once your deductible is met — and then your vet takes care of the rest.
  • Annual premium increases: Trupanion’s annual premium increases are small compared to competitors.
  • Consumer reviews: Finally, Trupanion holds a 9.5 out of 10 on Pet Insurance Review.

What we don’t love about Trupanion:

  • Price: Trupanion isn’t the most expensive pet insurance option, but it is in the higher tier. However, you can potentially save a lot of money with its per-condition deductible.
  • Designed for younger pets: The per-condition deductible is designed for puppies and kittens. Older dogs and cats won’t benefit as much from a lifetime deductible.
  • Technology: While Trupanion has been around the longest of any major pet insurers, it is not as technologically advanced as we would like. As of publishing, it does not have a mobile app.
  • Waiting period: Trupanion has a 30-day waiting period before coverage for illnesses kicks in. (It’s just five days for injuries.)

2. HealthyPaws

What we love about HealthyPaws:

  • Consumer reviews: HealthyPaws has fantastic customer service and holds an even higher score than Trupanion on Pet Insurance Review: a 9.8 out of 10.
  • Flexibility: Deductibles and benefits are flexible; you can choose 70%, 80% or 90% for reimbursements after you’ve hit your deductible. Claims are paid out lightning fast: 99% of HealthyPaws claims are reimbursed within just two business days.
  • Coverage: Coverage is comprehensive. All the basics are covered, but the plan also includes alternative treatment methods like hydrotherapy, acupuncture and chiropractic services.
  • Waiting period: HealthyPaws has a short waiting period for illness and injury coverage to kick in: 15 days.

What we don’t love about HealthyPaws:

  • Price: Like Trupanion, HealthyPaws can be on the more expensive side. Monthly premiums for dogs start at more than $30, and premiums for cats are almost $20; these are likely to be much higher if you pick the top benefits and depending on the age and size of your pet.
  • Hip dysplasia: Treatment for hip dysplasia can only be covered if you enroll while your pet is 6 or under. HealthyPaws also has a 12-month waiting period for hip dysplasia coverage on large breeds.

3. Figo

What we love about Figo:

  • Technology: Figo is the youngest pet insurance company on this list, but its association with Google’s Tech Hub Network means advanced technology (paperless claims process through online portal and mobile app) as part of the claims process. This technology also includes the Pet Cloud for easy records access, lost pet finder with geolocation, vaccine reminders and more.
  • Unlimited benefits: You can choose unlimited benefits, but for a cheaper premium, you can also opt for $10,000 or $14,000 of coverage. While those will cover most medical expenses in a year, they might not cover full cancer treatment. If you are using your pet insurance as a just-in-case option for big things like cancer, I recommend unlimited benefits.
  • Flexibility: Deductibles and reimbursement are flexible. Choose from $50 to $500 for your annual deductible, and select 70%, 80%, 90% or even 100% for claims reimbursement.
  • Coverage: In addition to typical coverage, Figo covers exam fees related to illnesses and accidents. There are no exclusions for hip dysplasia.
  • Waiting period: The waiting period for the policy to kick in is the shortest of our top three — just five days for accidents and 14 days for illnesses.
  • Emergencies: My favorite part: Figo will waive your copay and deductible if you have to rush your pet in for emergency treatment for a life-threatening issue.

What we don’t love about Figo:

  • Consumer reviews: Figo has only earned a 7.9 on Pet Insurance Review.
  • Too new: The company is young, so we still need some time to determine how reliable it is. For instance, a couple years back, Twitter users raged when premiums grews by 50% year over year.
  • Price: Speaking of premiums, they tend to be high for Figo.

4. PetFirst

What we love about PetFirst:

  • Coverage: Policy limits are $20,000 per year, but even with cancer, it is unlikely you will reach that. Chronic issues are covered for a lifetime, as long as you are under your $20,000 annual maximum.
  • Flexibility: Deductibles and reimbursements are flexible. Choose from $50 to $500 for your annual deductible and 70%, 80% or 90% for claims reimbursement.
  • Price: Premiums are low compared to competitors.

What we don’t love about PetFirst:

  • Consumer reviews: PetFirst has only earned a 7.2 on Pet Insurance Review.
  • Slow payouts: Claims can take longer to be paid out and are paid by paper check rather than direct deposit.

One Alternative to Pet Insurance

If pet insurance seems like a financial burden, consider starting a savings account for pet emergencies and putting away the equivalent of a premium each month.

When an emergency does happen, you will have that money to rely on, but you’ll have been earning interest on it (check out one of these high-yield online savings accounts).

One caveat: If you have a pet for just a couple months and she develops a serious issue or gets injured, you likely won’t have much saved up and you’ll need savings on hand to cover the cost.

Timothy Moore is a writer, editor and proud dog dad living in Germantown, Ohio, with his partner.