If your cat has ever fallen from a tree, or your dog has ingested something indigestible, chances are you have consulted a vet or an animal hospital.
Chances are also, that you’ve ended up with an eye-watering bill afterwards.
One pet owner, who spoke to The New Daily, told of being stung $5000 after their labrador-cross swallowed a rubber ball.
Another related the story of a $1000 bill for an overnight hospital stay, including fluids and medication, after a bout of gastroenteritis.
Stories abound about unexpected, multi-thousand-dollar bills for pets’ care.
And these events invariably spark the same owner’s lament: “I wish we had pet insurance.”
President of the Australian Veterinary Association Dr Julia Crawford said like any insurance product, “When you need it, it’s invaluable.”
“It is amazing for those emergencies and medical situations, like when your dog chases a hamburger wrapper across the street and gets hit by a car and needs orthopaedic surgery,” Dr Crawford said.
“It can take away difficult economic decisions in someone’s life. But like any insurance, there are pros and cons.”
However, consumer group Choice is more blunt.
In its most recent report on pet insurance, the group concluded that pet insurance was “expensive and confusing”.
Choice’s pet insurance specialist Uta Mihm said the market suffered from a lack of competition and – unlike conventional health insurance – regulation.
Ms Mihm said while there appeared to be a wide choice of policies (its report reviewed 86), they have been underwritten by just three providers – RACQ, Lloyds and Holland – with a fourth, Trupanion, recently entering the market.
“We are actually not recommending any of these policies,” Ms Mihm told The New Daily.
“Policies tend to have many restrictions and exclusions, premiums are comparatively expensive and it can be hard to switch policies.”
Choice found that pre-existing conditions are generally excluded, while many hereditary or congenital conditions, also chronic or recurring illnesses can also be excluded.
Ingesting of objects or tick paralysis, for example, are often barred from many policies.
A New Daily inquiry to one provider for an eight-month-old labrador-cross for “economy accident and illness cover” came out at a seemingly reasonable $28.41 a fortnight, or $738 a year.
But an eight-month-old comes cheap. Ms Mihm noted age was a key variable.
To make insurance worthwhile, owners should take out the policy when the animal is at least younger than eight, she said.
Breeds, too, make a huge difference.
French bulldogs, for example, can attract premiums of $2000 a year, about twice those for a Jack Russell.
Choice has produced a handy guide to buying pet insurance and provided six tips for owners considering pet insurance.
1. Cost and confusion
Average annual vet expenses are about $400 for dogs and $270 for cats, excluding medications, surgery and emergency treatment. Pet insurance on top of that can come in anywhere from $180 to $4500 per year.
Ms Mihm suggests owners consider a separate savings account, or putting money into a mortgage offset account (to get the benefit of that money), as an alternative to an insurance policy.
Choice says policies can also have many “tricky exclusions and variations between policies” that make reading the fine print vital.
2. Get in when they’re young
Premiums increase as your pet ages. Ms Mihm said it’s best to take out a policy as soon as possible, as the younger your pet, the less chance they’re going to have a pre-existing condition that will never be covered. When pets reach eight, the range of policies narrows – usually accident-only cover.
3. Once you choose, you’re pretty much stuck with them
It’s very difficult to shop around for a better deal, the way you can with health insurance or travel insurance, Choice advises.
“Once you’ve selected a pet insurance policy, you’re typically locked into that provider for as long as you want insurance, because it will be almost impossible to find a better deal elsewhere.” This is because providers are not legally obliged to maintain the competitiveness of your policy and can make any changes they like when you renew annually (including premium increases, reduction in coverage percentages, exclusions and reduced payment limits and sub-limits).
4. Think about the breed of your pet
The breed of your pet can have serious implications on their health and welfare, and subsequent medical costs, and the “cost of the insurance may well be worth it if you consider the vet bills you may be liable for due to the breed of your pet”. Ms Mihm notes that cats seem to be similarly priced regardless of the breeds and are usually cheaper than many dog breeds.
Also be aware of “sub-limits”. While a policy may have a $12,000 overall annual limit, it may have a sub-limit of $1000 for certain things.
5. Exclusions, low limits and caps
Comprehensive policies usually cover surgery, hospitalisation and medicines, but things such as dental care, vaccinations, desexing and preventative treatment are usually not included. Pre-existing conditions and sometimes hereditary conditions are usually also excluded, while there’s often a cap on cover for the treatment of swallowing objects.
6. Add-ons for routine care can be good value
Most policies offer an optional add-on for ‘routine care’, which will cover things like vaccinations, worm and flea prevention and one-off costs such as desexing (some policies do have it included). Ms Mihm says add-ons can be reasonable value (usually around $100).