Should You Buy Pet Health Insurance?
The considerations for buying insurance for your pit bull are somewhat similar to the considerations for buying insurance for yourself. You want to be protected against sudden huge unexpected health care expenses, so you pay smaller premiums on a regular basis, whether your dog is sick or not.
And the insurance company wants to make a profit, which works both for and against you, the consumer. They have to pay out as expected often enough to keep customers from shunning them, but they also like to maximize profits by finding reasons not to pay whenever they can get away with it.
Differences Between Animal and Human Health Care
The two primary differences between human and animal health care are both important factors to weigh in your decision.
The first is that veterinary care is much less expensive than human health care. Routine tests at the doctor's office or a single night of observation in a hospital for a human can cost more than extremely complicated surgery for a dog. You are far more likely to be able to pay vet bills on your own than the equivalent doctor bills.
On the other hand, unlike human emergency rooms, veterinary hospitals aren't required to provide life-saving treatment if you can't pay. And as anyone whose dog has had a night or weekend emergency can tell you, the cost of everything suddenly multiplies at the emergency vet clinics.
With a sufficiently good health plan that covers the procedure in question, you won't be looking at the $60 left in your bank account and the $500 left on your credit card wondering, "what the heck am I going to do?" if your furry companion suddenly needs a $2,000 emergency surgical procedure.*
What to Watch Out For
Unfortunately "a sufficiently good health plan that covers the procedure in question" doesn't refer to all insurance plans, and depending on your situation, it may not refer to any.
Most surprising to anyone used to human health insurance is that the vast majority of pet health plans require you to pay the veterinarian out of your own pocket, and then submit the vet bill to the insurance company for reimbursement. This doesn't mean the insurance is entirely worthless, but it would be worthless in the scenario described above.
There are a few companies that pay for covered services directly, but you will be limited to veterinarians in their network. This means you may not be able to use your current vet, and if you live in a rural area, there may not be any "in network" vets in your vicinity.
You also won't have much luck finding a policy that covers pre-existing conditions. Moreover, an illness may be considered a pre-existing condition if it is determined to have existed at the time you purchased the policy--even if the illness was unknown to everyone and the first symptoms didn't appear until several months or years after buying insurance. Many policies also exclude hereditary diseases from coverage.
Types of Pet Health Insurance Policies
Most insurance companies offer several "levels" of coverage.
- Level One is Accident Only coverage. If your pit bull gets hit by a car or tries to practice hang-gliding without the glider, the policy covers him. It even covers ingesting of foriegn objects, like, for instance, a ball of dryer sheets that won't pass through naturally. If he develop diabetes, cancer, or heart problems, you're on your own.
- Level Two is Illness Coverage, which covers accidents plus illnesses and their attendant costs, so long as the illness wasn't pre-existing.
- Level Three is Wellness coverage. This policy covers everything included in the first two levels plus some vaccinations, spaying and neutering, heartworm testing, and one checkup per year.
- Level Four is Wellness Plus coverage. It includes everything in Level 3 plus dental cleaning and a few more tests and vaccinations.
These options are fairly standard in the pet health insurance industry. Additionally, certain supplemental policies may be available.
Questions to Ask
Before you sign on the dotted line, make sure you have a clear understanding of the answers to the following questions:
- Will I need to pay for all services up front and then submit the bill for reimbursement?
- Can I use any vet I choose? If not, what are my options?
- Exactly what is and what isn't covered?
- How high will the deductible be?
- Once the deductible is reached, is the policy full coverage or copay?
- What will my copay be?
- What is the upper limit of coverage?
- Are deductibles and limits determined on a yearly, per condition, or per visit basis?
That last question can be particularly important. If you have a $3,000 limit per condition, and your pit bull has a chronic disease that requires years of expensive treatment, you could get a very unpleasant shock after a few months. Many insurance companies offer "continuing care coverage" that you must purchase separately from their basic policies if you want your dog to be covered in the event that she requires long-term treatment for a chronic illness.
Older dogs are more likely to require medical care, but the premiums for dogs aren't as affected by age as they are for humans, making health insurance a more attractive option for an older pet. However, beware of the pre-existing conditions clause.
Another factor to consider is that most companies have slightly higher rates for certain breeds, and pit bulls are often among the more costly to insure.
So What Should You Do?
After all this, the question remains: "Is purchasing pet health insurance for your pit bull a good idea?"
And the answer is: "It depends."
The Consumer Federation of America and Consumer Reports both say "No," as do many people who have paid their premiums for years only to be denied coverage when their dogs needed veterinary care. But others credit their pet health insurance policy with saving their dog and/or their financial well-being. There are too many different situations and too many ways in which circumstances can play out to give a definitive answer.
Should you choose to buy health insurance for your pit bull, be sure to shop around. Most places will give you a free quote. Ask friends about their experiences. Search the web to see what others have to say about the company you are considering. Read the policies, including the fine print. Ask questions. Whatever company you decide on, don't sign anything until you are certain that your pit bull is really getting the coverage you think you are paying for.
* There is a service called Care Credit™ that most veterinary offices subscribe to. If you have sufficiently good credit, the service will grant you an immediate line of credit--how much depends on your credit rating--but not everyone qualifies and the interest rates are very high if you are unable to pay the balance in full within a few months.