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Purchasing peace of mind

Pet health insurance protects owners' pocketbooks when their furry friends fall ill

By Nina Wu

LAST UPDATED: 2:14 a.m. HST, Oct 30, 2012

William van den Hurk sat anxiously in the waiting room at Hawaii Veterinary Vision Care in Hono­lulu last week as his beloved pet dog, Annie, was being examined.

The 11-year-old pit bull, whom van den Hurk described as the sweetest dog you could ever meet, had been through the wringer in the past few weeks.

First she came down with an ear infection that required surgery; then she suffered the loss of vision in her right eye, which will eventually have to be removed.

He had flown Annie to Hono­lulu from Hawaii island to see Maya Yama­gata, the only animal eye specialist in the state.


>> The best time to buy insurance is before you need it.

>> Shop around and make sure you know what the plan covers (accidents, illnesses, cancer treatment, etc.).

>> Be prepared to pay the vet’s bill out of pocket because pet insurance typically requires owners to submit claims for reimbursement.

>> You should be able to choose any licensed vet.

>> Read the fine print for policy limitations and exclusions for hereditary conditions, chronic illnesses, cosmetic procedures and alternative therapies like acupuncture. Some preventable diseases may not be covered if your pet did not receive the recommended vaccinations.

>> Check the cancellation policy.


The vet fees and overnight care are quickly adding up to at least $4,000, not counting additional expenses yet to come.

Van den Hurk, president and CEO of Aloha Auto Group, does not have pet insurance for any of his animals, which includes several other dogs and cats, two mules and a miniature donkey.

"I'm seriously thinking about it now," he said. "I have insurance for myself, why not for them?"

Pet owners are expected to spend about $13.6 billion in veterinary care in the U.S. this year, according to the American Pet Products Association's National Pet Owners Survey. Only about 4 percent of dog owners and 1 percent of cat owners carry health insurance for their pets.

Costs can quickly add up once a dog falls ill, whether it's for a bevy of lab tests to diagnose the ailment, prescribed medications or surgical procedures, which can typically run up to $1,000 or more. Cancer chemotherapy also can cost in the thousands and require vet visits twice a week.

Approximately a dozen pet insurance plans are available in Hawaii. Walk into any veterinarian's office and you'll probably find brochures for ASPCA, VPI Pet Insurance, Pets Best, Petplan and others. Petco, which has five stores on Oahu and one set to open soon in Ewa Beach, offers Trupanion.

Basic plans covering injuries from accidents start as low as $9 a month, while wider coverage costs up to $50 or more a month.

Gotaro Oshitari of Hono­lulu said he regrets not signing up when his dog was a puppy.

The 2-year-old French bulldog, Kuro, has racked up about $3,000 in unexpected vet bills since Oshitari first got him. In his first year he underwent surgery for cherry eye, a congenital defect, and recently needed a PET (positron emission tomography) scan to check out an ear infection. Kuro will need prescription medications for the next couple of months.

Though pet insurance is readily available, few pet owners sign up for it, either because they are unaware of the coverage or because they might not think it's worth the expense for a nonhuman member of the family.

"The excuse I would go for is that you don't have that much information about it," said Lisa Smith of Kailua, owner of a Jack Russell terrier mix named Scooby Doo. "Though I think it's a smart thing to do."

Decades ago she would go to the vet only for emergencies, but now it's common to visit for puppy wellness exams.

In his 1 1⁄2-year existence, Scooby Doo has had to get his stomach pumped twice for eating another dog's medication, so Smith is considering it.

Veterinarian Pauline Kore­yasu, owner of Kaka‘ako Pet Hospital, said she sees many pet owners struggle with the cost of medical treatments.

"The cost of everything has gone up," said Kore­yasu, who recommends reading the fine print in insurance policies.

Jill Yoshicedo, a vet at Kailua Animal Clinic, said only about 2 percent of her clients are covered by pet insurance.

She has seen insurance work out well for some clients, when the pet needed the full treatment for cancer, as well as some emergency situations. She's also seen other clients denied claims due to breed disqualification or other "fine print" restrictions.

Every plan differs in its scope and coverage. Some cover only injuries from accidents, while others are more comprehensive, covering both accidents and illnesses. For an additional fee, some plans include routine care like annual exams and vaccinations.

Pets Best and Petplan cover only cats and dogs, while VPI Pet Insurance also covers birds, reptiles and rabbits.

Pets Best, which insures about 536 pets in Hawaii, will reimburse policyholders for 80 percent of the cost of treatment related to accidents and illnesses, including emergency visits, surgeries, prescription medication, diagnostics and specialist visits. But Pets Best, like most plans, will not cover pre-existing conditions.

At Petplan the premiums vary depending on the breed and age of the animal.

"Cats tend to be more affordable than dogs," said Nata­sha Ashton, co-founder of Petplan. "Mixed breeds tend to be more affordable than purebred. Then it depends on where you live and the cost of vet care. Hawaii is one of the more expensive areas for us."

Higher-cost breeds tend to be large dogs like French mastiffs and Great Danes, she said, or short-snout, small breeds like French and English bulldogs. On the lower end of the premium scale are Jack Russell terriers and border collies, which tend to have fewer health problems.

Dan Orodenker of Kailua pays about $70 a month for pet insurance for Mele, a 5-year-old Australian cattle dog, and Kilo­hana, a golden retriever puppy.

"It was just to have peace of mind," he said. "The real reason that you have it is for something unexpected like an injury or some strange illness."

With the advancements in veterinary medicine, Yama­gata, the eye specialist, said owners today have more options to give pets more years of life.

Her advice: "When you get a new puppy, put it in your budget because it's not a matter of if your pet gets sick, but when your pet gets sick."

Van den Hurk said he wouldn't hesitate to spend money saving Annie again, who was rescued as a stray in Makaha and has given him years of loyalty and affection.

"They're like your children when you think about it, no matter what you spend," he said.

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