Ask the Experts: Is Pet Insurance Worth It?

Joe Supan
Joe Supan

According to a 2013 report by the online pet retailer PetCareRx, 73% of pet owners “would consider paying almost any amount of money to keep [their] pet healthy.” This devotion, combined with the increased routineness of complex veterinary procedures, led Americans to spend more than $17 billion on pet health care in 2017, much of it on urgent and unexpected care.

Just like human health insurance, pet insurance is meant to protect you from the financial shock of sudden, huge medical bills. But not all plans are equal, and there are additional considerations to make based on the type of animal you’re insuring. The best pet insurance has limits that are high enough to cushion a worst-case financial scenario (from a $10,000 cancer treatment to a $25,000 kidney transplant), along with coverage that’s broad enough to apply to whatever befalls your pet (other than routine shots and wellness care, which typically aren’t included).

“Thanks to pet insurance, I’ve been able to provide intensive, emergency care to pets whose owners wouldn’t have been able to otherwise afford the care their pet needed to make a full recovery.” Heather B. Loenser

DVM Veterinary Advisor, Public and Professional Affairs at the American Animal Hospital Association

Like all insurance, it’s likely that you’ll pay more in premiums than you get back in claims. According to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association, the average pet owner pays $516 in premiums and claims just $278 worth of medical expenses. While some may prefer to shop around for lower veterinary costs, the protection against worst-case scenarios and added peace of mind make pet insurance a worthy investment for a number of pet owners.

Is Pet Insurance Worth It? What the Experts Are Saying

Young Rat Terrier running in house

Yes — for healthy pets

“There’s really no age preference that determines when you should or shouldn’t get pet insurance. The main thing is to get insurance while your pet is still healthy. Keep in mind that purebred dogs sometimes carry genetic complexities that put them at higher risk for diseases. You don’t want to wait until you’re facing a grim diagnosis. At that point, your application could be denied.” Lisa Theriault

Founder of Your Dog’s Health Matters

Yes — especially for young pets

“Pet insurance is always a good idea, unless you really do have a few thousand set aside for an emergency. The best time to get insurance is when you have a young pet with no pre-existing conditions. While they are young, you hopefully won’t have to use it much, but it will be worth it later down the road when they do start aging and/or experience some kind of veterinary emergency.” Jamie Thomas

Executive Director of Motley Zoo Animal Rescue

Yes — but not for older pets

“In our experience, we have seen that people often purchase pet insurance too late in their pet’s life for it to be useful. Pets are not covered for pre-existing conditions, and these generally arise as the pet ages. So we tell owners that if they wish to get insurance it’s better to do so for a younger animal.” Sonali Nigam

Founder of Dear Mittens

No — for routine care

Wellness care coverage is a poor deal. Much veterinary care consists of routine annual checkups, preventive care, and elective services not covered by accident and illness plans. You can typically add coverage for that, but it makes the total monthly premium even higher.” Checkbook pet insurance analysis

What pet insurance coverage should you look for?

British short hair cat and golden retriever

Different types of pets require different types of coverage. After you’ve narrowed down which issues your cat or dog is most susceptible to, you can start looking into specific coverages. We’ve collected some of the most essential ones below, and you can also check out best pet insurance to see the companies that stood out in our research.

Prescription drugs

No matter what kind of pet you have, chances are they’ll need prescription medication at some point. Pet Health and Safety Coach Arden Moore told us that prescription drug coverage is essential: “Many conditions require continual medication, which can quickly get expensive without this provision.” Even relatively minor recurring issues, like ear infections, can add up over time, with typical bottles of ointment costing around $30.

Coverage based on actual pet bills

Unlike its human counterpart, pet insurance requires that you pay everything out-of-pocket first, and then get reimbursed by your insurer later. Reimbursement can be based off your actual vet bills or on a benefit schedule determined by the provider. We recommend going with reimbursement models based on your actual vet bills. Benefit schedules set a maximum payout for every diagnosis your pet receives, so if your vet charges more for a procedure than your insurance company deems necessary, you’ll pay the difference.

No limits for specific conditions

Most pet insurance providers have an annual maximum in coverage that they’ll pay out, with higher maximums translating to higher premiums. But some providers also have dollar limits on specific conditions they cover. For example, you might have $5,000 of total coverage, but only 20% of that is available for surgery — bad news if your dog just tore his CCL (cranial cruciate ligament). When you’re comparing providers, check to see if there are any limits for conditions your pet is prone to.

Lifetime deductible for young purebred dogs

This coverage is unique to Trupanion, but it’s worth considering if you’re looking to insure a young, purebred dog. Instead of meeting a deductible every year, Trupanion customers pay a one-time deductible for every condition that requires treatment. This can be a lifesaver for breeds prone to chronic issues. For example, Great Danes are prone to osteosarcoma, for which chemotherapy can easily cost $10,000. Once you meet your condition deductible, you’d only have to pay 10% of the remaining costs. It’s still a lot, but unlike most providers, you wouldn’t have to meet a brand new deductible every year.

How much does pet insurance cost?

According to the North American Pet Health Insurance Association (NAPHIA), in 2017 the average pet insurance policy in the U.S. cost about $536 per year for dogs and $335 for cats, which translates to around $30-$50 per month. Keep in mind, there’s a lot of variance in that number. Factors like your pet’s age, breed, and location all go into the quote you’ll get. After getting quotes from several providers, here’s what we found to have the biggest impact on premiums:

Chart 2 for Pet Insurance

Unsurprisingly, age and species had the biggest effect on our quotes, with older dogs being by far the most expensive type of pet to insure.

Chart 2 for Pet Insurance

No matter what company we got quotes from, rates nearly doubled over the first five years of a dog’s life. The experts we spoke with unanimously recommended insuring your pet as early as possible, before hereditary conditions set in to the point where they’d be considered pre-existing.

The Bottom Line

Pet insurance is worth it for most people. It’s true — you’ll probably end up paying more in premiums than you’ll get back in claims, but having coverage for your pet means you won’t have to make an impossibly difficult choice between your loved one and your finances. And that’s ultimately what you’re paying for: No matter what issues your pet might face, you’ll know that you can give them the very best.