Insurance can protect your pet – and wallet

From rocks to socks and toxic foods to scissors, pets manage to get into anything and everything. But what happens when you rush your pet to the emergency room only to find out that Buster's surgery to remove all those socks is going to cost upwards of $2,000? Can this be real? For some pet owners, there is no question as to whether the pet is an animal or a family member, but for others that want some savings set aside for a rainy day, pet insurance might be the answer.

How it works

On average, a trip to the vet can cost around $175, says Rebecca Metheny, CVPM of College Village Animal Clinic in Anchorage. And in some cases, pet owners may have to pay hundreds, or even thousands more. Surgeries to remove foreign objects can cost between $1,500 and $2,000, depending upon the severity, and torn knee and emergency orthopedic surgeries can cost anywhere from $2,500 to $3,000.

But that's just if you pay on your own. Most pet insurance companies reimburse you at least 80 percent for every illness and unforeseen accident your pet might encounter. Unlike people insurance, pet insurance refunds you after you pay the vet out of pocket for your pet's specific emergency. Clients work with their veterinarian for the animal's care and file the claim with their separate insurance company after the incident. Vets usually recommend companies that they enjoyed working with – like Embrace or Petplan, in College Village Animal Clinic's case – and, so far, insurance companies only cover cats and dogs.

Research is key when dealing with pet insurance, and prices and coverage vary depending on the animal's breed and age and the type or amount of care you wish to receive. Some brands combine emergency care with wellness care, which includes checkups and blood work for when your pet is feeling healthy, in addition to emergency surgeries and medication. Other brands of pet insurance are typically reactive plans that only cover injury or illness.

For example, the ASPCA offers pet insurance from levels one to three. Level one only covers accidents, while level two includes illness coverage. In addition to accidents and illness, level three also covers hereditary conditions. However, other brands like Embrace and Petplan offer accident, illness, and hereditary coverage under one plan. Despite the differences in coverage, the client's monthly bill, usually between $20 and $60, depends on their deductible and reimbursement for the unexpected vet bill.

Talking with your vet is helpful in choosing a company, but there are also great resources online. Brands can give you instant free quotes and sometimes there's a discount for ordering the insurance online. is a wonderful resource as well. You can easily compare top brands from their ratings to the services they provide. There's even an option specifically for cats or dogs to help you narrow down all the choices.

Wellness programs are starting to become more popular, especially in the Lower 48, says Metheny. Different from pet insurance, wellness programs include checkups, blood work, x-rays, and other "wellness" procedures. Some veterinarians offer wellness packages that include a certain number of services for a flat or monthly rate.

What they don't cover

There used to be more rigid preexisting conditions with most pet insurance companies, Metheny says. Many plans specifically banned illnesses certain breeds were prone to, and some exclusions were decided based on the nature of the animal. For example, golden retrievers wouldn't be covered for torn knee surgery because retrievers are known to be active dogs, and therefore to the insurance companies of old, were too much of a liability to completely cover. However, now most companies include hereditary conditions in their care packages and are much more flexible when it comes to coverage.

Another thing to note is that most basic plans do not include transportation and boarding for procedures as part of their coverage. This may not be too much of a problem in larger cities like Anchorage and Fairbanks, but pet parents out in the bush might run into trouble. However, the plans do cover illness and accidents for any animal anywhere in the country, so living in the bush won't take away from the actual procedures, if you can get to a vet where insurance is accepted.

Is it worth it?

Pet insurance gives pet owners peace of mind, says Metheny. Pet owners are more likely to spend more on their pet, enabling the animal to receive better care overall. It's like your cell phone bill, Metheny says. "You pay for unlimited talk and text every month. Maybe you won't use up your 'unlimited' texting, but if there's an emergency and you need to get a hold of someone, you know you have the ability to reach out and call for help."

On the other hand, if a pet passes away in the middle of a yearly contract, the client unfortunately still has to pay the insurance until the contract is up, says Metheny. Sometimes, depending on how much insurance the pet and owner have used up until the death, clients can work together with the company to find a fair way out of the contract, while in other cases the pet owner is stuck with paying the monthly fee until their contract is up.

Having the ability to budget out the money and plan ahead is definitely a benefit, says Metheny, especially for those on a fixed income, and since there are so many different plans and nuances to how much you can spend, you could protect your pet on almost any budget.

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