Pet owners spend lots on insurance

Published: Thursday, January 25, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 24, 2007 at 2:26 p.m.
Would you spend $20 or $30 a month for pet insurance?
Yes, you read that right. There is health insurance for pets. Sales of pet insurance in the U.S. topped $160 million in 2005, up nearly 25 percent from $129 million in 2004, according to Packaged Facts, the publishing division of
Pet insurance covers the veterinary expenses of primarily cats and dogs, although coverage is available for other animals such as birds, reptiles and certain exotic pets.
We are a nation that spends on our pets. Sixty-three percent of U.S. households own a pet, and last year they spent an estimated $38.4 billion on them, reports the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association (APPMA). Of that, about $9.4 billion was for veterinary care.
Still, only 3 percent of dog owners carry insurance on their animals, says the APPMA. Even fewer cat owners have pet insurance, just 1 percent.
For a while, Jen Popovic, a District of Columbia resident, had health insurance for her two cats, Toby and Maddie, and her dog, Sadie, a German shepherd mixed breed.
Popovic said she kept the insurance on her cats for about four years, paying about $20 a month for coverage on both, until they each died. Both were covered by Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI), the nation's oldest and largest pet insurance provider.
She used the policy for a major surgery for Toby, who swallowed a red string he pulled from one her dresses. His surgery cost nearly $1,500. VPI paid about 40 percent of that vet bill.
She used Maddie's policy for the removal of a cancerous tumor in her leg. That surgery cost almost $1,600, of which VPI covered about 45 percent, she said.
In Popovic's case, the insurance did save her some money. Typically pet insurance reimburses from 80 percent to 100 percent of a covered expense. However, there are maximum limits per health incident.
The range of coverage can vary widely by provider and the type of plan you choose. Plans can cover many different medical treatments, routine visits, vaccinations, flea control and teeth cleaning. You can even get a policy that will compensate you for the death of your pet, Packaged Facts found.
Pet insurance, which is considered property insurance and is state regulated, doesn't work quite like health insurance for people. You have to pay the vet bill first and then you're reimbursed. But like our health insurance, there is usually a deductible.
Monthly premiums, which vary according to a pet's species, age and health condition can run as high as $50 to $60 but are generally in the $20 to $30 range for policies that cover preventive care, accidents and treatment of an illness, according to Packaged Facts.
As with choosing your own health care policy, the devil is always in the details, as Popovic found out with her dog. Sadie also was covered by VPI from about age 1 until she was 5, for a monthly premium of $26.
''The catch about Sadie's coverage was that she had a pre-existing condition,'' Popovic said. ''I had taken her to the vet for allergy-related symptoms before ever enrolling her in an insurance program. I did not know about pet insurance at that time. When I enrolled her several months later, the medical records they requested revealed her allergy visit.''
Since VPI would not cover anything related to the dog's allergies, Popovic dropped the coverage.
''I kept her coverage for as long as I did, somewhat out of fear that she would have a catastrophic event, as my cats had,'' said Popovic. ''Over time, I realized that it didn't make financial sense. The coverage for my cats did serve the purpose of defraying their health care costs overall, since the monetary benefits I received did exceed the money I paid out in monthly premiums for them.''
When it came to Sadie, Popovic did just what you should with this product. She worked the numbers.
''I would caution anyone considering it to do the math before signing up and paying out the monthly premiums,'' said Popovic, who plans to just save for her dog's future care.
The key to finding the right insurance policy - even for pets -- is to shop around. VPI ( or 800-872-7387) is the largest with about 80 percent of the market. But the market is growing. There's Pets Best Insurance (, 888-899-0402) and PetCare (, 866-275-7387). Even the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has jumped into the business. The ASPCA announced last October it is now selling pet insurance (, 866-861-9092).
If you're the kind of pet owner who treats Fifi like she's family, and you'd pay just about anything should she become ill, then this insurance might make financial sense.
Write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or

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