Should You Buy Pet Insurance?

021414_busiess_aldermanOne topic I’ve learned to avoid with new acquaintances (along with politics and religion) is where they stand on the treatment of pets. Some people when their dog gets sick or badly injured say, “It’s an animal — that’s just part of the circle of life.” Others consider Rover a close family member and would take out a second mortgage to save his life.

Pet owners from both camps probably see the barrage of ads for pet insurance and wonder whether it’s worth the expense, which might be several thousand dollars over the life of a pet. I did some research, and the best answer I can come up with is, it depends.

First, ask yourself: Do you regard pet insurance as a financial investment, where you expect to get back more in benefits than you paid out in premiums over the pet’s life? Or is it more like auto or homeowner’s insurance, where you hope nothing ever goes seriously wrong, but you want coverage in case there’s a catastrophe?

Either way, here are some basic facts about pet insurance that may help you decide whether it’s right for you.

Pet insurance shares many features with human health insurance: Policies typically have annual deductibles, copayments and exclusions, and some limit which veterinarians, clinics and hospitals you can use.

But there are numerous differences as well. For example, pet insurers are allowed to refuse coverage for pre-existing conditions and to set annual and lifetime payout limits. Among the many other restrictions you should watch for when comparing plans are:

• Premiums vary greatly depending on where you live and may increase based on your pet’s age and breed, among other factors.

• Typically, you must pay the vet or hospital bill out of pocket and get reimbursed later.

• Many plans deny or restrict coverage for congenital or hereditary conditions (such as hip dysplasia in dogs or kidney failure in cats) and preventable conditions such as periodontal disease.

• Along with annual and lifetime maximums on benefits paid out, there may be a limit on how much it will pay for treatment of an individual illness or accident.

• If your pet suffers a particular disorder one year, don’t be surprised if that condition is excluded at renewal — or if you’re required to pay an additional fee for future coverage.

• Pets over certain age limits frequently are denied coverage.

• Certain breeds are often excluded or only eligible for restricted coverage.

• Some carriers let you augment your accident and illness policy with optional “wellness care” coverage for things such as spaying and neutering, annual physicals, vaccines and routine tests. Make sure the additional premium is worth the extra cost.

There are about a dozen carriers in the United States; each offers a variety of plans with varying deductibles, copayments and maximum coverage amounts, as well as different covered benefits and exclusions.

You can go directly to their websites for plan details and to request a quote or use an independent comparison website to pull quotes from multiple carriers. I would recommend creating a spreadsheet to compare benefits and costs side by side, just as you would when shopping for auto insurance.

Bottom line: If you decide pet insurance isn’t right for you, at least be sure you’re setting money aside to cover expected — and unexpected expenses.

Jason Alderman directs Visa’s financial education programs. To participate in a free online financial literacy and education summit on April 2, go to practicalmoneyskills.com/summit2014.

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