Pet wellness plans touted to spread out vet costs

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Wellness plans are the hot workplace health trend, but does that mean Max and Mittens need them, too?

Putting your pet on a wellness plan doesn't mean someone will start checking his blood pressure and BMI.

Instead, some veterinarians are touting the plans as a way to pay for the costs of routine care. Typically you'll pay a set amount each month, which covers the cost of things such as vaccinations and annual exams.

These are different from pet insurance plans, which kick in when your animal is injured or ill. If your pet develops diabetes or is hit by a car, you'll be covering those costs on your own, even if you have a wellness plan.

But with a pet wellness plan, you won't get slapped with a $200 or $300 bill when you take Fido or Fluffy for their annual exams. Instead, the costs are spread over the course of the year.

Some experts see these plans as a double-edged sword. They help you budget for routine care, but you may be paying for unnecessary services.

"The monthly budgeting is attractive," says Natasha Ashton, co-owner of Petplan, which offers pet insurance. On the other hand, "for the vast majority of pets, they cover everything they need and then some. Not all pets are going to need all that care."

Banfield Pet Hospital, which provides vet care at PetSmart locations, is a major advocate for pet wellness plans, experts say, and in the past couple of years more independent vets have begun offering such options.

Depending on the type of pet you own, its age and where you live, you'll generally pay $20-$40 a month or more to put your pet on a wellness plan. And you may have to pay an enrollment fee.

Some pet insurance providers let you add on a pet wellness rider for a set monthly fee, and certain costs of routine care are then reimbursed.

Given the cost of pet wellness plans, it's important to check all the services offered, and compare those to the care your pet typically receives, says Bruce McClary, spokesman for the nonprofit ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions. "Figure out what you need and what you don't, and the cost of paying them individually, versus bundling them, over the year."

Pets are big business
In 2012, spending on pets hit an all-time high, with Americans shelling out more than $53 billion on their pets , according to the American Pet Products Association. Of that, nearly $13.7 billion went to vet care. In 2011-2012, Americans owned more than 86 million cats and 72 million dogs. Dog owners spent an average of $248 on routine vet care and $407 for surgical visits. Cat owners ponied up an average of $219 for routine care and $425 for surgical visits.

The 2011 "Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study," which surveyed both vets and pet owners, found visits to veterinarians had dropped 17 percent between 2009 and 2011, while overall spending on pets rose.

"When the economy got tough, a lot of people couldn't afford to bring their pets in" for vet care, says Debbie Boone, a veterinarian practice consultant in Gibsonville, N.C.  

Boone worked for a veterinarian who created an in-house pet wellness plan for his clients more than a decade ago, and recommended the pets come in twice a year for routine exams. "We were catching a lot of things earlier," says Boone.

While more than 80 percent of the vets in the Bayer survey recommend adult cats and dogs come in annually for exams, 85 percent of dog owners comply and only 60 percent of cat owners do. Clients surveyed say they often end up paying more than they expected for vet care. About 45 percent said they'd like to be able to spread their wellness payments out over time, but only 5 percent of vets offer such plans.

"It helps people comply more readily if they're enrolled in a plan," Ashton says.

Many of the wellness plan providers offer various levels of care, so a plan that includes a service such as teeth cleaning will cost more than one that doesn't. Other plans are tailored to meet the needs of pets at various ages.

Jack Stephens, an Idaho veterinarian who was a pioneer in the development of pet insurance and wellness plans, says puppies and kittens, as well as senior pets, typically need the most care.  

One drawback of many wellness plans is that they can only be used at a particular veterinarian. So if you move, you still have to pay all the installments on your plan. And you normally won't be able to cancel early if your pet dies or runs away, says Stephens, who now is president of Pets Best Insurance.

Unlike wellness plans, pet insurance can typically be canceled for any reason, and cover the cost of care at any vet, Stephens says.

Given the limitations and costs of a pet wellness plan, McClary says you could instead "set aside money in your own personal pet savings plan."

Wellness vs. insurance
Many pet owners grapple with the decision of whether to get a pet insurance plan, a wellness plan or both, says David Thurmond, a vet in Katy, Texas, who offers both.

Simply covering the costs can be a challenge. If each costs $35 a month, pet owners may be strapped trying to pay for both, and have to choose between the two, Thurmond says.

Wellness plans may be more suitable for younger pets, but those expenses are easier to budget for, he says. "Insurance is more vital." If a pet develops a chronic disease such as diabetes, which needs continued medication and blood work, expenses can quickly add up, he says.

Debra Nickelson, a vet with the pet produce company Lambert Kay, recommends consulting with your veterinarian before you purchase pet insurance to help understand what health issues your pet may face. A large hunting dog is far more likely to be prone to injuries than an indoor cat. And certain breeds may be likely to develop specific health conditions that need expensive surgery to correct.

Nickelson recommends getting pet insurance sooner rather than later. Pre-existing conditions may not be covered, and you could face a waiting period before the insurance takes effect.

"Wellness plans have got a place. I just don't think the industry has gotten to the place that they know how to combine insurance plans and wellness plans at a reasonable price," Thurmond says.

See related: Good dog, bad bill: Compare vet care financing options , 13 tips to cut your pet's veterinary bills , Holding down costs of pet food, vet care
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