- Pet insurance can save you thousands of dollars in unexpected emergency costs for your beloved animals.
- Most plans are designed to help with large expenses like emergency surgery. Some more costly plans may cover routine care.
- Pre-existing conditions like hip dysplasia are usually not covered. Be sure to read your policy’s fine print.
- If pet insurance isn’t the right option for you, there are other ways to pay for veterinary care, like wellness plans at individual vet practices.
Most of us consider our pets to be family members but take for granted the major differences in costs and obligations for care.
If your human child gets injured in an accident, they’ll receive the care they need immediately and without question of how or whether you can pay. But if your pet suffers the same fate, you’ll usually need to pay a deposit upfront—often the low end of the total estimated cost of treatment—before treatment can be rendered.
Most pet owners don’t have a realistic idea of how much veterinary care actually costs, especially in an emergency, and most are not prepared for the catastrophic expenses that can arise from an emergency.
From the perspective of a veterinarian and consumer, I recommend pet owners take a hard look at their financial situation before adopting a pet and consider what they’re willing and able to spend on pets in an emergency.
Inside this article
Is pet insurance worth it?
When clients ask me if they should get pet insurance, I often share this true and all-too-common story from a patient I treated in my practice:
Rosie was a 3-year-old Australian shepherd with dedicated and responsible owners. She had never before bolted out the door, but on this particular day when the front door opened, Rosie’s prey drive kicked in. She ran after a squirrel and right in front of a moving car.
Rosie was immediately taken to the nearest pet emergency hospital, where she was stabilized, her injuries were diagnosed and she was scheduled for surgery with an orthopedic surgeon the next day to repair fractures in her pelvis.
Four major surgeries, a week in the hospital and $17,000 later, Rosie was ready to start physical rehabilitation. She needed rehab every week for six months to manage ongoing pain, learn to walk again and strengthen the muscles damaged by the accident. This added another $3,000 to the total bill from one unexpected accident but allowed Rosie to make a full recovery.
Without surgery and rehabilitation, euthanasia would have been the only option.
When considering what a pet is worth to them, most pet owners say they’d do anything for their pets and think of them as family. But does this hold true when you’re presented with a $17,000 bill for life-saving surgery? And if so, do you have $17,000 to spend at a moment’s notice? Most people don’t.
Rosie’s family didn’t have pet insurance but luckily had the financial means to give her the care she needed. If Rosie had been insured with a plan like the one I have for my dog, the cost to her owners would have been approximately $700 per year for the policy (about $60 per month). They would have paid a $250 yearly deductible and an emergency exam fee of $150. After that, they would have been reimbursed $17,640, or 90% of the remaining total.
So, should you get pet insurance? Rosie's example is extreme, but an unexpected illness or injury can happen at any time, and expenses add up quickly. If your finances allow for this type of major unplanned expense, pet insurance may not be for you—but if not, read on.
Basic veterinary costs for pets
When getting a new pet, especially a puppy or kitten, you can expect some common expenses. The costs for spay or neuter surgery, vaccines and parasite prevention are the most basic expenses a new pet owner should expect.
These expenses vary by location. Health care financing company CareCredit estimates them between $1,174 and $2,008 for the first year of life for a new dog or cat.
The American Kennel Club estimates that after the first year of life, it costs between $700 and $1,500 annually for continued preventative care, dental care and basic diagnostic tests. The average lifetime cost of a pet with a life expectancy of 10 to 15 years is between $7,565 and $19,060, according to CareCredit.
Besides the expected costs of routine and preventative care, most pet owners will at some point encounter an acute injury or illness that requires a visit to the vet.
The main cause of veterinary visits for both dogs and cats is gastrointestinal issues (vomiting and diarrhea). These issues often cost pet owners up to $385 per incident, according to CareCredit, to diagnose and treat the problem.
Skin conditions and ear infections are also common issues that need to be seen by a vet. The average cost of a vet visit for these conditions is $149 to $175 per incident.
Ear infections and skin conditions are often caused by an underlying allergy. CareCredit estimates testing to pinpoint the allergy is approximately $300, depending on the test. Once the allergy is determined, pets usually need lifelong treatment with medications and prescription foods, which adds significant long-term costs, up to hundreds of dollars per month.
Common medical emergencies and long-term costs
Although the conditions listed above are often minor, they can also be a sign of something more serious. For example, if a pet is vomiting because it ingested something toxic or it has an intestinal obstruction, hospitalization or surgery may be required. To diagnose and treat the cause, these expenses can easily stretch into thousands of dollars.
Pain is also a common emergency and has many causes. Arthritis is often a cause of pain and is the most common chronic disease in dogs. X-rays are usually needed to diagnose arthritis, and these can cost $200 to $500, based on my experience.
Once diagnosed, the most commonly prescribed medication for arthritis for a 50-pound dog would cost at least $75 per month. If your dog needs multiple medications or treatments, these costs can easily reach hundreds of dollars per month just to keep your dog comfortable and happy in their golden years.
Cranial cruciate ligament injuries—equivalent to an ACL tear in humans—are also very common in dogs. They’re fixable with surgery, which can cost $2,500 to $7,000. The recommended rehabilitation after surgery can cost another $300 to $1,500. Keep in mind that at least 50% of the time, a dog will injure this ligament in both knees, doubling the cost of repairing this injury.
Treating urinary issues
Another common emergency in both dogs and cats is urinary issues. Whether a simple urinary tract infection or a urinary blockage by a bladder stone, these painful conditions need immediate attention.
A urinary tract infection can cost up to $4,241 for a diagnosis and treatment. Treatment for a pet with bladder stones or a blockage that requires surgery may cost up to $2,325. To prevent another blockage, these pets usually need an expensive prescription food for life, which adds even more to the long-term costs of this condition.
This is only a small, non-exhaustive list of the more common emergencies we encounter with our pets. Just like in humans, accidents and injuries are impossible to predict, no matter how careful we are.
What’s covered by pet insurance?
There’s a lot of variety in the types of pet insurance plans and what they cover, but most plans are designed to help with large, unexpected expenses.
Pet insurance generally comes in one of these varieties:
Wellness plans cover annual checkups, dental work and preventative care.
Accident plans cover accidents only, and no preventative care.
Comprehensive plans cover both accidents and illness, but no preventative care.
Most vet bills average a few hundred dollars each. But they can quickly reach thousands and even tens of thousands if the necessary diagnostic tests and treatments are extensive, or if your pet has a chronic condition. These are the main things pet insurance is designed to alleviate.
Multiple tests are often necessary to determine the best course of treatment. Several treatments may be needed to manage or resolve a condition. Long-term medications and prescription diets are used to manage chronic conditions. As long as it wasn’t a pre-existing condition, the right pet insurance plan will cover all of these expenses.
Many companies now cover more extensive treatments that were previously considered optional or experimental. Some pet insurance plans now cover treatments such as dialysis, certain types of chemotherapy, acupuncture, laser therapy and physical rehabilitation.
While pet insurance isn’t typically used for the expected expenses, some companies offer coverage for routine care. These usually come with higher premiums.
What’s not covered by pet insurance?
Common pet insurance exclusions include:
Theft of pet
Some age exclusions
There are also some more specific instances your pet might encounter that most pet insurance won’t cover, including:
Almost every visit to the vet—emergency or not—will come with an exam fee that isn’t covered by most pet insurance plans. This is the basic cost for a veterinarian to do an exam and collect information to determine what to do next.
Pre-existing conditions are also not covered and can be tricky. “Pre-existing” means any chronic condition your pet has been diagnosed with before obtaining insurance. If you read the fine print on some policies, you’ll find it can also mean hip dysplasia diagnosed within the first year of life.
Cranial cruciate ligament injury in dogs is another tricky pre-existing condition. About half of dogs will injure these ligaments on both sides of their body. Because of this, if there is a diagnosed cruciate injury in one leg, insurance companies consider it as pre-existing in the other leg, even if the injury hasn’t happened yet.
Read thoroughly about pre-existing conditions for each policy when researching which plan is right for you.
Alternative ways to pay for veterinary care
If pet insurance isn’t the right option for you, there are a few other ways to pay for veterinary care.
Some practices offer wellness plans. These are typically year-long contracts with a monthly payment to cover the costs of routine care and some of the more commonly needed diagnostic tests, such as routine blood work and fecal exams. These can help spread the costs of routine care out over a year rather than having to pay all at once.
Low-cost clinics are available in many areas and are often associated with humane societies or animal shelters. These may not be helpful in an emergency or for managing chronic conditions, but they often can lower the cost of routine care and some surgical procedures.
Ask whether your veterinarian accepts CareCredit, a credit card specifically for health care expenses, including veterinary care.
Contact the nearest veterinary school. Some have programs to help offset costs of veterinary care or have charitable funds set up to help pet owners with emergency costs.
Pros and cons of pet insurance
Peace of mind: It provides financial protection from major unexpected expenses.
You can make decisions based on what’s best for your pet rather than on the financial impact.
Pet insurance may extend the life span of your pet and improve its quality of life by allowing for better long-term care for chronic conditions.
Most plans do not cover the routine and day-to-day costs of pet care.
Pre-existing conditions aren’t covered by most plans.
Premiums tend to increase yearly throughout the life of your pet.
Premiums may be higher for purebred pets.
Should I get pet insurance?
Every time a friend or prospective pet owner asks me this question, my answer is almost always a resounding “YES!” Pet insurance is right for you if:
You’re not financially prepared for an emergency that may cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.
You want to give your pet the best care possible throughout their life without worrying about how to afford it.
You’ve already had a large, unexpected expense and would like to avoid another one (for a separate condition).
Your pet is high-risk for developing an illness (e.g., golden retrievers and cancer).Tip: While pet insurance is a good idea in most cases, it may not be as useful for you if your pet has a pre-existing condition or is at an advanced age, or if you have the financial means to cover any expenses that arise for your pet.
What to Know About Exotic Pet Insurance
What to Know About Exotic Pet Insurance
You have a snake, a parrot, or some other exotic pet? An insurance policy can help you keep it healthy and happy.Find out more
Pet Insurance Key Terms
Accident and illness
Unlike a comprehensive pet insurance policy, which can be expensive, an accident and illness policy covers you when the unexpected happens, and it costs less. But diagnostic procedures and long-term medications are not covered.
This isn’t insurance. CareCredit is a credit card that you can use to pay for medical expenses not covered by pet insurance. A perk: Charges over $200 get a grace period when there’s no interest as long as you pay the bill is paid by the end of the financing term.
We’re not talking about African prairie dogs or anything. In terms of pet insurance, basically any animal that’s not a dog or a cat is considered exotic—rabbits, birds, hamsters, reptiles, etc.—and you’ll need an exotic pet insurance policy to cover it.
Some dog and cat breeds are more prone to recurring ailments like hip dysplasia, eye disorders and blood disorders. These are typically not covered by pet insurance, or you might have to pay more out of pocket to have them be covered.
A health condition your pet had before your insurance policy begins that’s typically excluded from coverage. Insurers won’t cover incurable pre-existing conditions like cancer, diabetes, allergies and other significant injuries and illnesses. But they may cover curable pre-existing conditions that—you guessed it—can be completely cured, like fractured ligaments, respiratory infections, ear infections, vomiting or diarrhea.