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7 ways to keep your vet costs under control

Gail Johnson
Pay Day
7 ways to keep your vet costs under control

When Ellen Niemer’s cat, Batman, started pooping on her carpet instead of in his litter box three years ago, she knew something was wrong. From then on, her beloved tabby was diagnosed with a litany of problems, including irritable bowel disease, pancreatitis, and a thyroid condition. His health went from bad to worse earlier this year.

“He lost so much weight, he looked emaciated,” Niemer recalls. “His heart was racing. He was obviously in pain. He was just so unlike himself.”

Niemer recently made the heart-wrenching decision to put poor Batman to sleep, at age 14, but not after doing everything she could for him. He was on five medications in his last days, followed a hypoallergenic diet and made numerous trips to the vet.

Not everyone would have gone to the same lengths as she did for her pet, and Niemer admits that the whole experience drained her bank account.

“If I add it all up, which I hate to do, I figure I spent $12,000 to $15,000 on him,” she says. “I hadn’t spent any money on vet bills up until that point. I knew on one hand it was totally ridiculous, but on the other hand I loved him so much I wasn’t going to say no. Plus the whole concept of pet care has changed so much over the years: there’s so much vets can do for them now.

“It made me question whether I’d get another pet and whether I’d get pet insurance next time,” she adds. “Batman was totally healthy for 11 years. He got really ill really fast. By the time your cat has something serious, it’s too late for insurance.”

For a lot of pet owners, deciding on whether to purchase insurance is a tough call. There are several factors to consider before signing up.

Coverage limitations and exclusions

Pet insurers exclude animals with pre-existing conditions from being covered. There are specific congenital or hereditary conditions that may be excluded as well, such as hip dysplasia or cataracts. If your breed is known to be at risk for certain conditions, your companion may not be covered.

And like extended benefits for humans, pet insurance policies vary widely. Some offer comprehensive coverage for routine appointments, vaccinations, and spaying or neutering. Others cover dental care and even alternative treatments such as acupuncture.

Extra fees

Read the fine print to find out if there are any “one-time fees” for purchasing a policy.

Deductibles and maximum payouts

The deductible amount is an obvious cost to inquire about; less evident, perhaps, is the maximum amount an insurer will pay for a specific condition, per year, or per lifetime.

Understand the terms

Download a sample policy or call an insurer to get one, as well as the company’s terms and conditions, and pore over the details.

Just as with other forms of coverage, pet insurers typically limit coverage to “reasonable costs” based on veterinary pricing in the area where the fees were incurred. Define “reasonable”: according to Consumer Reports, while consumer complaints to the U.S. Better Business Bureau related to that country’s major pet insurers is low, most involve disputes over contract language.

Beware of waiting periods

Policies typically have a waiting period after their start date before a claim can be made to prevent fraud.

Taking your chances

In 2010, Consumer Reports did an evaluation of nine policies in the U.S., using the case of a generally healthy 10-year-old purebred beagle named Roxy.

“Overall, we found that the pet policies we analyzed were not worth the cost for a generally healthy animal. In healthy Roxy's case, we found that none of the nine policies would have paid out more than the projected premiums over a 10-year period.”

However, the group also found that you could get a positive payout from pet insurance if you have a pet with a costly chronic illness or a young animal in need of major care—provided that the pet develops the condition while covered.

Another option

Here’s one way to avoid complicated pet-insurance policies while still being prepared for some unexpected, expensive trips to the vet: every month put some money aside specifically for your fluffy friend’s emergency fund in a high-interest savings account. That way, it’ll be there if you need it.

Dog owners spent an average of $225 on routine vet visits in 2009 and $532 for surgeries; for cats, the average amounts were $203 and $278, according to the American Pet Products Association.