Dear Savvy Senior: I own two dogs and a cat that I would do almost anything for, but expensive veterinary bills put a strain on my budget. Is pet insurance a good idea? — Older Pet Owner
Dear Pet Owner: If you’re the kind of pet owner who would do anything for their furry family, including spending thousands of dollars on medical care, pet insurance definitely is an option to consider. Here’s what you should know.
Rising vet costs
The cost of owning a pet has gone up in recent years. New technologies now make it possible for pets to undergo sophisticated medical treatments for many life-threatening diseases, just like humans. But these treatments don’t come cheap. That’s why pet insurance has also gotten more popular. More than 2 million pets are currently insured in the U.S. and Canada, according to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association.
How pet plans work
Pet insurance is actually similar to human health insurance. Pet policies typically come with premiums, deductibles, copayments and caps that limit how much will be paid out annually. But unlike people coverage, you usually have to pay the vet bills in full and wait for reimbursement from the insurer.
Pet policies vary greatly from basic plans that cover only accidents and illness, to comprehensive policies that provide complete nose-to-tail protection including annual checkups and vaccinations, spaying/neutering and death benefits. You should also be aware that pet policies typically don’t cover pre-existing conditions, and premiums are generally lower when your pet is young and healthy.
Costs for pet insurance will also vary by insurer and policy, but premiums typically depend on factors like the cost of veterinary care where you live and the age and breed of the pet. The average annual premium for basic accident and illness coverage was $516 per pet in 2017, while the average claim paid was $278, according to the pet health insurance association.
Major pet policy providers include the ASPCA, Embrace, Healthy Paws, Nationwide, PetFirst, Petplan and Trupanion. To help you shop and compare coverage and costs from pet insurers, go to PetInsuranceReview.com.
If you’re still working, one way to pay lower premiums and possibly get broader coverage is to buy pet insurance through your employer, if available. Eleven percent of employers in the U.S. offer pet health insurance benefits, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, and these plans are usually discounted.
Many animal advocates think most pet owners are better off forgoing pet insurance and instead putting the money you would have spent on premiums into a dedicated savings account to pay for vet care as needed. Depending on the policy, pet insurance can cost $1,500 to $6,000 over the life of an average pet, and most pet owners will never spend that much for treatment.
Ways to save
If you can’t afford pet insurance or choose not to buy it, there are other ways you can save. For example, many local animal shelters offer free or low-cost spaying and neutering programs and vaccinations, and some shelters work with local vets who are willing to provide care at reduced prices for low-income and senior pet owners.
There are also a number of organizations that provide financial assistance to pet owners in need. To locate these programs, visit HumaneSociety.org/PetFinancialAid.
To save on pet medications, get a prescription from your vet (ask for generic is possible) so you can shop for the best price. Medicine purchased at the vet’s office is usually more expensive than at a regular pharmacy or online.
Most pharmacies fill prescriptions for pets inexpensively, and many pharmacies offer pet discount savings programs, too. You can also save by shopping online at a verified pharmacy such as 1800 PetMeds.com and PetCare RX.com.
Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC-TV’s “Today” program and author of “The Savvy Senior.” Send your questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070; or visit savvysenior.org.