I Compared Pet Insurance Plans to See What’s Best for My Fur Babies

Penny Hoarder writer Carson Kohler considering if she should buy pet insurance for her cats.
Penny Hoarder writer Carson Kohler holds her rescue kitten Josie outside her home in St. Petersburg, Fla., on July 20, 2017. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder
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Earlier this year, my family dog managed to rack up a $4,000 vet bill.

Bandit had become so sick he wouldn’t eat or drink; he couldn’t even stand up.

“What do you do?” my dad, the (typically) frugal father he is, shrugged. (Bandit is his favorite child, by the way.)

Our dog spent two nights in the animal hospital hooked up to an IV, getting X-rays… being all mopey.

Then he was fine. The vet never figured out what was wrong with him, and my parents were slapped with a $4,000 bill.

Luckily, they could pay it.

Me? A few months ago, I unexpectedly adopted a kitten (found her on the highway). I love her with my whole heart, and if something happened to her, I’d be devastated.

But if I got a $4,000 bill? Quite frankly, I’d be screwed.

That sparked slight panic (like everything else), so I started looking into pet insurance.

Penny Hoarder writer Carson Kohler sits with her kitten Josie and her family dog Bandit in St. Petersburg, Fla., on July 20, 2017.
Penny Hoarder writer Carson Kohler sits with her kitten Josie and her family dog Bandit. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

So What’s Pet Insurance?

Americans will spend $16.62 billion on vet care this year, according to the American Pet Products Association.

And individual pet owners shouldn’t be shocked if they incur at least one $2,000 to $4,000 bill for emergency pet care at some point in their pet’s life, according to Louise Murray, D.V.M., a veterinarian and vice president of the ASPCA’s Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital.

OK, so we’ve established that vet bills can be expensive, especially the surprise kind.

That’s where pet insurance can help. Typically, these plans cover some part of the bill from any illnesses or injuries.

“If we’re going to love a pet and treat them like part of the family, then we should be sure that we’re prepared if something happens, because it always does,” says Kristen Lynch, the executive director of the North American Pet Health Insurance Association (NAPHIA).

“Life happens, right?”

In fact, her mini poodle, Seamus, used to get sick almost every spring. She couldn’t figure it out. He’d have to go to the vet where they’d give him barium and do X-rays. Then he’d be fine.

Turns out, he was snacking on cherry pits under her deck, and the barium cleared the blockages out.

“The little rat,” Lynch says with a chuckle. “No one’s allowed to eat cherries on my deck anymore.”

Each time this happened, she relied on her pet insurance. She’s had Seamus insured since he was about 12 weeks old. She estimates she’s saved about $5,000 so far.

How Does Pet Insurance Work?

Typically, each plan has an annual deductible, which you have to satisfy before the insurance kicks in. You also pay a monthly premium.

Your annual deductible and monthly premium are based on the plan you choose (more details on that later) — as well as the co-insurance, the percentage you’ll have to pay out of pocket.

At the vet, you still have to pay the bill, but once you file the claim, it’s usually processed within five working days, according to Lynch. So you can charge the bill to your credit card and should be reimbursed by time that payment is due.

Sometimes the vet will work directly with the insurance company if the bill is steep or more complicated.

Here’s an example: A couple of summers ago, Lynch says a pair of dogs attacked Seamus in the park. The total vet bill reached $2,000.

“My deductible was $350 at the time, and co-insurance was 20%, so I got $1,320 back,” Lynch explains.

She put the bill on credit, but received her claim before the next bill was due — which she says has always happened.

Carson Kohler’s dog Bandit is healthy again after a recent medical scare. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

So… How Much Does Pet Insurance Cost?

Now that Lynch has some numbers rolling around in my head, I wanted to figure out how much pet insurance typically costs.

The average cost of pet insurance for dogs is $22 a month. For cats, it’s about $16 a month, according to Consumer Reports.

I decided to do my own calculations, too, which might help give you an idea of how much your pet’s insurance could cost. But remember, these premiums will vary depending on the company and coverage you choose, as well as the benefits you want.

“You get what you pay for when it comes to coverage,” Lynch says.

At the most basic level, though, these premiums are calculated based on your location, as well as your pet’s species, breed and age.

Based on reviews from Canine Journal, I decided to compare Pets Best Insurance, Petplan Insurance and Healthy Paws Pet Insurance.

Note: All pet insurance companies offer immediate policy quotes, so you can get an idea of how much insurance will cost you.

Subject No. 1

Meet Bandit. (You already met him, I guess.) We think he’s about 9 years old now. He’s a medium-sized mutt, and other than some allergies and the incident earlier this year, he’s pretty healthy.

Here are the quotes I received for him as of mid-July 2017):

    • $15,000 annual coverage
    • $250 annual deductible
    • 80% reimbursement
    • $5,000 annual coverage
    • $250 annual deductible
    • 80% reimbursement
    • Unlimited annual coverage
    • $750 annual deductible
    • 60% reimbursement

Notice that the monthly premiums will vary.

For example, Petplan and Pets Best have seemingly more expensive monthly plans, but these two also reimburse you a larger percentage of your bill and require lower annual deductibles ($250 versus $750).

Subject No. 2

Now meet Josie. She’s about 12 weeks old. She’s the stray I found in the middle of the highway. She’s young, spry and healthy.

Here are the quotes I received for her as of mid-July 2017:

    • $15,000 annual coverage
    • $250 annual deductible
    • 80% reimbursement
    • $5,000 annual coverage
    • $250 annual deductible
    • 80% reimbursement
    • Unlimited annual coverage
    • $200 annual deductible
    • 80% reimbursement

In Josie’s case, Healthy Paws requires a higher monthly premium, but the annual coverage and deductible are lower (if only by $50).

You’ll want to do some math here and determine if you’d rather pay more upfront or if you’d rather pay more on a monthly basis. That’ll be up to you.

Josie makes herself comfortable on her favorite perch. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

Here’s What to Consider When Shopping for Pet Insurance

Now that numbers are swimming around in your head, you’ll want to dig into each of these plans a bit to see what each one offers — and which is best for your furbaby.

Here’s what you should look for when shopping around for pet insurance:

1. Know Your Pet’s Needs

Many pet insurance policies cover dogs and cats, though you can find some for other species if you poke around.

Take into consideration any predisposed medical conditions for your pet’s breed. For example, some dog breeds are more likely to develop arthritis or diabetes. How much will it cost to treat those ailments?

Lynch says she asked her vet: “What’s a really common condition for a poodle to have? How much would it cost if that happened?”

That’ll help you determine what level of coverage you’ll need.

2. Understand What’s Covered

It’s important to study an insurance plan’s coverage.

Most plans cover accidents, injuries and illnesses, diagnostic treatments, cancer treatments, surgery and prescription medications, among other expenses.

Pre-existing conditions, anything related to pregnancy or birth, routine or preventative treatments or the price of death (after a certain age) are typically not covered, according to NAPHIA.

Here are a couple of examples of what is and isn’t covered:

All of Petplan Insurance plans, as mentioned above, cover:

  • Accidents and injuries
  • Illnesses
  • Veterinary exam fees
  • Imaging (MRI, cat scan, ultrasound)
  • Diagnostic treatments
  • Prescription medications
  • Cancer treatments
  • Non-routine dental treatments
  • Surgery and rehabilitation
  • Alternative therapies
  • Referral and specialist treatment

Pet Best Pet Insurance includes much of the same coverage, if not a little more:

  • Accidents
  • Illnesses
  • Cancer treatments
  • Hereditary and congenital conditions
  • Emergency care, hospitalization and surgery
  • Prescription medications
  • Ongoing and chronic conditions
  • Diagnostics
  • Older pets
  • Full coverage even when not spayed/neutered
  • Behavioral conditions
  • Prosthetic devices and wheelchairs
  • Euthanasia
  • Coverage while traveling (anywhere in the U.S. Canada or Puerto Rico)

3. Consider Other Factors

Here are a few other questions you can ask yourself:

  • What type of specialists are covered? If your dog is predisposed to eye problems, make sure an optometrist will be covered.
  • Is there an age limit? Is there a minimum age?
  • How easy is it to file? Can I just download an app?
  • Is there an incident limit if my pet’s just having a really rough year?

If you’re ever in doubt, have a conversation with a veterinarian.

So Who Needs Pet Insurance?

It just depends, and that decision is up to you. In the meantime, here’s another article that might help you make that decision: Is Pet Insurance Worth It?

For Lynch, it just makes sense.

“It’s most of us who live month to month that pet insurance is designed for,” she says. “I save each month as part of my budget, but I also have coverage because it makes sense. I have so many other plans for my spending money and savings that I’d rather not have the financial surprise.”

Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She shares way too many pictures of her cat with the office. If you’d like to see some, too, just find me on Twitter.